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Panel examines University culture

Sonia Rao | Thursday, November 16, 2006

The relationship between the culture of the “Notre Dame bubble” and sexual violence on campus was central to the third and final post-performance panel discussion of “Loyal Daughters” Wednesday night.

History professor Gail Bederman moderated dialogue between theology professor Maura Ryan, Lynn Bradford of the St. Joseph County SOS Rape Crisis Center, anthropology professor Cynthia Mahmood and “Loyal Daughters” author Emily Weisbecker.

Mahmood said colleges have high rates of sexual assault and “Notre Dame’s campus is not exceptional [to this trend].”

Her comment referred to a scene in the play that addresses certain aspects of Notre Dame culture such as male bonding, celebrations of tradition and rituals and lack of self-esteem – characteristics, the skit argues, that make Notre Dame prone to this violence.

While audience members suggested the creation of co-ed dorms and more resources for women who have children on campus, more broadly, they noted the need for a changed attitude toward sex and gender relations. That idea of a bigger cultural adjustment was the emphasis throughout the discussion.

Mahmood said Notre Dame needs a “deeper cultural change” to combat sexual violence on campus, including redefining femininity and masculinity as well as how men and women relate to one another.

Another problematic aspect of Notre Dame culture, panelists said, is the issue of silence in response to sexual violence.

“The culture of silencing is the single most important factor that continues sexual assault,” Mahmood said. “We don’t know what to say, we don’t have the words, and we don’t know what’s appropriate.”

Ryan echoed Mahmood’s statement and said a poor definition of sexual violence has hindered conversation.

“As long as we continue to confuse sexual activity with sexual violence we will continue to ask the wrong questions on how to stop it,” she said.

To change that, Bradford said, more awareness is necessary.

“Education is a huge part of changing the culture we live in,” she said.

Ryan agreed, and said “there is a need to make basic information available to our students.”

For Weisbecker, the answer to reducing sexual violence could lie in students “find[ing] some valuable social activities besides drinking,” since alcohol is associated with an overwhelming majority of sexual violence cases.

Weisbecker also addressed opposition voiced for “Loyal Daughters,” including the criticism that her play dealt with issues of sex and sexuality in a “morally neutral” manner.

She said the goal of the play was not to explain Catholic teaching to audiences or preach right from wrong but rather to give “a glimpse of what’s really going on [so they can] make [their] own decisions.”

And in the field of sexual violence, Bradford said, debates on “neutral” morals are irrelevant.

“[Morals] don’t exist because they have been taken away,” she said. “[Sexual violence] is not a moral issue at all.”

Through “Loyal Daughters,” Weisbecker gave “a portrait of the reality of campus life,” Mahmood said.

“She was giving voices to other people,” she said.

Weisbecker encouraged audience members to attend a student-hosted fundraiser that follows tonight’s final performance at 9:30 p.m. at the Beiger Mansion. Proceeds from the fundraiser will go to S-O-S and the YWCA of St. Joseph County.