11/14/2014 05:31 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Blaming the Victim From a Position of Power

Co-authored with Felecia Commodore and Andrés Castro Samayoa

In October 2014 the Obama administration released new rules pertaining to sexual assault on college and university campuses. These rules encourage more transparency in campus judicial processes, enhance survivors' rights, and call for more educational programs pertaining to consent. These rules are greatly needed as protections for survivors of rape and as a way to mitigate sexual assault's prevalence on college campuses.

A month earlier, in September, Lincoln University President Robert Jennings stood in front of a convocation of young black women on campus, where he proceeded to detail his own perspectives on the ways in which men use women, the inextricable relationship between women's attire and their worth, and black women's responsibility for black men's behaviors toward women. Most troubling, the recorded remarks show President Jennings warning these women that they should not cry "rape" if a young man uses them for sex, out of concern for the potential repercussions for the men involved.

What follows is a conversation outlining our reactions to this video.

Marybeth: Andrés and Felecia, what were your initial reactions to seeing the video of President Jennings speaking to the women's convocation?

Andrés: One doesn't need to go beyond the first few seconds of watching President Jennings' remarks to realize that his "gender talk" convocations are anathema to the well-being of his students, his campus, and the institution's reputation. "Let me let you in on a little secret," he begins, in a tone that only inspires disappointment at having to sit through a patronizing speech that oozes unnecessary paternalism and misguided visions of gender relations in the 21st century. The video clip sheds light on the discomfort experienced by students as President Jennings' rhetoric shifts from patronizing to inflammatory: The audience falls silent as President Jennings attempts to dissuade women from vocalizing the fact that rape is a reality on college campuses and that it is not merely a tool for women's retaliation against men.

Felecia: I immediately felt, "Here we go again. Another black man feeling rightly justified to tell black women how to be women." It is exhaustingly annoying at this point. The president is walking a fine line of being a paternal figure for these students. And I get it, I really do. One of the things many HBCU students love about their campuses is the family structure and family feel. Maybe President Jennings feels he is acting as a father figure to these young women. The reality is that there may be a number of students who do desire this from him. But here's the problem with his misogyny lovingly wrapped in good intentions: You don't have to tell a young woman how to be a woman to support her or let her know you love her. Shouldn't the conversation have been more about how women should expect their male colleagues, counterparts, and potential partners to treat them regardless of how they dress or carry themselves? Furthermore, this role should be enacted when the student initiates a need or desire for such advice, not just forced upon them. President Jennings assumes he needs to take on this position for all, especially for the black women. Contrary to popular belief, we don't all need "daddies." Some of us have them, and they're awesome.

I just want to know: Why is a black man telling black women how they should live their lives and what it means to be a "respectable" black woman? What makes him qualified to provide this information? Has he lived the life of a black woman? Moreover, how is President Jennings qualified to speak for all black men? I feel he also did a disservice to the black men who do not subscribe to his understanding of the black-man life code of using women.

Marybeth: Andrés, what is your perspective on President Jennings' treatment of black women?

Andrés: Taking into account that President Jennings received a vote of no confidence from his faculty back in October, this recording further contextualizes his poor leadership by virtue of his inability to treat part of his community -- in this case, women -- with dignity. Why does President Jennings have to reinforce ideas of women's worth as inextricably connected to their clothing? Far too often, alleged proponents of women's rights police survivors' bodies rather than redirecting and investing energy in disseminating a simple proposition: Clothing does not define a woman's worth or the dignity individuals deserve. Regardless of whether they wear long skirts, pants, or short skirts, women deserve human dignity.

Marybeth: And what about the laws around sexual assault? The legal implications of rape seem to be at the forefront of President Jennings' comments.

Andrés: One would expect President Jennings, as an institutional leader, to be familiar with the laws affecting his institution. His portrayal of the "new set of regulations that deal with sexual misconduct on college" campuses misleads the audience into thinking that there were no laws prior to the newly galvanized media attention to sexual assault on college campuses. This is blatantly wrong. The crime of sexual assault has been grounds for prosecution in Pennsylvania since long before the issuance of these guidelines, regardless of whether the assault took place on a college campus. To portray these as new reveals that President Jennings is out of touch with the reality of sexual assault on campuses and beyond.

Felecia: President Jennings also communicates the sexual assault/rape policy as enforced by an outside entity. It is never communicated as a value of the school or campus community. This in turn communicates that the school will not take such claims seriously because they believe they are serious; they will simply go through the motions because they have to and you, the victim/survivor, will be seen as a traitor and troublemaker. This clearly silences voices and has a negative impact on the victim's/survivor's sense of belonging on campus.

Marybeth: Who is the victim in President Jennings' narrative?

Andrés: President Jennings portrays alleged perpetrators (specifically, men in his heterosexist portrayal of assault) as the victims in these situations. More than once he states that these men's lives have the potential of being changed forever; at no moment does he offer consideration to the fact that survivors' lives have already been changed. In his attempt to instill fear in his audience by forcing them to "think about the repercussions" of the power of their voices, President Jennings blatantly disregards the importance of solidarity and empathy in understanding sexual assault.

Felecia: Much of his speech points to the "call and response" culture of the black church, which turns this speech into a sermon of sorts. Within this cultural structure, President Jennings becomes more than the president; he becomes pastoral in nature, imparting his wisdom on his "parishioners." This makes what he said much more dangerous. It becomes less a speech and more doctrine. In President Jennings' comments, the burden of black men's behavior is placed on women. This is not only a ridiculous premise that has been shown to provide no justice or protection for black women through time, but it is seemingly a duty far too great for a mere 18- or 19-year-old young woman. In that same vein, President Jennings lured the audience into compliance with his beliefs and dismissed the notion of them not being compliant. With "call and response" it has to be this way. The pastor is not questioned openly. As it is with consent, the absence of "no" does not neccessarily mean "yes." But much like the victims/survivors in President Jennings' cases, it seems dissent or speaking out is not acceptable behavior for young women in the room.

Marybeth: What do President Jennings' comments say about the value of black women? Are black women forced to choose sides -- race over gender?

Felecia: Jennings communicates that the black male's life is the life of value, that it is the man's life that may change from this incident, not the victim's/survivor's. Though the victim's/survivor's life has already changed due to the assault, it does not matter because the victim's/survivor's life was of no value. This is particularly dangerous in the black community, where many black women feel it is their duty to protect black men even at the cost of their own selves. President Jennings reiterates, implicitly, that even if violated, these women should stay silent to protect the life of the black male, especially if the women cannot validate their violation with markers of respectability. In President Jennings' world, only respectable women get raped. Other women are bitter, promiscuous women with low self-esteem whom men rightfully have not chosen as mates. The women in the room who applauded did not catch me off guard. I imagine some women clapped because their desire for black male mates persuades them to feel the need to comply with this mentality in order to find oneself higher on the sexual/mating auction block for selection. Part of respectability is compliance with the patriarchal culture. And this respectability is a bargaining chip, it seems, to be seen and chosen as a mate. And then some women just agree. That scares me the most.

Marybeth: How can we have conversations about sexual assault that are empowering?

Andrés: Talking about sexual assault -- whether it's on college campuses or beyond -- is difficult, yet it is necessary. But discussing this epidemic requires empathy, care, and a willingness to listen. President Jennings quite literally expounded on the topic without considering the weight of his careless words. If institutions such as HBCUs truly aspire for systemic and long-lasting change that ensures the well-being of all students (regardless of their gender), then leaders like President Jennings must begin to listen rather than spew misinformation from the pulpit. Doing so requires that college leaders stop thinking about sexual assault as a fad that is only worthy of being considered because of emerging federal regulations. Mitigating sexual assault begins with the simple premise of acknowledging that no one is looking for it, and (this may surprise President Jennings) that not only is speaking out against it is the just thing to do, but it behooves an institution to provide a safer space where they can begin these conversations. Shaming them is never part of the solution.

Felecia: I think it would be naive to say we shouldn't educate young men and women about risky decisions. Should we tell young women not to drink excessively at parties? Absolutely! But we should tell our young men the same. Furthermore, we shouldn't be telling the women this advice as a means to keep them from being raped. That's where we go wrong. We should put more energy into telling people not to rape rather than teaching women how to not get raped. In this particular institutional context, I think what leaders like Jennings protect is much larger than a university. It is the larger societal institution of patriarchy and how it is the one institution that can grant some semblance of power to a group of men society has historically and contemporarily stripped of both power and manhood. Unfortunately, this access comes at black women's expense. Sometimes our greatest strengths can also be the source of our greatest challenges. HBCU campuses instill a pride, a racial solidarity, a sense of duty and love for the black community that is so desperately needed in students and in our future leaders. Jennings' statements didn't do that. President Jennings' statememts reinforced a world, a system, that tells young black women that their value is wrapped in their perceived virtue, though they're in a space where their minds are supposed to be heralded as their greatest treasure. His comments communicate that there is no space for a black woman who does not comply with taking on the responsibility of the black man's behavior and treatment of her emotions and her body. Not only is she a problem; she is told she is the problem. President Jennings' comments remind black women on his campus that their "no" is of no value if they are deemed a woman of no value. These women are reminded that they too can enjoy black liberation if they hold up the oppressive banner of patriarchy for their male counterparts. But oppressed freedom is no freedom at all. Our foremothers Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, Kathleen Cleaver, and Anita Hill testify to this fact.

Black women are silenced when an environment is created that implicitly says, "Before you think about your own life or violation, you must first think of the black male's life." Yes, this country has unfairly criminalized black men. And this country has also unfairly policed and criminalized black women and their bodies. When will black women not be expected to protect black men's lives through silence regarding how some of those black men have violated their bodies, minds, and spirits? When will black women not be considered race traitors for pointing out when those very persons with whom they share oppression turn around and oppress them? And when will it not matter that her skirt was short or that she made the poor decision to be involved with a man who was given a pat on the back for treating her body as disposable because, according to these statements, he was only treating her the way she let him? Too many black women cry secret tears and rewrite sexual histories to keep a brother's life from being ruined. I personally think the time for their martyrdom is over.

Marybeth: Overall, the situation at Lincoln University and President Jennings' comments should give us pause and force us to reconsider the messages that we give to young women about rape and sexual assault. Are we supportive, or do we blame the victim? Do our college and university policies protect the survivors (in this case, women), or do they merely protect the institution?

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.

Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Felecia Commodore is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Her research pertains to leadership at HBCUs.

Andrés Castro Samayoa is a Ph.D. student in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His research pertains to gender, diversity, and sexuality.