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A Conversation With: Nicole Silvestri

Women’s rights leader talks about rape and the Michael Dixon and bear hugger incidents

Photograph by Cho Ling Ngai

Nicole Silvestri, president of the MU Feminist Student Union, believes more education and understanding is needed when discussing rape.

December 13, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

One in five women have been raped at some point in their lives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rape is a serious problem, though it’s often distorted or neglected because of misunderstanding and stereotyping.

In light of the conversation prompted by the Michael Dixon and the “bear hugger” incidents on local campuses, Vox sat down with Nicole Silvestri, president of the MU Feminist Student Union, to discuss false impression and the stigmas surrounding rape.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about rape today?
People don’t realize that rape often occurs in situations where the victim knows the perpetrator and generally has some sort of relationship with that person, whether it’s friendship or romantic. It’s not this stranger who just comes out of the bushes and attacks you. So there’s often a level of emotional manipulation that people forget because they just think of the violence instead of emotional control.

With cases of date rape becoming more prevalent, what do you think people should know about it?
It comes from our construction of femininity and masculinity. Men are taught from a very young age to be forceful and that they know better than women, and women are taught to be submissive and subservient to men. So we contribute to this structure where men have the power to control women and tell them what to do. I think it hurts both men and women.

Also I think for too long we’ve forgotten that someone has control up until the very end to say no. You can be naked in bed, but the moment that someone says no, it has to stop.

What makes it difficult for victims to come forward? And what can be done to change this?
People are very quick to judge women who come out against their rapists, especially when that rapist or potential rapist is someone of high profile. Women are told that they are sluts, that they are lying and just regret it. More education on the subject of rape would help. People need to change their perception of rape, which can include verbal abuse, and really take women’s words for it because evidence is really hard to come by.

What stood out to you in the Michael Dixon and the bear hugger incidents?
The lack of remorse from students is disappointing. We found out that the “bear hugger” was actually stalking women on the Stephens campus, and it was turned into such a joke. Everyone was very quick to make fun of the women who reported it. The same thing happened with Michael Dixon. People were a lot more quiet when the second woman gave her report. People found out about this information and didn’t take responsibility for the things that they said previously. I think that’s very troubling.

What can victims do when they’re raped, especially in situations in which they are confused?
It’s extremely difficult for victims to come out about their attack because it’s a very traumatizing experience, but we have a lot of great resources, such as the RSVP Center (Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention) on MU campus. But if someone is really concerned, he or she should get a rape kit done at the hospital.

What should people know about rape in general for both women and men?
People really need to learn to trust women more and stop writing off women’s accusations as if they’re being crazy. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of that in our culture. Sexual violence is a serious issue, and very few men are actually prosecuted. Men also have their masculine pride to protect, so it’s very hard for men to come out against rape, too, as a lot of people don’t understand how men can be
raped. Rape is definitely something we need to pay attention to.

In terms of the legal system, what do you think can be changed to better protect victims of rape?
Police officers need to be more sympathetic and less judgmental when speaking with a victim because oftentimes questions can be steered to asking women, ‘What were you doing in his bed at 12 a.m.?’ instead of listening to her account.

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