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Make Me a Sandwich? Not on My Watch

on April 19, 2010 7:00 AM

The voice came from an upper-floor dorm window in East Halls.

"You will," said the voice, "make me a sandwich."

It was an anonymous voice, but clearly it belonged to a male. His targets were visitors to the quad, circled on the grassy lawn below for Take Back the Night. The group, mostly women, was exchanging personal accounts of sexual assault, recovery and empowerment.

Their stories were deeply personal, horrifying and inspiring all at once. They spoke with conviction, with the strength of a people once devastated but emboldened by the experience. All the more remarkable, they shared all of this in public, out in the open, unafraid to take command of their own life narratives.

But the voice from above was too far removed to grasp the nuance, to wrap his head around the striking power of the moment. The voice saw an opportunity to ridicule, to mock from a nondescript window where no one outside could see his face.

"You will," he said, "make me a sandwich."

To their credit, the women of Take Back the Night ignored the nameless ignoramus and continued with the annual awareness-and-healing walk around town and campus. To their credit, they refused to let ignorance shake their resolve to center attention on sexual assault.

But the heckling moment has stuck with me. Even today, a few years after it happened, the incident serves as a stark reminder of how much progress men have yet to make.

This being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it's a good time to talk about it.

As much as activists, educators, police and other concerned citizens have tried to undermine the crime, statistics show it continues at a staggering pace. An estimated 33 percent of college women are or will become victims of sexual assault; in the general population, the victimization rate is 25 percent, according to the Centre County Women's Resource Center.

In State College, the borough has seen no fewer than four reported rapes each year from June 2005 to May 2009, the latest month for which statistics are posted on the police website. Other reported sexual assaults have ranged from 31 to 37 each year in the same time period.

On the University Park campus, meanwhile, reported sexual offenses went from 10 in 2006 to 22 in 2008, according to Penn State-supplied data. (The on-campus numbers do not include reported rapes, of which there were three in 2007, one in 2006 and none in 2008.)

Of course, the reported numbers tell only a fraction of the story. Fewer than half of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to police, according to an estimate by the U.S. Department of Justice. The department also has found that girls and women between the ages of 12 and 24 are most at risk for rape and sexual assault.

And while the crimes transcend genders, sexual orientation and other characteristics, sexual assault remains an offense committed primarily by men, mainly against women. For every man who suffers abuse at the hands of his partner, there are four women who suffer the same, according to the National Violence Against Women Survey.

Consider: When the Women's Resource Center last week hosted an assault-awareness table at the Indigo nightclub, it appeared that women were the most interested parties. When Take Back the Night attracted several hundred participants last week, most of those who turned out are women.

Men, where are we?

It's not enough for us simply to say that, no, we would never commit such a heinous act. It's not enough to offer quiet condemnation of such life-shattering crimes.

The drive against sexual violence should begin with us, and it should start now.

Men's organizations such as Men Against Sexual Violence already have put a priority on the cause. They recognize that many of the answers lie in our committed action, not in lip service. To combat sexual abuse, they realize, we must take on the sexism and gender bias that pervade too many minds, too many lives.

As the national group Men Can Stop Rape suggests, any systemic oppression of women, cultural or otherwise, helps promote an overall culture of violence. Men must join with women not only as equals but also as allies, the group says.

We can allow no safe harbor for those who would holler: "You will make me a sandwich."

This progress can happen only if we agree to identify and confront the persistent threads of sexism that pollute our daily interactions. If each us of starts with what might seem like subtleties -- discouraging a friend's sexist jokes, for instance -- we can effect a dramatic societal change in tone toward women, bit by bit.

If we, with our love, time and confidence, can build stronger and more trusting relationships with the women in our lives, we can help to trample the fear and control-mongering on which abuse thrives. As a group, men, we need to set a tone for ourselves and one another that refuses to foster or ignore violence. We can set the example with our own lives.

Likewise, we shouldn't be afraid to help our mothers, our sisters, our girlfriends, wives, friends and others demand the respect and honor that they so completely deserve. Their identities don't depend on us, certainly, but we, with support and devotion, can help illustrate for them their intrinsic self-worth.

No single solution can end the epidemic of sexual violence that's in our midst, but men cannot afford to let this be only a women's issue. This is an everyone issue. This is an ethical imperative.

Let's start treating it that way.

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