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Panel discusses social, political roots of sexual assault

When tackling the issue of sexual assault, people must consider the political and social roots that have made the issue so complicated, said three professors at a panel Monday.

The event was the second of four public forums on sexual assault that included UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Greensboro professors. The panel presented a variety of historical and academic perspectives.

The lecture series is funded by a grant from the College of Arts and Sciences, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities and the Program in Sexuality Studies.

From lynchings in the South and the effects of the feminist movement, to sexual assault charges on campus and in the Navy, each speaker emphasized the complexity of issues that surround rape.

“I want to try to broaden our perspective,” said Lisa Levenstein, a panelist and history professor at UNC-G.

In referring to a recent assault case, panelist Rachel Seidman, associate director of UNC’s Southern Oral History Program, said progress in the legal system has a limited impact.

“Legal changes have not done enough to stop the assaults,” she said. “If anything, the case highlights the difficulty of effecting cultural and attitudinal change through political action.”

Levenstein joined with Seidman in asserting that society needs new ways to address the social contexts that surround the issue of rape.

“If we limit ourselves to looking at the legal system, we really limit our understanding,” she said.

At the event, organizers handed out flyers that depicted rape survivors holding up cardboard signs which read, “I need Feminism because…” followed by survivors’s personal stories.

The photographs are a part of a movement called Who Needs Feminism, which is based at Duke University and gives sexual assault survivors and others a way to tell their stories through social media.

“Who Needs Feminism is an interesting current-day version of speak-outs,” Seidman said. “They are both using their voice and not using their voice,” she said.

Seidman said through this movement, participants reclaim their right to be in charge of their story and how it gets told.

“Young people feel a powerful need for a movement that helps them understand and name what happened,” she said.

It is this kind of movement that the panel pointed to as critical in reshaping society’s ideas about sexual assault, such as the misconception that sexual assault is sometimes provoked by the victim. However, changing the perceptions of society proves to be no small task, Seidman said.

“The realm of cultural change is very resistant,” she said.

Michelle Robinson, a panelist and an American Studies professor at UNC, said cultural change can be difficult because people see sexual assault as normal.

“We treat it as nature, as something that is semi-fixed,” she said.

Robinson said seeing sexual assault as inevitable is socially disastrous.

Senior Lindsay Wright, who attended the event, said she liked how the panel brought an academic approach to such an emotional issue.

“I think it’s a very interesting take on things, to look at it from such a scholarly perspective,” she said.

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But D.C. Swinton, an attending community member and a candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council, said he felt that the speakers did not discuss clear ways to move forward.

“I wish that perhaps there would have been more presentation of solutions,” he said.