I was reading Frank Bruni’s New York Times column, “Tackling the Roots of Rape” this morning and had two thoughts. One is that it is progress for a man to be interviewing a man about how to prevent sexual assault. Too much anti-rape activism is focused on lecturing women on how to protect themselves and too little on the largest potential pool of rapists and their destructive ideas about sex. Furthermore, men talking to men about rape, cutting through the myths about sexuality and masculinity that enable sexual violence, is an effective strategy.
My second thought was how glad I am that I no longer teach at a residential campus. For years one student after another (mostly female, although two men reported having been raped by other men during my time there) told me awful, searing stories about the sexual violence on campus. The initial trauma was not infrequently compounded by the actions (or lack thereof) of those who were on the various disciplinary boards that dealt what would, in another context, be clearly understood as potential felonies. Part of what was heartbreaking about these conversations was that, not infrequently, the person (usually a woman) who had been raped had been persuaded to go along with a procedure in which the offender suffered no real punishment. She was also told that the entire proceeding was confidential, and she could talk to no one about what had happened. It was never clear to me what the consequences to a student breaking her or his silence would have been, but students usually believed that they would be expelled while the perpetrator continued to walk the campus.
At Zenith, sexual assault prevention was part of frosh orientation, and was organized around failures of communication and consent. I always wondered whether these inane workshops came back into students’ minds, in that hazy state of mind that can take over while a person is being brutally raped. Where was the moment that the conversation about consent was supposed to happen? Where the person who is raping me was supposed to care about my feelings and hear me say no? Should it have happened before or after she accepted a ride home with the person who stopped on a dark, deserted highway and explained she was getting out right now unless some serious fellatio occurred. Was this the moment she was supposed to say brightly:
“No means no!”
The audience for this publication is largely academic, so most of you know what I’m talking about. But as the time for packing your kid up for college grows near, here are The Five Big Lies you might want to talk to your kid about:
Lie #1: Most rapes are the result of a lack of communication. Most rapes are the result of one person wanting to exert power over another and getting a heightened sexual charge out of it. As David Lisak and Paul Miller’s research has showed, the vast majority of rapes within closed communities like college campuses are serial rapists. The person raping you has probably done it before, and if you are a new face on campus, you were probably pre-selected at the party by the rapist in consultation with his psychopath friends. The friends may not be rapists themselves, but they have been reassuring the big guy all night that “she’s really into you,” and they may assist in isolating the chosen victim from her friends. Even if the assault ultimately makes them uncomfortable, they are unlikely to intervene.
Lie #2: If you are sexually assaulted, the college/university will help you. This is almost universally untrue, as the recent spate of lawsuits demonstrates. Unfortunately, most students who make it through to college believe that schools operate in their best interests because — well, they always have. Students who, following a rape investigation, feel that they have been harmed by school administrators, or treated unfairly by them, can tell their story to the Marines (literally.) Repeat: if raped, the college is not your friend, and every administrator you meet is tasked with protecting the college from a lawsuit. Their procedures are intended to
sweep what happened under the rug make this bad thing go away, contain the damage, and eliminate as much evidence as possible that might be used to prove them liable. They also know perfectly well that their crappy procedures run the risk of doing great harm to the reputations of young men who have been accused of rape, so they trend towards rituals of reconciliation, remorse and if necessary, removal.
If I had a child going to college, I would underline these points:
- if you have been raped, do not shower or change your clothes. Go to the hospital and have a rape kit done;
- do not try to protect your parents from what happened: yes, they will be hurt and angry with th school, but they will want to take care of you;
- if your roommate has been raped, do not listen to all the victim crap about how it will be worse for him or her to go to the police. Do everything you can to get her to report this crime to the proper authorities. Part of the point of rape is to shame you into submission. Do not collaborate.
- If you think you have been raped, you have been.
- Know that any and all college procedures are crafted with the knowledge that the longer a rape report is delayed, the more likely it is that the student’s only option will be a
university coverupcampus disciplinary hearing.
Lie #3: If I try to intervene in a sexual assault, people will think I’m a fag/a man-hater/not fun/uptight. What if turns out to be regret sex/a hook-up gone wrong? Part of what is so searing about Ariel Levy’s recent story about the Steubenville rape trial in the New Yorker is how familiar it is. Young men and women watched something ghastly taking place in front of them, and instead of feeling empathy for the victim, they turned it into a party game. Have your kid read that story, and then have your kid read a book by Peggy Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus (1990). The book is about a group of frat brothers who pulled a train on a woman at a party, in full view of a group of young men and women, who decided that she deserved to be raped because she was inebriated, out of control and coming on to guys. These, with Bernard Lefkowitz’s Our Guys (1998), argue that the most moral kid in the room usually thinks the only ethical decision is to leave, not help the victim, protest, or call the cops. Clearly these scenarios far pre-date hook-up culture. Make these points to your kid:
- if sex looks non-consensual, it probably is. Don’t take a chance.
- People who are drunk or stoned cannot consent to sex: in some states, that’s the law.
- if you see someone at the party who is too inebriated to make good decisions, get them out of there.
- if you and your friends are throwing the party, one or more of you is responsible for remaining sober and patrolling the house to pre-empt violence and coerced sex.
- unless it is a sex party, with explicit rules and enforced sobriety, nobody should be having public sex at your party. It’s rude and fucked up.
Lie #4: People who have been raped are victims who should not be forced to take any action they do not wish to take. This includes reporting the rape. There are two problems here. One is that calling someone a “victim” increases that person’s subordination unless you add the prepositional phrase: “of a crime.” But secondly, a person who has been raped needs to understand that, like the bystander who walks away, to do nothing is to take an action that has consequences, both for herself and for others. The original trauma will probably be compounded by anger, powerlessness and what is now being recognized as a form of PTSD (look at veterans’ recent testimony on the consequences of having been sexually assaulted.) Even more troubling, this person will almost certainly go on to rape someone else. And someone else. And someone else. Is it your fault? No. Could someone put a stop to it by filing charges against the bastard? Yes.
The lie that goes with this (we could call it Big Lie #4b) is: it would be better just to forget about this terrible thing and move on. Campus disciplinary procedures often promise this form of resolution, and they tend not to deliver. A rapist might be asked to leave campus — for a semester. Next semester? He’s ba-a-a-a-ck!
Furthermore, the school has no jurisdiction over (and no clue about) the social consequences of procedures that do not graphically underline that a crime has occurred. Because guess what? The rapist talks! What happened was so unfair! It was totally a hook-up! She’s such a bitch! Friends of the rapist, of both genders, will slut-shame you on student-only campus websites, come up to you and ask you why you are ruining their friend’s life, and make your life at school difficult to impossible. If they had to come to terms with the fact that their “friend” was being charged with a crime — rather than a sexual misunderstanding — this might make things a little more real.
Lie#5: You must agree to confidentiality. This is absolutely the sleaziest thing that colleges do, in my opinion, and it isn’t clear to me that they have any legal right to do this.
So talk to your kids before they go back to school. Here is a really good page posted by Roger Williams University that provides some excellent talking points for you and your kid, particularly if your kid is male, a good guy and may find himself in a morally compromised position where he should act to help someone else.