Thursday, October 18, 2007

WSU's toxic environment for women

Things have been bad for women in Pullman, Washington and on the Washington State University campus lately. Within the last month, two high-profile stranger rapes have been reported, and now, women in Pullman are being advised by police to "walk with at least one friend and carry a cell phone to call police if needed to help prevent and report harassment and assaults," due to a string of physical and verbal harassment incidents against women. It's a chilling thing to read on the day scheduled for a Take Back the Night rally as part of the national Week Without Violence. And it's frustrating, knowing that one of the recent sexual assault victims was attacked by a man who had offered to walk her home. It's frustrating knowing that this isn't the first time WSU and Pullman have seen a flareup of violence against and intimidation of women when people are supposed to be working to prevent it - while I was an undergrad there was a TBTN rally that was heckled during its walk through WSU's Greek Row.

I was never a student at WSU, though I currently work there, and anyone who's been to the area knows the close relationship that Moscow, Pullman, and the two universities maintain. I do know that I generally avoided Pullman's "nightlife" (such as it is) while I was in school, and have heard it remarked on more than one occasion that a meat-market date-rape streak is prevalent in Pullman's drinking and partying culture. I've heard the kinds of stories women tell each other when they don't feel they can go to the police - inappropriate and uninvited touching, harassing catcalls, even sexual assault - and I'm sick of it.

I don't want Pullman to be the place that it appears to be, and I am glad that WSU has lately taken small steps towards addressing and acknowledging the problem. But emergency beacons and a nighttime transit service for women do not a woman-friendly environment make. The harassment and violence are happening outside the official and legal realm, between students and residents walking down the street, so excuse me for not feeling comforted by the availability of self-defense classes. The problem is cultural, it's not a joke, and I'm tired of keeping these opinions to myself. I've used terms as strong as "toxic" in my mind to describe the way women are treated socially in Pullman for years, and always batted it away as being too harsh. And then I read about a sexual assault. And then I read about harassment of people protesting violence against women. I mentioned the harassment happening during the "week without violence" to a coworker today, and she replied that it was "ironic." But it's not ironic - it's typical, it's directly harmful to every woman who deserves the freedom to walk someplace alone, and I just can't keep quiet anymore.

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