The Chappelle Show in 2002 ran a sketch that opens with a couple in a bedroom and the implication that they are about to engage sexually, but the male character stops and pulls out a contract and he explains that she needs to sign to prove explicit (and legally binding) consent prior to them having sex. He walks her through the contract, as if she is buying a car— please sign here and here and ‘initial here to approve oral sex’ and then here and here.[i] This sketch is obviously hyperbole, but the recent bill passed by the California Governor: SB-967— the Student Safety: Sexual Assault bill[ii], otherwise known as the yes means yes bill begins to make this comical sketch more of a reality. I am not advocating in favor of sexual assault and rape, by any means or am I stating that a law that criminalizes these acts has no merit— but there are some bigger issues at hand that should be investigated. On the surface if you were proposed with a law that was against sexual assault on college campuses, the liberal go-to response would be yes, of course yes. As if this dichotomously suggests that saying NO to that law is passively supporting sexual assault on college campuses. But it is much more complicated than that.
When I first read this bill, my first thought was why are they creating an abstract layer of law enforcement that is in essence just underlining something that already exists. Such as this logic:
- LAW: Do not sexually assault or rape people.
<we have rampant issues of sexual assault on college campuses>
- LAW (AMENDED): Do not sexually assault or rape people and yes this includes college campuses too.
If you have children who were told to not play with squirt guns in the house and after establishing that house-rule you noticed that they tend to break this rule more often on Saturday, would making a new rule that stated that squirt guns are not allowed in the house on Saturday become more effective just because its more specific? Addition to the absurdness of adding a law that just emphasizes another law, this bill increase funding to colleges to help them enforce this bill— so, now college campuses are entitled/burdened with trying to enforce these laws? So, the lesson here is that if crimes are being committed on college campuses the solution is to throw money at the school and tell them to take care of it, but, if our national treasures, otherwise known as professional athletes, decide to use performance enhancing drugs (some of which are not even illegal) they must testify and explains their transgressions to congress. In other words, if our law enforcement agencies fail at reducing sexual assault crime on college campuses it is completely reasonable to tell the colleges to enforce the laws of the land themselves and our house of representatives are now designated to enforce the laws of Major League Baseball.
One perspective that is missing in the enactment of this law, which I think should be the obvious question: Why. If we have come to the conclusion that there is a problem with sexual assault on college campuses then we can A) redefine the definition of consent and create a new bill that is much more specific to the problem or B) investigate why this has become a problem and work towards reducing the desire to sexually assault, or C) both. Analogous to the gun debate in America: mass shootings in schools are tragic and minimizing access to automatic assault riffles is a reasonable and pragmatic response to curtail the damage, but the most important question is not how do we stop it, but rather Why is there a desire to do this in the first place? If you had two children who would compulsively engage in physical fights with each other and every time they hit each other with a toy, you removed that toy from their toy box — eventually they would be sitting in an empty room and perhaps this approach would negate the physical harm, but it does nothing to negate the desire to fight.
To analyze this question of why I will examine some similar examples from Žižek and illustrate some obvious and then the less obvious comparisons. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is an organization that is founded in Christian values (according to them) and when a member(s) of their organization participates (actively or passively) in unethical activities, such as lynching, this is not a reflection of their Christian values, but merely a member who has strayed from the path of righteousness or are “traitors of western civilization.”[iii] In this example it would not be considered a stretch to assert that the organization should be held accountable for the actions of their members, in addition to the members, as there is a strong correlation between KKK members and violence. Moreover, a less obvious example of this would be the soldiers who videotaped crude acts of torture, which is known as the Abu Ghraib tortures. Was the torturing the product of rogue soldiers who acted completely autonomously or was it a manifestation of the objective violence that is deeply routed in American military ideology? The military called these soldiers “mutineers […] in the field”[iv] and down-played their behavior as autonomous acts. But, as Žižek argues, torture is something that is commonly done in secrecy and intentionally under the radar and this explicit and very overt torture and sexual humiliation was not hidden or swept under the rug, but it was perversely highlighted as if these acts were a point of pride and a military accomplishment.[v] Žižek goes on further to make the point that the acts they performed were reminiscent of college fraternity hazing rituals — as if, in some dark way, they were initiating the enemy into American culture. This exhibition into the “obscene underside”[vi] of the American Military Ideology could help in how we examine the problem originally proposed— why is there a desire to sexually assault on college campuses?
This line of reasoning would assert that we should examine the college institution and it’s ideology and moreover, as the college/military ideology could be seen as a byproduct of American ideology, then we should examine the American ideology in whole. Is sexual assault on college campuses a manifestation of the the objective violence that lives in American Ideology? College could be seen, in some sense, as a rite of passage from child-hood to adulthood and is, in many instances, the first time a child lives away from their parents. Emile Durkheim proposed the idea of anomie, which is a state when social norms can be flipped upside down and are common in transitions of rites of passage, but also in cultural rituals.[vii] Examples of anomie that are common in America are: halloween, bachelor(ette) parties, new years eve and mardi gras. Anomie in itself is not inherently bad, but if college is a rite of passage and if this rite of passage enables a state of anomie that diffuses the lines of ethics, then it could be argued that to reduce sexual assault in colleges you would have to find a way to reduce the effect of anomie.
In a paper written in 1997 at the University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign it was argued that, as an interpretation of Durkheim, social norms and laws that are too “rigid” and/or in a state that is “too rule-governed” and when there is a “mismatch” between the needs of the individual and the collective it can increase the effective result of anomie.[viii] Alluding to the notion that a society that rigidly governs the individual (in opposition to the collective) can lead to the “experience of angst” and a feeling of alienation in society. In other words, creating more laws and increasing the rigidity of society may only increase the impact of anomie or, in short, the pendulum swings both ways.
This argument, is not arguing to allow sexual assault to continue or to assert that removing this law will decrease systemic anomie and therefore decrease sexual assault, as if there is a casual relationship (A then B, therefore C). The purpose of this perspective was to underline the depth of the problem, as the rigidness that could be adversely effecting the impact of anomie is not a single law, but a collection of laws, norms, ideas, values and socially accepted conditions that are institutional and both implicit and explicit. It could be argued that the simmering objective violence that is omnipresent in American Ideology, or the ideology of Capitalism, becomes subjective and outwardly manifested in many small incidents on a daily basis that, from the surface, will seem isolated and unrelated. To return to the sexual assault bill at hand, in reality, it may be pragmatic to pass a law like this— as it is pragmatic to take away the toy that your children keep hitting each other with. But, to dismiss investigations into the root cause is akin to passively promoting the outcome. Just as any member of the KKK, regardless if they explicitly committed any acts of violence, should see outward violence of their organization as a manifestation of their violent ideology; as should Americans see sexual assault on college campuses (an elsewhere) and torture by the U.S. military as an outward manifestation of American ideology. Passing legislation that is akin to throwing a metaphorical band-aid on the problem, as to pacify the squeaky-wheel-tolerant-liberal is, in the big picture perspective, an exercise in futility.
[i]Chappelle, Dave. “Love Contract.” The Chappelle Show. Season 4. Episode 2. New York: Comedy Central, 2004. Television.
[ii] California Senate Bill 967, Sept 28th 2014, Chaptered by Secretary of state, Chapter 748, Statutes of 2014
[iii] Ek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. Print. Page 176
[iv] Ibid., Page 176
[v] Ibid., Page 176
[vi] Ibid., Page 176
[vii] Durkheim, Emile. Suicide. 1970. Print.
[viii] Star, Susan, Geoffrey Bowker, and Laura Neumann. “Transparency At Different Levels of Scale: Convergence between Information Artifacts and Social Worlds.” Library and Information Science (1997). Print.