There’s nothing funny about sexual assault

At issue: Instances of sexual assault being diminished in a complacent culture.

Our take: Sexual Assault is Sexual Assault

Word of Emerson students being involuntarily kissed around the Park Street MBTA station quickly ricocheted around the local media. Within a day of its initial publication in The Boston Globe, the story was picked up by NECN, Metro Boston, and BostInno. But the article on BostInno, which occasionally syndicates content from the Beacon, was particularly crass in its depiction of the assault.

“Would you rather: Be approached by an enormous, one-legged man, last seen cruising in an ice cream truck?” begins the Feb. 4 article, referring to a previous report about a tire slasher’s distinctive qualities. “Or, kissed by a rando without any explanation on a Red Line train heading towards Park Street?”

Despite this case’s unusual circumstances, comparing a person in a truck to a case of sexual assault displays not only a false equivalency, but a lack of sensitivity that epitomizes our culture’s inclination to downplay the serious effects these instances can have. (BostInno editors even felt compelled to append an apology for the article’s tone in a brief note above the original text.) Sexual assaults—regardless of their nature—should not be relegated to the punchline of a joke.

It seems absurd, but some forms of sexual assault are not deemed severe enough, on the arbitrary scale some create, to deserve our sympathy and understanding. Rather, assaults such as the kissing that the three Emerson students were subjected to are viewed as oddball events to laugh at. The tendency to ignore forced kissing, groping, and similar assaults is representative of a deep-seeded ignorance in our society about the effects sexual assault has on its survivors. 

This mindset is also evident in the host of YouTube videos that rely on kissing pranks as a means of going viral. A simple search for “kissing pranks” yields just under half a million videos on the site. One of them features a man approaching two young women on separate occasions, complimenting them, and then grabbing their faces to kiss them. The video is titled “Guy with real balls, kissing strangers” and sends the message that this action deserves praise or laughs. But this video distorts sexual assault into something meant to be expected in a patriarchal society where sexual dominance is not only an entitlement of men but a compliment to the survivors.

Let’s not let this recent assault become a viral joke. It needs to become a symbol of how sexual assault still plagues our society and is an issue that needs both our constant vigilance and awareness.

It’s also something we’ve seen happen in other academic settings. It was just about a year and a half ago that a horrific sexual assault was committed in Steubenville, Ohio, when football players at the local high school raped an intoxicated female student. In the aftermath of the case, a number of mainstream media outlets like CNN spun the story, turning the two perpetrators into victims, with journalist Poppy Harlow saying live on air it was “incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.” An ABC News piece went so far as to suggest that reports calling the incident a “gang-rape” were inaccurate because, “in reality,” the perpetrators had used their fingers—as if that should diminish the heinous events. Maybe when people stop fixating on distinctions among forms of sexual assault, they won’t find humor in any of them.

To counteract society’s intuition to distinguish acts of sexual violence, we must each take personal responsibility for the way we view sexual assault. Perhaps the best way to do this is recognizing that, regardless of the specifics of the act, sexual assault is sexual assault.