My very recent article about sexual assault on campus has been met with a mixture of praise, gratitude, the sharing with me via e-mail of personal stories signaling relatability as well as criticism that I focused too heavily on victims/survivors rather than on young men perpetrating these crimes.
To be clear, I wrote the first piece with the plan of a follow up piece, but I also purposely focused more on young women because parents have returned from move-in, most classes are just starting, and most students have seen their first weekend or two of the new semester. This translates to the time that is statistically the most dangerous for first year women students (the first half of the fall semester), and so I wrote that initial time-sensitive piece for them and for their parents.
Some readers expressed impatience with how I wrote the article, that talking about ways in which some young women might make themselves more vulnerable is just like tired, old narratives of victim-blaming. In sharing my own experience of escaping an attempted sexual assault in my first semester at college, I explained that I had been working and socializing with a young man in a large study room in the basement of our dorm when he invited me to his room for coffee, and then proceeded to get very aggressive with me, not listening at all to my suggestion that he slow down.
Some readers got frustrated with me for suggesting that when women choose to get inebriated they make themselves more vulnerable. However, I am convinced that had that young man and I been drinking with friends or out at a party, rather than going to his room stone sober, this attempted assault would have easily become full blown rape. The pace with which he tried to seduce me into positions of entrapment were so accelerated that had I been drunk (and likely more drunk than a male peer given physical size and tolerance), my ability to respond emotionally and physically as fast as I actually did would have been greatly compromised. It’s not that had I been drinking or wearing something super provocative--- rather than the maroon leggings and maroon and cream striped sweater from The Limited that I can still remember wearing 29 years ago--- I would have been asking for it. And, it’s not that my casual get-up protected me from advances. Clearly, it did not. But being as clear-headed as I was in that moment---being sober and intuiting something felt too rushed, too aggressive, too rough, too-not-even-interested-in-me but-in-what-my-body-could-do-for-his, and knowing I needed to get him off me immediately, protected me.
Looking back on that event now and how it unfolded, I think my 18 year old self was initially happy to know someone was expressing what first felt like the beginning of romantic interest in me. In accepting the invitation to join him at his room for coffee and to study more, I was obviously naïve about what I was saying yes to. If I could meet this man and his 18 year old self now, I would want to ask if he was aware that this was not an appropriate way to show interest in another human being. I would want to ask to what extent did he know he was taking advantage of me, to what extent he ever thought about it after. I would bet he has no memory of this. Looking him up on the computer, I can see that he has a career working with college students and high school students, certainly quite an interesting mix given my experience with him.
The heteronormative script he learned as a young man was one of pursuing women, getting them to say yes in one way or another, or at least to say maybe, since maybe can turn to yes. And, in turn, the script I learned was to wait for a young man to make the first move, to not pay as much attention to my sense of desire, pleasure or lack thereof, to acquiesce, to not say yes too fast to avoid being labeled a slut, to not lead on, to give off the perfect balance of a sense of a yellow-to-green light---that a bit of slow down would eventually lead to yes.
Readers who expressed frustration seemed to want an article that fully liberates women to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it and that screams loudly and clearly to young men, “Don’t rape. Period.” That might be a much better world but it’s not the one we are living in.
My mom, a feminist before it was even in vogue to call oneself that, tells the story of when I drove from Wisconsin back home to Cleveland after my junior year in college and I showed up at our house in super short shorts and a tiny tank top. I have no memory of that outfit---nothing amazing or life-shattering happened in it. I do remember that she told me I looked like I was asking for it and with all I had learned in my classes to date and with all my extracurricular involvement in women’s issues, I argued right back at her, insisting that she was upset about the wrong thing---that I could wear whatever the hell I wanted wherever I wanted and whenever I wanted. In my mind, she was victim-blaming and I wanted no part of it; I wanted her to understand that responsibility laid squarely with perpetrators.
Now is one of those moments when I can admit that my mother had a point.
The world we are living in is grayer than that. Sexuality is grayer than that. Intimate relations are grayer than that. Of course, this is not to say that sexual assault is love gone wrong, a date gone wrong, or just a lot of miscues and misfires. Rape is about wielding power and control and about using sex as a sort of weapon, as a way to get non-sexual needs met. We spend a lot of time suggesting that rape is not about sex, that it is only about violence, but in fact it is about both, about some people’s skewed sense of sex.
My article that provides information about more dangerous times for young women on campus, about some ways to stay safer, and about predatory perpetrators is one part of a multi-dimensional message. One need not discard it as though we must choose between that message and abuser accountability. It’s both/and. One is not necessarily more important than the other. We desperately need both.
It is in that spirit that I offer here some suggestions to help hold young men accountable as they begin their college careers:
1) Think about women who have been important to you in your life and the effect that violence against women has had in their lives or the effects it could have if it happened.
2) Consider enrolling in a course in gender studies, sociology, psychology, or any sort of course that may have a focus on violence against women to begin to understand how it is a major manifestation of structured gender inequality and that if women are not free to move about in their relationships and in the world, they cannot operate as full human beings.
3) Consider enrolling in a course taught by someone known to be a feminist professor who will help you to wrestle with issues of oppression, privilege and gendered issues.
4) Consider going to the library and asking for a bibliography of male writers who have written about violence against women and how they came to care about these issues.Or explore this online.
5) Attend and support events offered on your campus, most often in October for domestic awareness month and in April for sexual assault awareness month. You might find poetry slams, films, special speakers, discussions, self defense classes, candelight vigils, Take Back the Night rallies, The Clothesline Project, etc.
6) If and when a woman shares with you her experience of assault because she wants you to understand the ravaging effects, do your best to listen and then show your interest and support by asking questions so you can learn more. Try asking her what she needs now.
7) If and when a woman shares with you an experience of violation that just occurred and is needing and counting on your help, ask her what she needs and offer to call Campus Safety and the local police with her, offer a safe ride to the hospital as needed, etc. You need not try to be a knight in shining armor or fix anything, and avoid telling her you want to beat the other guy(s) up. Let her have her feelings whatever they may be and see what she needs and wants.
8) Even if you cannot imagine laying your hands on a woman, or if you cannot fathom refusing to take seriously her “no” for an answer, remember that unfortunately you still pay a price for the ways that other men have violated her trust. This is similar to white people who object to racism still needing to be compassionate to when and how some people of color will not trust them either.
9) Aim to be part of peer groups that resist violence against women. Connect with men on campus who are good peer mentors and leaders. This means having male friends who are not making sexist jokes, who are not regarding women as objects, etc. Challenge men (and women) who participate in these jokes.
10) Think of a time in your own life when someone treated you as less than, disregarded your feelings and requests, bullied you to do what they wanted you to do, etc. How did that make you feel? What effects did it have on you?
11) If you feel strongly about working to end violence against women on campus and in your community, look into organizations that could benefit from your time, energy and support. Perhaps your school has an office of sexual assault prevention, a group for men stopping rape, or a rape crisis center where you can take part in helping to end adolescent perpetration of dating violence.