May 23, 2019 | 66° F

RUSA’s failure to create sexual assault committee is vile

Opinion Column: Midweek Crisis

According to the Rutgers University Student Assembly — our student government that supposedly represents the voices of our undergraduate population — sexual violence on our campus just isn’t important enough of an issue to merit its own permanent committee.

I’m not sensationalizing. How else does one explain this: Of the 12,343 students at Rutgers who took last year’s #iSpeak campus climate survey as part of a White House pilot program to address sexual assault on college campuses around the country, nearly a quarter of the respondents said that they had been victims of sexual violence before even coming to college. Nationwide, about 20 percent of women have reported some kind of unwanted sexual contact while in college. But despite the statistical evidence that one in four women experiences sexual violence in college, and despite the fact that we know it to be an unacceptably common occurrence right here in New Brunswick, RUSA struck down a bill that would create a standing committee to address sexual assault on campus.

When suggestions were proposed for a permanent committee, the bill was instead amended and taken a step down to propose an ad hoc committee that would have to be voted on for yearly renewal until, presumably, sexual assault and violence is a nonissue at Rutgers. But even then, the bill failed to receive votes from two-thirds of those present — 14 voted yes, eight voted no and nine abstained.

I can think of very few explanations for that kind of a response. With conversations around the country shifting toward the unequivocally urgent need for reform when it comes to addressing sexual violence, this kind of inaction from our student assembly is absolutely inexcusable. A standing committee in RUSA would ensure that issues of sexual assault on campus are not swept under the rug, as they have been on an administrative level at Rutgers and at educational institutions across the country.

Here’s a direct quote from a RUSA member on his reasoning for voting against the committee: “All the other committees, if you think about them — (cover broader topics) ... (and) this committee is such a specific issue. And even long-term, this committee can be merged into another committee, so I don’t see this committee standing on its own.”

And that line of reasoning, in a nutshell, is exactly the problem with discussions about sexual violence: That it’s some kind of fringe, special-interest issue that only affects feminists or “Douglass women” or those who may have had a personal traumatic experience. But if ever there were to be even one permanent committee on a “very specific” issue (yes, so very specific that it only impacts the physical and/or mental health at least half of the Rutgers University population), this is it. Not to mention, victims of sexual violence are not exclusively women.

It’s astounding to me that this is even up for debate. If a woman is telling you that the most important issue to her as an undergraduate student at Rutgers is clear campus policy to prevent and address sexual assault, you listen to her and you listen to the many others who agree. Sexual assault is everyone’s problem, and it is not going to be resolved in a year or two with a temporary committee. It’s the kind of dismissive, and frankly sexist, attitude like the one displayed by RUSA regarding this issue that sets us so far behind where we need to be right now when it comes to preventing assault, protecting victims and changing the climate on campus to one of absolute zero tolerance for any kind of sexual violence.

According to RUSA members who voted against the committee, this is just a matter of structure and procedure. A standing committee is only for issues that deal with long-term goals of interest to the entire student body — such as, apparently, the standing committee that was created last year for athletic affairs that passed with virtually no debate. But no, it’s not the appropriate structure to address the rampant, widespread issue of sexual violence and assault on campus. And it looks like structural procedure matters much more to a governing body like RUSA than the safety of Rutgers students.

I really do believe that our student body has the potential to revolutionize Rutgers and create a more democratic and involved environment, especially when it comes to securing our basic rights to safety and affordable education. Does that happen through RUSA? Ideally, it would be a great place to start. But if we can’t rely on our student government to fairly represent the interests of the majority of the student body (it’s just a wild guess, but I’m pretty sure addressing rape culture on campus is more of a student priority than dealing with the administrative mess that is athletic affairs), we need to either make the commitment to start holding them more accountable or find another way to make ourselves heard.

Sabah Abbasi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and public health with a minor in Arabic. Her column, “Midweek Crisis,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. She is the former Opinions Editor of The Daily Targum.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article said there were two votes in favor of passing the bill to create a temporary ad hoc committee to deal with sexual assault.

Sabah Abbasi

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