“Well, statistically, I’m more likely to get raped at Northwestern than anywhere else.”
Discussing a solo trip to San Diego with my dad, I delivered this excuse with a resignation that scares the shit out of me. Throughout my four years of college, sexual assault “scandals” have cropped up on a nearly quarterly basis.
As a freshman and sophomore, I took solace in all the social media outrage surrounding Amherst and Florida State and Virginia and my own school (props for not giving Peter Ludlow a raise, I guess). Certainly all the negative PR would eventually prompt schools to proactively punish sexual assault for business reasons if nothing else.
But two weeks before graduation, here’s Baylor bullying sexual assault victims into silence. This week, watching mainstream society mount its seasonal outrage on sexual assault, Mississippi State still suspended a player only one meaningless game for pummeling a woman on camera.
For perspective, not only were five Ohio State football players suspended five games for selling their championship games, but their coach was fired.
But the football-related scandals are almost benign relative to others. At least they attract the interest of people who care more about their team’s recruiting class than an act of rape. Furthermore, they lend themselves to easier explanations. “They’re just too obsessed with football,” we say, rationalizing away misogynism as an inevitable byproduct of fandom. Demonizing football and demanding firings let us drown out the deeper issues.
But sexual assault isn’t exclusive to the “unenlightened folk” down south; it’s endemic among the elite campuses, too, from Northwestern to Amherst, Penn, and Stanford. It’s endemic among the next generation’s decision makers, its next presidents and CEOs and entrepreneurs. That’s a much scarier proposition, one that necessitates a society’s reckoning with the structural and cultural forces underlying sexual violence.
Consider legislators, most of whom are male, politicizing women’s reproductive rights for personal gain. Consider societal expectations to shrink, shape, and style our bodies in service of men. Consider movies and Miller Lite ads that portray our bodies as playthings for men, Consider dress code policies forcing women to cover themselves to protect men from their own hormones. Consider that when women are allowed to speak in movies, they’re rarely given actual opinions, let alone opportunities to assert themselves.
They’re all symptoms of the same disease. Even in 2016, society systematically subjugates and silences women.
Compounding sexism is our national obsession with capitalism and competition, which has effectively turned colleges into corporations. Taken in this context, the (in)action of administrators almost makes sense. In the presence of perverse incentives, administrators emphasize PR and profit over personal safety. Equating personal worth with earning potential, they decide that women’s safety isn’t worth the potential PR and profit. We’re not worth the hit on admission numbers and reputation.
So they subject survivors to bureaucratic backlogs, They ignore requests for restraining orders. They accuse survivors of lying, applying to them a skepticism unseen in any other crime. Relieving rapists of their responsibility, colleges articulate their passive acceptance of violence on women. Tasked with preparing the next generation for progress, they instead solidify a status quo of misogyny and gender violence. They ensure the persistence of workplace harassment and domestic violence. Worst of all, they silence another age of women into submission.
So insidious are these fucked up sexual dynamics that despite my strident feminism, I’ve normalized my own experiences with sexism and sexual harassment.
Reflecting back, I remember the classic high school hookup gone wrong. I remember fingers twisting in my hair, nails grinding into my scalp, furious demands to “finish it”; some seminal moment when consensual shifted toward something else, something that six years later still defies definition.
Leaving for our first party as college freshmen, my guy friends were told to “watch out” for me, as if I were phone or pair of keys. My first drink? A senior frat bro slipping something into a jungle juice, at which sniffed suspiciously before “spilling” it over my shoulder.
During a date party, I remember the fingers creeping from my skirt to my skin to somewhere way past my personal boundaries. Saying no, being told to “shut up.” squirming away to safety. Half drunk, I hid amongst a crowd of hundreds, trying desperately to find someone, anyone, familiar. Crouching in a stairwell, counting down the minutes until the first bus left, I berated myself for ceding control of my body to some man. Smokey Bear style, I internalized that implicit responsibility of somehow preventing men from sexually assaulting me.
Remembering that night, I started turning down invitations to go out, avoiding situations without an expedient escape. In Europe, I let family and friends talk me out of solo travel because “anything could happen.” Starting senior year at my scholarship house, I pondered giving our incoming freshman girls a primer on preventing their own assault. In my house, the conversation’s practically a rite of passage. Struggling with my approach, I struggled with my conscience.
Wouldn’t it be easier to tell men not to rape us? Why can’t I trust my university and police officers to protect us? Why do we even need to have this conversation?
Currently, the government is investigating 243 colleges for “possibly mishandling reports of sexual violence.” Behind each of these “investigations” is at least one person whose body and mind has been betrayed, whose sense of security has been shattered. But I’m daring to hope that their bravery begets a better environment for the next generation.
Hopefully, their persistence will prevent me from having these conversations with my own daughter.