Sexual assault is very much in the news these days from Bill Cosby and the controversy around Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” to the Obama administration’s Title IX probe of the handling of sexual assault cases on many campuses across the country. This complex issue deserves thoughtful attention and meaningful action towards prevention, but the discussion also brings up strong emotions. Extreme opinions are easy to find on the Internet. On the one end of the spectrum are those who claim that all men are rapists waiting for their chance, on the other, those who accuse women who speak up about their experiences of assault of being liars and attention-seekers (because, really now, the kind of attention they receive is so much fun, right?)
Every commenter has her or his solution. One woman pointed the finger at parents, who should take their sons aside before they go off to college and tell them not to rape anyone.
My first reaction was to shake my head at the quaint custom of blaming individual parents rather than, say, broader cultural values, but then I got to thinking. Maybe the Internet Lady was right. Maybe if parents talked openly with their sons and daughters about sexual assault, that might change the environment enough to make a difference. Because preventing sexual assault in the first place is far better for everyone than trying to punish assault after it happens.
However, there has to be a lot more to the talk than, “Son, don’t rape anyone at college!” or “Daughter, don’t get inebriated, wear short skirts or get within groping distance of a boy!” The talk I have in mind would not only involve rape itself, but fundamental issues that nourish it and are likewise shrouded in silence. I’m talking about sexuality, status and power, and the ways group pressure can make you do things that are not in your own best interest.
Assault of any kind at any age by anyone, even say, a policeman, is a crime. But young adults (and not just college kids) are particularly vulnerable to becoming both perpetrators and victims because they are unsure about where they fit in and what good sex means to them personally versus cultural myths of what sex should be. If they have nothing else to go on but what their equally uncertain peers model as cool and fun, then they have to figure it out for themselves at great risk. What’s still happening on campuses today—and let’s not doubt that assault and date rape have always been there--is the result.
Where to start the discussion? For the sake of simplicity, I’ll speak mainly about heterosexual relationships, but the general principles apply across the range of orientations. The first myth to tackle is that being a cool stud means putting your penis in as many holes as possible. If the body you penetrate is unconscious, struggling, protesting, even ambivalent, it doesn’t matter as long as you get inside. But what if we all agreed to redefine the terms—a sexual encounter only gets you stud points if both partners willingly participate and experience pleasure? As many before me have argued, this means that men and women must be allowed to say “yes” to sex so that “no” has meaning. But we need to get the message out—if you have sex with an unconscious or unwilling body, you’re a creep and a criminal, not a player.
Another issue that struck me when I read the Rolling Stone article is that young men in fraternities face serious dehumanization as part of the pledging process. I’ve heard reliable stories about pledges being coerced into eating cat food, crickets, and vomit, of being forced to stand in a row, blindfolded, while they wait for the night’s assignment to prove their dedication to the group. This might involve running three miles to get pizza for a brother or sleeping on a hardwood floor in the frat house for several nights. I’m sure the worst parts were not shared with me. Secrecy and silence are crucial to the fraternal code and those who break it face the same consequences as victims of rape who speak out. Hazing tends to make the news when people die or are seriously injured, but the truth is, it damages and dehumanizes everyone who endures it and everyone who inflicts it on others. Colleges are condoning and enabling this behavior by ignoring it. Many of us are doing the same by romanticizing it. It’s time to shine the light on fraternity and sorority hazing and its effects on young adults before the next death from alcohol poisoning or the next party rape. Is belonging worth that price?
Finally, we must acknowledge that the taproot of this problem is shame. Not just shame about reporting incidents if you are a victim, which is certainly the cause of much tragedy, but also shame about expressing and experiencing sexual desire. Because we can’t share the truth of our sexuality, people can all too easily manipulate us through sexual shame. They can bully us for not being sexual enough or experienced enough, then turn around and call us names for being too sexual. Even in erotica, where fearless and frank sexual writing is the name of the game, many of us must seek protection behind pseudonyms--for very good reasons.
The commentator who blamed parents for sexual assault on campus was, I believe, oversimplifying the problem. But if we all could more openly discuss sexual myths, sexual shame and the ways vulnerable young adults can be manipulated by the desire for status, we could make progress toward creating an environment where nonconsensual sex is no longer business as usual on the college scene.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor