Response to Daily Coverage of Sexual Assault on Campus

by Leow Hui Min Annabeth, ’16, Sara Maurer, ’16, Diego Argueta, ’13, Arianna Wassmann, ’13, Monica Alcazar, ’13, + Teresa Caprioglio, ’14

Last month, The Stanford Daily published an article by executive editor Brendan O’Byrne, “Culture of silence surrounds sexual assault.” As victims, survivors, and allies, we find ourselves shocked, upset, and outraged at the article—at the methods used in contacting sources, at the framing of the story, and at the failure to substantially address real issues surrounding sexual violence on campus.

The writing of the article itself was founded on ethically dubious practices. One of the methods which O’Byrne used was to cold-email strangers whom he knew were possibly rape survivors, and to proceed without any warning to ask for their thoughts on the Alternative Review Process. While there may have been no malice in this act, there was certainly a lack of sensitivity which made him ill-suited to write on such a sensitive topic.

A trigger warning, while helpful to many victims and survivors, merely cautions readers that the following subject material can be psychologically distressing and triggering. It does not give the writer licence to proceed from that point onwards with needlessly, egregiously graphic and gory details. Yet that is precisely what happens in this article, which begins in medias res with a painfully and unnecessarily elaborate description of a rape. That description—especially a description framed by an outside party, rather than given first-hand—serves no purpose other than to shock and sensationalise an extremely personal experience of raw and humiliating vulnerability.

There are many issues pertinent to how campus services handle incidents of sexual assault. In fact, the article mentions some of them—problems with timely medical care, problems with pursuing criminal prosecution for sexual assault, problems with campus judicial procedures that require victims and survivors to repeatedly re-testify and relive the experience. Yet the writer never investigates further; nor does he visit other, related issues important to victims and survivors, such as mandatory reporting of an incident when a victim or survivor seeks help, or mandatory psychological evaluations—which can be, in themselves, traumatising experiences and not always be in victims’ and survivors’ best interests. The article is content to restrict itself to making a lurid spectacle of its subjects, without critically delving into its supposed theme, the Alternative Review Process and campus resources for sexual violence.

Neither does the writer address the ways in which rape culture is cemented by attitudes on campus. Rape culture is the International Student Orientation briefing where a police officer jokes that “consent means you should always get it in writing”—clearly assuming, firstly, that international students are incapable of understanding sexual consent, and secondly, that there are no survivors in the audience who would be triggered by this sudden and flippant reference to sexual violence. Rape culture is the laughter in MemAud during the rape scene in Real World: Stanford at New Student Orientation, which speaks to a refusal to acknowledge the commonness of sexual violence on college campuses. Rape culture is the casual reference to being “raped” by midterms (nowhere close) or “raping” the tests in return (underscoring the massive entitlement and toxic power dynamics implicit in the word). Rape culture is the unquestioning acceptance that of course, of course no girl should walk down the Row by herself at 1am on a Saturday night, and that going to SAE really is “sexual assault expected,” be more careful, what did you think it meant?

As the Daily’s headline suggests, Stanford culture has problems with the topic of sexual violence. There is little real advocacy for victims and survivors—awareness of the incidence of sexual violence is one thing, but there should also be education about campus resources and their potential for reform. We are not having the conversations we should be having, in our living and learning environments, on how the behaviour of members of the Stanford community enables and contributes to sexual violence. And articles like this one from the Daily do nothing to help the cause or create much-needed safe spaces.

The authors are residents in Casa Zapata, a Stanford residence with a focus on Chican@/Latin@ cultures

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8 thoughts on “Response to Daily Coverage of Sexual Assault on Campus

  1. […] Response to Daily Coverage of Sexual Assault on Campus ( […]

  2. Brendan O'Byrne says:

    The assertion that the article failed to discuss any serious issue surrounding sexual assault is preposterous, and any number of people will tell you as much.

    There is nothing ethically dubious about emailing potential sources and requesting an in-person interview. For better or worse, its my job to contact people I do not know and ask them to share incredibly personal details with a relative stranger. I understand and accept this will make people uncomfortable, but there is no way to avoid it.

    There is nothing needless about the graphic and detailed description of the specific rape in the article. It was hard to say, hear, record, and write about. But it is truth, it is accurate and it is critical to fully understanding the scope of this problem. It fundamentally altered my understanding of this issue, and my hope was that it would do the same for a reader.

    The article does not have any “supposed theme”, other than exploring the topic of sexual assault at Stanford. There is no hidden agenda or secret message I was trying to convey, and reading one into the article is foolish.

    The article does not address every issue surrounding sexual assault. No article ever will. I sincerely hope more is written on the topic, from a variety of sources.

    Enough of this bullshit attempt to silence discussion around any number of issues that are “sensitive.” Enough of this demand that everyone who writes and talks about an issue you care about curtail their vision to yours. Enough of demanding that everyone agree with the things you find most important.

    I’m incredibly proud to have written about this topic, proud of the survivors who shared their stories with me, both before and after publication, and proud of the overwhelmingly positive response from many different people from different corners of campus. You should continue to work toward solving this issue on whatever terms you feel are best, but attacking your fellow students for participating in the discussion only makes you look small.

    • concerned student says:

      You took advantage of survivors in order to write a story about a “sensitive” and “controversial” topic that would only serve to benefit you, your ego, and your career as a journalist. How disgusting.

    • Diego Argueta says:

      Personally, instead of forcing yourself onto survivors, I think it’d’ve been more considerate to send a generic email out to various lists (e.g. Comunidad, Diaspora, your dorm, etc.) and let those who wanted to pitch in come forward of their own volition, instead of addressing them personally and backing them into a wall, so to speak. I recommend this approach for your next article.

      If you want to defend your position better it’d be helpful to post one of your emails, unmodified except for removing the recipient’s name. Then we can see how you go about your journalism instead of further hurting your case with your angry/arrogant-sounding choice of words.

      “Enough of this bullshit attempt to silence discussion around any number of issues that are “sensitive.” Enough of this demand that everyone who writes and talks about an issue you care about curtail their vision to yours. Enough of demanding that everyone agree with the things you find most important.”

      Very professional.

    • Monica Alcazar says:

      While I can understand that you may be feeling defensive right now, it appears to me that there was little to no exercise of personal and professional self-restraint before commenting on the post.

      I may be out of line in saying this, but when one publishes/posts/produces work publicly and/or with the expectation and intent of public dissemination and consumption, one then sets themselves up to be publicly criticized, and the work, of course, publicly critiqued and critically engaged with.

      That is exactly what has occurred with your article in The Daily. To say that a critique of your article is “preposterous” comes across, dare I say, very close to “I know you are and what am I”, and does not reflect well on Executive Editor of The Daily. There are certain levels of critical engagement, poise, and rhetoric, I believe, expected from someone with such a title.

      Further, while I agree with you on some points, namely the fact that no one article can address every single issue concerning a given topic, I find much of what you’ve commented to be in poor taste. Specifically:

      “There is nothing ethically dubious about emailing potential sources and requesting an in-person interview. For better or worse, its my job to contact people I do not know and ask them to share incredibly personal details with a relative stranger. I understand and accept this will make people uncomfortable, but there is no way to avoid it.”

      The article in question was not on stolen bikes or low kitchen standards, it was an article about stolen dignity, integrity, and the violation of an individual’s personhood and right to be free and secure in their bodies. It was an article about sexual assault and rape, and the “cold e-mailing” referenced, in the way that it was done, perpetuated the violation of privacy and dignity experienced by sexual assault survivors. Do you not see that by inserting yourself into their private life, in such a bold, forceful, entitled way, you have violated their private space(s)? Do you not see the perpetuation of rape culture that you participated in by unapologetically making sexual assault survivors “uncomfortable”? (I would argue they may have felt much more than just “uncomfortable”…)

      No one can truly know what the intentions and thoughts were in your head, Brendan, only you have access to them. So, even if you meant only the very best, you have only your process, product, and horrific reaction to show for it– and those, I’m sorry to say, were not carried out as sensitively or appropriately as they could have been.

      This is a moment when I think it’d be best for you to check your privileges, accept that you could and should have handled this matter better, recognize that you were wrong, and move forward constructively. What we *don’t* need is for you be “proud” of how *professionally* you regard your “journalism” so as to come across as feeling entitled to be the voice we “needed” to speak for us. It is when people behave and react as you have that I remember why so many of us do not tell our stories to anyone EVER. Why so many of us would rather sit in our silence than risk facing entitled, abrasive, unapologetically defensive reactions from others.

      Please feel free to e-mail me with any further comments, reactions, questions, as I do not wish to revisit this comment thread again.

      – Monica Alcazar

    • feefifo says:

      A piece of advice, from one writer to another:
      When someone criticizes something you’ve written, or worse, jumps from criticizing the piece to a critique of your person, the very best thing you can do is to SAY NOTHING. Even if they are totally wrong, even if they have completely misinterpreted you or missed your point or are utter noodle-heads, DO NOT RESPOND. It will only look bad.

      It may not be obvious, but an article like this isn’t actually *for* you. It’s not a letter to you, it’s not a post on your blog or a comment on your article directed toward you. It’s its own thing, with its own intended audience. And the author/s, right or wrong, have a right to their opinions. No matter what you write, someone, somewhere, will absolutely hate it and write a scathing article about why. It’s a big world, and there are a lot of opinions in it.

      We already know you think your article was appropriate and well-written–why else would you have written it? Defending yourself is a natural and instinctual urge, but in the long run, unless you are trying to create a reputation for yourself as a drama-monger, it will only be bad. You don’t want your name and professional reputation connected to a bunch of internet flame wars and drama. People–readers, employers, commenters–do consider your public conduct important, and will judge you–and your works–as a result.

      If you do ever decide to respond to someone who has commented on or posted about any of your writing–considered questionable even under the best of circumstances, thanking someone for a positive comment–then always keep it smart, professional, and tactful.

    • Junah says:

      Oh, *yes*, they’re the ones silencing discussion. Not you *demanding* them to shut up when they point something problematic.

  3. stgx says:

    Thanks for writing this. Reading the original article made me uncomfortable, now I understand how it was written inappropriately–I can only imagine how others reading it must have felt. Much more care should be taken discussing such sensitive yet important topics.

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