I was typing out a graduate school application and as it was relevant to the question, I wrote this:
“The largest challenge I have faced and overcome is that of being a victim of sexual assault, as I can now call myself a survivor.”
I started crying immediately after.
I never thought I’d ever say that, let alone write it. I used the word “survivor” to the few who knew, because it was just the term. That’s what they’re called. (I still can’t say we, but baby steps with progress, I guess.) But saying that specifically, saying that I’m no longer a victim…it’s empowering.
I’m so sorry, for everyone who suffered last year. Believe me, I was assaulted during the craze that was Amherst College’s 2012-2013 academic year. I know.
But as a senior about to graduate just months from now in 2014, I’m just so fucking proud. I survived Amherst College. I survived my assault. And god damn if that doesn’t say some of us can’t make it.
It’s short, but I had to share. We’ve still got a long way to go but hey, maybe there’s some hope yet.
“I don’t know the whole of what you’re going through and I sympathize, but every student has their hardships. You still need to come to class.”
That’s what I heard today, at Amherst College. So is that it? Do I have to either re-traumatize myself and tell you what happened to me or do I just get to look like the most irresponsible person on the planet? After all, the deans can only do so much, right?
It’s been months and months since this happened and yet three weeks before I get to finally leave I’m still having meetings with professors where I go, I come back to my dorm, I cry my eyes out, and then I go about my business without the world knowing how much a burden this is to carry. This is not how it should be at this college. Not after last semester.
I heard about this website from a friend who explained that they take submissions, which is why I’m writing today. I can’t say that Amherst hasn’t tried making some changes, but the way things are handled at this school, even still, do NOT give survivors places in which to heal. They bring them further down.
I used to love this school more than anything. And now? Well, not so much. The dean has been really nice, thank god, but unless you’re on top of your game and emailing people constantly and being open with your professors you’re not “trying enough.” And people are really “concerned” about your progress but once they see you’re not putting in enough work it becomes “well now we can’t excuse it.” I had someone say to me, “well the Dean did email us to excuse you from classes but your professor saw you in Val 15 minutes before class so we really can’t excuse that.” Now, she doesn’t know what happened to me, and she’s a wonderful professor, so of course she assumes, “well this student is just intentionally skipping class and being irresponsible,” and an email from the dean simply goes ignored. Fine. But last time I checked, people who were sexually assaulted were allowed to fucking have something to eat or talk to people in Val and not go to class afterwards. Forgive me for trying to distract myself with my friends. I deserve a big fat zero on my participation grade for that one.
And it’s bull. The counselors are better, thank god. I was “lucky enough” (yeah right) that this happened right at the beginning of the semester, when I could ditch the idiot counselor at the counseling center who just had no idea how to talk to someone like me, for one of the new sexual assault counselors they’ve just hired. If there’s one thing they’ve done right, it’s that. I don’t know how I’d be able to survive on this campus without that woman. But I shouldn’t be looking forward to the days I see her, I shouldn’t be hiding out and crying in my room when near none of my friends really, truly know what’s going on. And one of the friend out of two who does know just doesn’t care that much. She’s got her own life, here at Amherst. “Every student has their hardships,” just like my professor said.
People still don’t get it. And part of me just wants to walk up onto the steps in front of Frost and show them exactly what it’s like. To not be focused, to cry so hard you throw up, to want to have any other person’s life but your own. It’s excruciating, and I’m surprised some mornings that I actually do have good days.
I’m doing better. For the most part, thanks to that other friend, who, though he doesn’t really understand what’s going on with me, is trying so hard, and is really working with me and grounding me the way I need. And because of the sexual assault counselor. Who knew that would end up going so well.
But I SHOULD NOT be relying on friends to keep me grounded, to make sure I’m okay. The college should be doing that. My “good days,” and I’ve even had one or two good weeks, should NOT be because I haven’t cried over my classes. This is Amherst College–after last semester, class should be the least of my problems. Especially considering I’m failing none of them. How I pulled that off, don’t ask me. I’m lucky enough that I’m smart enough to bullshit through it all, I suppose.
This college still has a lot of changing to do. And I don’t know how it should be done, but let me tell you it’s gotta happen quick.
Because my job? Is to do my homework as best I can, considering, and to HEAL. Because if I need to miss class or turn in an assignment late and get a B- or even something like a C that should be fine by you. It’s passing. And I’m paying tuition, aren’t I? It’s MY call to stay in school, to fuck up classes if it means getting my mental health together. It’s MY decision if I want to screw up a class if it means finishing my education in four years. And you know something? I have an A in one of my classes this semester. Guess why? Because this professor has been the most understanding and lenient woman on the planet, and she’s given me space to get myself back together.
There’s a lot of things I understand, that the college does. The way they handled things like this, I did understand, once upon a time. But that was because I never knew. I wasn’t there.
And if anyone reads this I’m hoping that they can see what it’s like to “survive” at this college, even if they’ve never been there themselves. And they should know, that though we’ve come a long way, we still have a hell of a lot to change. And that needs to happen SOON.
But even on the days like today, where I can barely breathe, there’s still hope. I’m lucky, in some regards. I don’t have to deal with seeing someone that attacked me on campus every day, I can take solace in the fact that I’m in charge of my own sex life, and I never have to sleep with anyone again, if I want. I want to, at some point, sure. I don’t want to have to feel this way about sex, about my body. Not forever. But not having to deal with what happened in that respect, is what makes me lucky, throughout all of this.
So if that’s the case, I should be well on my way to healing, even here. Right? Not right. Like my professors tell me, that I’ve gotta meet them halfway, I expect the school to do the same. Regardless of what my past history may be.
This is Amherst College. This is the school that fucked up and was supposed to be a role model for change–for admitting they made mistakes and that they were ready to work with the students to fix them. So why is this happening to me now? Why do I keep getting re-traumatized when all I want to do is be left in peace? I got into Amherst College–I think I’m intelligent enough to be aware of the decisions I’m making and the way my grades are. Don’t you think maybe, I’ve thought about this myself? That I’ve thought, I’m just gonna push through these last few weeks and study my ass off over the summer to catch up for next year, in a place where I can have space away from all of this and space where I can ACTUALLY get my life back together?
This isn’t how things should be. And if this is happening to me, I can’t even begin to imagine how many others have gone through this. It happened here, and it still happens here. And why we’re not making this our number one priority, in terms of change, astounds me. Amherst College wouldn’t be a college without it’s students, right? So where’s our voice? Where’s our place in all this?
I will not be silenced anymore. I learned through Angie that speaking out brings others the bravery to do so themselves. And I’m anonymous, because I’m not ready to come out about this yet. I’m still healing. But one day, maybe as a senior or maybe as an alum, you can bet your ass I’ll be back here ready to speak out, for change, change that this school desperately needs. But more importantly, I can be there for the girls like me. The girls who need a hand to hold in the darkness of it all, who need someone to say “I’ve been there too,” and someone to say that even at this place, you can get better. And you have the power, even through your sole voice, to make a change.
And for me? With writing this? That change starts now.
I was a varsity track athlete. Throughout my life, running has been the sole outlet for my safety and comfort, a commitment I’ve had since 3rd grade. Running a 5k on warm beaches clears my head of all family troubles: a suicidal mother, a drug-dealing father, life in poverty, and the academic stress of my demanding high school.
The first injury I ever endured was during my senior year. I tore my meniscus in a 400m sprint and was on crutches. I was pretty devastated: it meant I had to give up going to State Championships. I was injured during College Application season and unknowingly at the time my injury decided my fate to attend an all women’s college. At that point, my mom’s half brother had been living with us for a year and a half; I’d seen him a few times when I was younger but that was about it. He taught me how to drive a stick shift and how to Olympic weightlift, and we grew close. I thought he was quite cool.
My uncle began taking care of my injury: he got me things from the kitchen, elevated my knee, and eased the pain. One day, he started massaging past my knee, and I physically could not run away. I was physically and mentally molested almost everyday I came home. I was 18 years old, and I was asked to give up going to college to run away with a man who told me he was in love with me. A few nights I could escape this torture when my mom decided we would spend the night at her boyfriend’s home. Unfavorably my mom’s boyfriend took the same methodical route and they were both unaware of each other’s actions. In a house filled with trouble, I was forced into silence, and made to feel guilty.
Massachusetts was miles from my troubled home, but surrounded exclusively by women, I was nowhere close to a functional relationship with any man; until I began taking courses at Amherst. I made friends, a lot male, and I immediately fell in love with the college. My transfer application was accepted and my sophomore year was enveloped with hope and promise. Two years later, almost to the day, I injured my knee running the same 400m sprint. The physical and emotional distress of being tied down to crutches meant so much more than an injury to me, I was in excruciating pain for weeks. No longer a varsity track athlete towards the end of my sophomore year my knee would still sporadically act up and I was in physical pain. A non-athlete friend, on my last day on campus before summer, watched a movie with me in bed. We’d been friends since freshman year and he was massaging my knee and my quad (another muscle I’d mildly injured during Outdoor season).
I was sober and he was not. He decided to take a similar horrible route my uncle and mom’s boyfriend had taken previously. Terrified, enraged, I kept moving his hands from the area of my body that had been abused so many times before, with little avail. Not nearly as severe as what I had endured back home and without entry, I had a minimal amount of courage to leave the room. I’ve yet to take criminal action against any of my abusers.
Growing up I never could grasp why one would guilt of being a survivor, until I experienced it. I’m unable to have a man perform oral sex on me because I simply can’t picture a man’s face, head, and mind anywhere near my knees. I’m unsure of my role with men, I will always feel guilty at first for allowing any man to touch me, and was told by someone I dated last year that I’m fucked up for liking him because he’s a terrible person. I’ve been exploited and abused in numerous ways, but the sexual assaults have infinitely been the worst. My confidence gets ripped away: my ability to stand up for myself, to purchase certain clothing, to have certain conversations with men. Being vulnerable with a man and allowing him get to know, understand, and enter my world has and will continue to be an unequivocally difficult journey for me.
I’ve injured muscles in my legs about four times this year and was told I can no longer run competitively. Each time I’m injured it’s never solely a physical impediment, it’s emotional affliction; one I try my best not to endure for too long by attending physical therapy everyday. I work with all my might to use crutches or a cane for as little as possible. I’m a woman who may be labeled as distrustful of others, mysterious, and sexually alluring. My trust, hope, and faith will forever be stripped and an outlet that once gave me safety and comfort has disappeared simply because I was a sexually exploited athlete, and I can never run away.
A common trope in therapy is “it gets easier, the more you tell it” – pertaining to many life experiences including but not limited to abuse. But nobody tells you “it gets harder, the more you hear it.” The first time I heard “it,” I asked my friend hundreds of questions because I was in complete disbelief. The most recent time I heard it, I was silent because I had no reason to be shocked. But when you grow up viewing sex as a taboo topic, you see sexual abuse as a taboo topic too. You want to talk, you want to listen, but these big elephants named shame, purity, dignity, ego, masculinity and modesty fill every fucking room, your inboxes and your own mind. Even though you know that sexual abuse is not sex, it’s power. Even though you know that men get abused too and that men are people despite the norms of masculinity that sometimes dehumanize them. And even though you know so much about rape culture, patriarchy, and consent, you do not know anything about what it feels like to survive, compartmentalize and then become triggered so long after it happened. You do not know how to support someone who usually supports you. I do not know and I wish someone could tell me so I could break my silence.
My name is anonymous. I have not asked the other people involved, whose privacy I was sworn to uphold, if I could publish this story. Still, I find that it is necessary for people to know.
I participated in a rape trial at Amherst College. I was a witness for a friend, “plaintiff.” The “defendant” was my ex-boyfriend. My friend dated him first; we were not friends at the time. I was friends with the guy. I was driven to become friends with him by jealousy. A woman – who transferred schools – said she liked him. I did not like him. But she got something I wanted. Ironically, a position with the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect. I thought, hm, if she likes him, there must be something to him that I do not have or know. Something. So I became friends with him.
Several months into our friendship, I fell in love with him. Still, being young, I had a very naïve idea of what love must be. That’s beside the point. At the time, I thought – is this what love must be like? I felt terrible because he was dating someone. I didn’t know what to do. But I thought – I can be supportive to his relationship, and I will do my best to be friendly to his partner. (The story is more complicated than that, of course. But, for the sake of this story, I have left out quite a few details.)
The school year ended. In the summertime, I dated someone and had sex for the first time. I giggled because I thought – This? This is what wars are fought over? This is why people die? For this?
I was excited to have a boyfriend; my first boyfriend and I dated for two years in high school. I wanted to date someone again.
But, my friends said he was an asshole. I replied, “No, no – he’s not an asshole.” I would also tell them, “But he does x, y, and z.”
I was lucky to have friends who told me straight out – “Listen. If we say he’s an asshole, and you can cite instances of him being an asshole, don’t you think he’s an asshole?”
It took a while for that advice to sink in. Still, I broke up with him by summer’s end. Unfortunately, he came to visit me at the college. I asked him if he could not visit. But still, he insisted. When he came, it was at the end of RC training and the first week of freshman orientation.
I told him that I didn’t want to have sex with him. I offered him the floor and he said he wanted the bed. So I offered him the bed and I said I would take the floor. He told me how much he wanted to sleep with me. He wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I slept with him, but not because I wanted to. I slept with him because he wanted me to, and because he wouldn’t stop. This was a recurring pattern in our relationship, which I only see in retrospect.
I was embarrassed because he made me moan. And I didn’t want to set a bad example for my residents. But I couldn’t stop myself from moaning. And I hated myself. I was so disgusted. I am still disgusted with myself as I write this.
I know it sounds strange, to take such a long time to process. At the time, I didn’t realize that this was abnormal. I had no idea my relationship could be called ‘abusive.’ I learned about this recently by talking to a case worker at a Domestic Violence house: “an abusive relationship is where one party takes away
the capacity to consent from the other party” and this can occur on a variety of levels, financially, physically, emotionally, etc. Unfortunately, that’s what was happening but I was too unlearned, as were my friends, about the nuances of consent and abuse.
What’s funny is that when I think about the beginning of this relationship, I remember thinking about how weird this guy was. I met him at my summer job. I worked for Grassroots/Campaigns and it was a 2- hour commute by public transportation to Western Los Angeles. Our issue was to fund raise for gay marriage, an issue I have always been deeply passionate about. What was strange was that no one in the office took their job seriously, and my boss was unethical. Still, I needed a job. I needed to build my resume so that I could get “THE job” once I graduated and life would be grand.
He gave me a mixed-cd of music that I still listen to. He took me to his favorite places in Los Angeles. It was sweet, at first. I slept over his place because it was closer to work. I lied to myself so much, but I didn’t know any better.
Fast forward. He leaves campus after spilling his guts out, telling me about how terrible I am. Crying to me about how terrible his life and his job is. I awkwardly pat his shoulder and wonder, “How much longer will he be here? I need to get back to work. I want to go to class.”
Finally, he leaves. I don’t realize what I just went through. That many moments in our relationship were rape, that the relationship became verbally abusive.
A couple weeks later, I find out that my friend broke it off with his partner the previous June. I’m in the weird place of excitement and sadness, not sure whether to comfort or jump his bones.
Sure enough, one drunken night, we hook up. We both had a great time. And we started to date. He has bad habits that rub off on me. I am really excited to date him, and might have been kind of annoying. We both care for each other as best we can.
But…there’s something strange. He doesn’t actually seem to care. He says he’ll do things, but he doesn’t. I ask him – why did you leave me? And he says, I forgot. I had work.
I realize – I need to break up with him. So I do. His friends tell me, stay away from him. He’s an asshole. People are strangely supportive. But it breaks me and I can’t stop crying. I see him on campus. We hook up occasionally. Some of my friends from back home say he’s an asshole. Other friends on campus are also friends with him, so we occupy a strange limbo.
I seek resources, but I keep crying and I want someone to help me, but I don’t know who to ask for help. Some people are half-heartedly supportive. I find that I need to be hyper-motivated or crazy if I want someone to respond to an e-mail or follow-up with something s/he said s/he would do.
In the meantime, I continue communication with his ex-partner. We stay on good terms. Zhe has a best friend who I’ve also become close with, especially during the course of this tumultuous relationship. I will call hir “an affiliated party” (aap for short).
One night, we go out to party. I tell aap, y’know what? I’m going to be honest! I’m going to get over this guy. He’s an asshole. aap says we should toast and tells me a drinking cheer about friendships. The night goes on. aap gets drunker. In someone’s common room party, aap breaks down and tells me that zhe has been sleeping with the ex-boyfriend. I comfort aap. I ask aap what zhe needs. I offer aap my bed to sleep in. Another friend, a mutual friend who has been witnessing this whole shenanigan with me, wonders in so many words – What the hell are we going to do? What the fuck is going on?
We offer a silent prayer.
I tell aap that I can’t help hir. That I’m sorry, but I can’t. I stop speaking to the ex-boyfriend. I commiserate with plaintiff.
I get through finals. I work. Summer passes.
The following school year, plaintiff tells me of what happened, of how zhe was raped. Plaintiff says, I am only filing because of what he did to me, you and aap. it needs to stop. aap had a history of sexual assault. I wasn’t aware of my own. For me, he was simply an asshole.
We went through the trial. aap continued to hook up with the ex-boyfriend. He was not officially going to school anymore. He had failed out of his classes.
In my dorm, he would stay in the suite below mine. My memory blurs here. I remember telling my suitemates about how much it bothered me, but they told me I was overreacting. I remember trying to talk to his friends who lived below me, but I don’t remember if we had the ability to effectively communicate. I didn’t know how to get to my RC’s suite. aap would come to my suite for parties, and I asked her if she could not come.
I felt increasingly unsafe. I was a scholarship student. I was worried that he or his friends would prank me, steal my stuff, ruin my room. It was all I had at the time. I had been kicked out of my home. I was verbally abused, and neglected. My ancestry has a history of developed and undiscovered personality disorders. I am of the working poor with white skin. No masks. Just a smile and plastic credit cards to mask my debt.
My suitemates didn’t understand, but my friend said, “I know what you mean. I have the same fear.”
I called the Dean of Residential Life if I could move to an open room in Humphries, the only places on campus where I felt safe. He said that the room was locked and that he could move me to any other place on campus. I said I didn’t feel safe anywhere else on campus. He asked why. I said I don’t know, but I reiterated my concern about the prank. The Dean said you have no reason to feel unsafe. He has no history of this behavior. And if you do not want to move to another place on campus, I cannot help you.
So, I went forward. I slept in friends’ rooms. The trial proceeded. It was a stressful semester.
He was so rich. His family lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He had a behavioral problem since he was a young, but his family had the resources to take him to special schools that cost upwards of $70,000 a year. He was so spoiled. And he would go to another great school after Amherst. He would go onwards and I wondered with my friend, ‘would he ever learn? Will he care?’
Zhe said, ‘At least he went through the trial. at least he had to listen.’
He was exiled from the ‘herst for two years, which be around the time that plaintiff and I would graduate. aap took some time off.
Only recently did I know that what happened with the dorms would never happen in a real sexual assault trial. I don’t know what to do with that information. But I hope that the trustees fund enough changes within the school such that they can ensure similar safety violations never occur again.
As the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect touted in my first week of freshman orientation, I agree that ‘consent is sexy.’ But the world is filled with places where consent is contextual, and different words mean different things. Perhaps, there needs to be better information earlier on about sex education. I had the misfortune of having only formal abstinence education all of my life. I wish I had better sex education. I wish I learned about consent, abuse, and how to integrate Western conceptions of these things into personal cultural frameworks.
I hope that Amherst College creates more staff positions that would allow the college to appropriately address these concerns. For example, more staff at the Multicultural Resource Center and Women’s Center and creating more efficient work systems at the Department of Residential Life. Or perhaps building more partnerships with the surrounding four colleges in the area, and giving students the time and resources to access those partnerships, as well as enrich those relationships.
Put your money where your mouth is, Amherst College. I know you’ve got enough of it. My gender is woman.
I refuse to roar.
I will live instead.
In response to a prompt from last year, about what I would tell a survivor-
I can’t know what you’ve experienced and would understand if you hate the world. But maybe how we respond to the worst parts of life–how we grow, what we learn–says something deep and essential about who we are or who we could be. Maybe the most beautiful and affirming moments aren’t the ones given to us but are the ones that we make. I’m sorry for the awful people out there. Please be strong.
This is for the girls who were too young to understand.
This is for the girls who were molested before they knew their abc’s,
for the girls who were raped before they could count to 10.
This is for the girls who were beaten to the ground and forced to help themselves up,
for the girls who were betrayed by those closest to them.
This is for the girls who cringe when they are touched,
for the girls who are ashamed to look at themselves in the mirror.
for the girls who are used and abused by their teachers, babysitters, brothers, fathers.
This is for those grade school girls who hide under their beds when they go home,
for the girls who don’t know they deserve better,
for the girls whose faith is fading.
This is for the girls who won’t make it to their first period,
and for the girls who will weep when they first miss their period.
This is for the girls who will never fall in love,
and for the girls who will fall head over heels for men who hit them.
This is for the girls who will ache for years and year and years.
This is for the girls who will forget how to trust.
This is to those girls:
You are precious.
(Dana Bolger)— Sexism. Masculinity. Patriarchy. In the entirety of the 55-page Amherst College Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct (SMOC) report, not a single one of these words appears. Apparently we can have a conversation about rape prevention and response without understanding the underlying causes of sexual violence in the first place.
The SMOC report comes in response to a series of sexual violence survivors’ testimonies of administrative disregard, neglect and abuse following their assaults. The report is the first of several sets of recommendations to be released by the number of committees that Amherst College President Biddy Martin established some months ago. I am encouraged by the committee’s commitment to addressing sexual assault, acknowledging the failures of Amherst’s past, and trying to move the campus toward a better future. That said, forthcoming reports should develop a more sophisticated understanding of sexual violence—of who is raping, how they are raping, and why.
Researchers have studied “undetected rapists” on college campuses and found that these students are repeat offenders, each committing on average six rapes and accounting for nine out of ten campus assaults. Speaking anecdotally, seven of the nine perpetrators I know at Amherst College are repeat offenders. According to researchers, these college men “share the same motivational matrix of…dominance, hyper-masculinity” (Lisak, 56), “hostility to women [and] adversarial sexual beliefs” (Bouffard, 871), and they rape to exert power or control over female bodies to which they feel entitled. Our patriarchal society creates the cultural space, particularly acute on college campuses, that supports them—indeed, in which they thrive. In short, rape is not an accident or misunderstanding but a deliberate act supported by patriarchal society.
The SMOC report fails to develop such an understanding of why rapists act and thus ends up reinforcing common rape myths, like that of the ‘accidental’—or even absent—rapist. For instance, the report’s repeated observation that sometimes “something goes wrong and a sexual assault does occur” (20), makes rape sound a lot like an unexpected thundershower—one that, given the right conditions, strikes seemingly out of nowhere.
When the report doesn’t leave rapists out of the conversation entirely, it conceives of them in fairly innocuous terms, as merely bad “mentors”, who, with some basic training in “individual good citizenship” (48), might become better mentors. The report goes on to state that, “The vast majority of Amherst students…are able to control their social and sexual encounters. The majority do not become victims or perpetrators of sexual assault” (20). This language left me wondering how exactly one “becomes” a perpetrator. Does he just lack “control” and accidentally rape someone? Were I a man, I’d be deeply offended by the suggestion that I am nothing more than an animal, wholly incapable of controlling my sexual urges.
Of course, this language is problematic for another reason: it places the burden of not-being-raped squarely on the shoulders of potential victims. This particular breed of victim blaming suggests that if a victim had merely been better at ‘maintaining control’, she or he would not have been raped.
The report also invokes the myth of the ‘miscommunication’ rape, in which alcohol causes well-intentioned men to ‘misread the signs’ and rape. For instance, when the report says, “We are not suggesting that alcohol consumption is responsible for every instance of sexual misconduct” (37), it indicates that it does perceive alcohol consumption as responsible for many (albeit not all) instances of sexual misconduct. Let me repeat: alcohol consumption is apparently responsible for sexual violence.
The existence of a link between alcohol and sexual assault is undeniable. But the common conception of the nature of this link—a conception the Amherst report espouses—understands alcohol as a cause of rape, rather than what it is: a weapon. Studies suggest that the vast majority of perpetrators utilize alcohol to intoxicate their victims—or to target already intoxicated women or men—thereby diminishing victims’ ability to resist, eliminating the necessity for physical force (and thus the existence of physical evidence), and reducing victims’ likelihood of being believed if and when they report their rapes. So too is it a myth to say that intoxicated men simply fail to ‘read the signs’ and thus accidentally rape people. Further, studies indicate that perpetrators deliberately get drunk to lower inhibition so that they can proceed with an act they intended all along.
The report’s invocation of these rape myths is troubling for its confirmation of mistaken and dangerous attitudes held by many people on campus and in society at large. The meteorological myth—which causes rape to take on the character of a natural disaster—makes rape an inevitable phenomenon, which, if we’re serious about changing the reality for students on this campus, is deeply problematic. Similarly, the ‘accidental’ and ‘miscommunication’ rape myths tend to excuse or even condone perpetrators’ actions. In general, such mythology reinforces a popularly held notion of what ‘real’ rape looks like: a violent attack on a young, virginal, sober woman by a strange, scary-looking man in an alley. If we restrict ourselves to such a narrow and false view of what rape, victims and perpetrators actually look like, we will surely fail to respond appropriately to rape on a personal level (as friends, for instance), as well as on an institutional one.
Not surprisingly, the report’s recommendations largely fall short of actually proposing substantive change. Classes on consent, sexual respect, and citizenship will do little to convince the vast majority of rapists to alter their behaviors. (Remember: perpetrators rape to dominate and control, not because they don’t understand consent.) We’re better off focusing not on changing individual perpetrators but on challenging our culture that supports them. Thus, some of the report’s other recommendations—instituting bystander training and encouraging female empowerment—do move in the right direction because they engage the community in addressing sexual assault. But even these initiatives don’t ask people to interrogate their own complicity in perpetuating rape culture, patriarchy, and sexism, which is exactly the kind of consciousness that our community needs.
Indeed, the importance of challenging cultural attitudes is precisely why the SMOC report’s outright dismissal of fraternity and athletic cultures is so worrisome. The report’s indiscriminate exoneration of these cultures for their roles in promoting sexual violence (“Our committee came to the conclusion that it was counterproductive to try to indict any one demographic” (2)) defies widely accepted national data, as well as anecdotal evidence on campus (e.g., eight of the ten Amherst College survivors I know were raped by athletes; many of these women say they were not interviewed by SMOC). To be clear: fraternities and athletics are not, in and of themselves, the cause of rape; and the vast majority of fraternity members and athletes are, of course, not rapists. But in some fraternities and some sports teams, male aggression and entitlement to female bodies (via force, coercion, or undermining of ability to resist) is—however explicitly or implicitly—condoned, thereby giving individual perpetrators within their ranks the social license to operate.
To make real progress, we need to radically transform the ways in which we relate to each other and to ourselves. To do that, we need to start by understanding sexual violence not within “the larger context of…community responsibility [and] individual good citizenship” (48), but within the larger context of sexism and patriarchy. That means mandating classes not on “good citizenship” and “sexual respect” but sexism, patriarchy, masculinity, privilege, racism, white supremacy, heterosexism, etc. That means making these classes more than an afterthought (a pass-fail, half-credit course crammed into January term). That means instituting bystander training that not only informs individuals of their potential to prevent individual instances of sexual violence, but also encourages them to critically examine their own complicity in upholding rape culture and patriarchy. That means calling out sexist, racist cultures on our campus, rather than saying that “there is no need to name specific student groups here” (21). That means being honest and ethical in the words we use: it’s ‘sexual violence’, not ‘sexual disrespect’; ‘racism’, not absence or disregard of ‘diversity’; ‘sexism’, not ‘unhealthy mentorship’ or ‘bad citizenship’.
I leave you with some final words from the SMOC report: “There are few surprises when it comes to sexual assault at Amherst and little to distinguish it from any other school. Is being right at the norm with respect to the problem of sexual assault really where we want to be? We believe we can do much better” (21).
I believe we can too, Amherst. Let’s get started.