Starting a discussion: Reading group analyzes sexual assault in historical context

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
For the past three months, Academy instructors and staff have tackled a tough topic through text derived thousands of years ago.

Personnel from the basic sciences, social sciences and humanities divisions here meet twice a month in Fairchild Hall to analyze and discuss how sexual assault is portrayed through Greek literature and how it can be used for making sense of sexual assault today.

"I think it needs to be a discussion we have here among Academy staff but also with cadets," said Andrea Trocha-Van Nort, meeting leader and an associate professor in the English and Fine Arts department. "It allows us to look through the eyes of different audiences of the time. As much as our society has evolved, the problems have remained the same, especially concerning women's studies."

For 40 minutes, attendees review excerpts on sexual assault in classical literature, including Greek mythology, and then share what they've noticed, what bothers them or what they want to discuss.

"The reading group is a unique opportunity for cadets to discuss interesting, compelling and serious subjects in a classroom setting, with officers and others who have more experience," said Cadet 1st Class Rebecca Esselstein. "I think cadets could learn a lot from the other attendees, and I think attendees could benefit from having more cadets' perspectives, as well."

Trocha-Van Nort said the group meetings spark rich discussion. 

"People in the group often point out things I've missed or run with certain discussions, which make it really fun," she said. "It allows us to look at how literature tells the story of a sexual assault victim, for example, how their suffering is depicted, the effects of it and how sexual assault was prevalent during that time period. We tend to want to erase it or keep it in legal document. The Greek mind very much centered in on sexual assault being a crime and the reminders of its presence."

Trocha-Van Nort created the reading group after attending a one-week course at New York University through a faculty development program here.

"The class was called, 'Tackling Tough Topics through the Classics,'" she said. "I kept thinking, 'I need to share this with my students.'"

Trocha-Van Nort said she plans to propose a similar course for cadets next year, but wanted to introduce the text to faculty first.

"Stifling reports of sexual assault at any company or institution only hurts the victim and helps the perpetrator," she said. "I think it's important to not let it stay in the realm of taboo, but become a topic we can really discuss."

All staff and cadets are invited to attend the meetings regardless of their academic background, Trocha-Van Nort said.

"We'd love to have more voices in the discussion," she said. "Attendees don't have to be up on Greek culture or literature to be able to follow the text. It's a great opportunity to focus on, and put an end to, something worthy of our attention."

Esselstein said she thinks having cadets and Academy staff discuss the topic in a safe environment is very beneficial to the institution.

"A lot of the attendees are instructors or others who interact with cadets regularly," she said. "I think the readings and discussions allow attendees to acquire a new perspective on approaching the subject. This means they can present it to cadets in a way that may make them think about it from a different angle, which could prove to be another important contribution to our efforts to eradicate sexual assault from the Academy."