Credit: Nietnagel on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)–In the last months, much has changed in the landscape of on-campus sexual assault.
And for me personally something has changed too.
Very recently I received an email from a now accomplished and responsible father of a young woman who was my acquaintance rapist my freshman year at Harvard. One of our mutual friends, at this late date, told him that I had felt shocked and victimized by the experience, and he fervently wanted to clear the air and his conscience.
Reading his email, I actually felt empathy–one of the emotions that had swirled in my young psyche more than 30 years ago, and the one that together with shame made me decide, in the end, not to report. It was much later that I learned the terms “date rape” (even though there was no date involved with this experience) and that “no” means “no” even without the accompanying screaming and kicking I wished I had done.
Anyway, this now distinguished gentleman was, in our freshman year, part of a much more sophisticated group of students with superiority complexes who had been sexually active much earlier than a naïve Catholic girl from a public high school, aka me. His recreational attitude toward sex had nothing to do with my outlook. I am now fairly certain that we were both very confused about each other, as well as the situation we found ourselves navigating with so much discomfort and trauma … then, on my part.
Now, the bulk of the discomfort is his, because no apology can take away the decades of negative effects his abuse of my friendship and trust engendered.
It’s too bad, and it’s an example of how the intersection of age-old power structures built on race, gender, ethnicity and socio-economics adversely affect the education of every college student, whether an “insider” or “outsider” in the academic caste system prevalent in the United States today, just as it was when I enrolled in the Ivy League.
Perhaps, my email correspondent could have avoided a guilty conscience if he had only been told that consensual sex involves consent.
Some Change Underway
Change is underway on some campuses. Harvard University now has a centralized office to handle on-campus sexual assault. Last month, Dartmouth College held a summit with stakeholders from other colleges and universities to brainstorm solutions in both prevention and remedies. The University of Connecticut just agreed to pay settlements of about $1.3 million for mishandling sexual assault claims.
Yet, the fight for college women’s safety is far from over. My personal experience and the recent regret of my assailant, or those other cases in which sexually naïve freshmen and women make acquaintance with sexually experienced and aggressive peers, do not unravel everything about sexual assault on campuses. They ignore, for instance, the hardcore rape culture that results in gang-banging at drunken frat parties. But they do explain how necessary it is to teach cultural difference and understanding during the first year of college.
Survivors of sex assault at Occidental College in Los Angeles have been harassed online. Students at Harvard will still think twice about reporting assault because of what might happen to the trusted professor to whom they are most likely to turn. As the case of world-renowned anthropology professor Kim Theidon demonstrates, no protections exist at Harvard for such “first responders.” Those who step up to support survivors are actually in danger of losing their jobs.
For thoroughgoing change, our academic communities–students, parents, alums and college officials–must come to understand that sexual assault does not exist in a vacuum. It is the result of gender violence and the on-campus repression of other vulnerable populations.
And by those vulnerable populations I’m not speaking in code just about women. I’m speaking about all kinds of students who may feel isolated and left out.
Not long ago, for instance, a recent white male Harvard graduate explained to me how uncomfortable he felt in his first two years at the school both socially and in the classroom–he attributed it to having come from a local public high school. He was easily identifiable as a “townie” due to his Boston accent, his preparation (even though he had aced his SATs and AP exams, his education lagged behind the rigor of those provided at expensive prep schools) and his clothes. Also, he worked “dorm crew,” a student job cleaning dormitory bathrooms.
A Good Start
Dartmouth’s meeting on sex assault was a breakthrough; it was the first multi-school, high-profile convocation on this issue, following the University of Virginia’s smaller, quieter meeting on the topic held in February. The conference was a good start. In one presentation, renowned expert on sexual assault David Lisak challenged university leaders across the nation to take responsibility for changing campus rape culture.
And at the end, the school called on other colleges and universities to keep the ball rolling and sponsor the next gathering so we don’t lose steam.
The summit concluded two weeks ago, and Dartmouth officials have told me that thus far no other college or university has stepped up.
The Dartmouth summit cost only $200,000–approximately four times the cost of one student’s tuition, room and board at a private college, and a miniscule sum considering the size of Harvard’s capital campaign: $6.5 billion.
As a former college writing professor and advocate for SEM, or social and emotional learning, in public schools, I know the benefits of courses in which students share their personal experiences through discussion and writing and come to understand their classmates better. Breaking boundaries of culture and socioeconomics, students with SEM training learn–sometimes for the first time–how to relate to others in positive, non-aggressive ways–i.e., with empathy. This type of learning is essential to begin to up-end the hierarchical structures that pervade our campuses today.
Vote With Your Wallets
Recently, in major media outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, and on countless social media sites, fellow advocates, columnists and I have encouraged alumni and parents to understand the complexity of the issue and, importantly, to vote with their wallets. For alumni, that translates to donating not to a general college fund but to programs that support education meant to keep students safe from sexual assault trauma. For parents, it means encouraging their kids to choose colleges with strong records on student safety and reputations for environments that prioritize compassion, community and mutual respect over aggression, competition and individual success.
Now, I call on alumni, parents, and students to encourage their schools to consider a truly phenomenal next conference in which the real causes of gender violence are addressed. We need a summit that moves beyond the issue of rape and brainstorms curricula changes that facilitate the kind of social and emotional learning students need to avoid mistakes and regrets that reside at the center of so many preventable acts of sexual assault.
Every student has the right to feel they are an equal and valued member of a college community, regardless of how much money prior generations in their family have contributed, and regardless of how different his or her prior experiences may be to the majority or dominant culture at the school.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely any of that will change until colleges and universities first address the power structures that exist at the highest levels of their culture–the president’s office and tenure granting committees. These offices are where the responsibility lies for changing each campus’s cultural response to sex assault and rape. Another summit that broadens the discussion will make it possible to keep moving forward. Our recent gains are far from enough.
Lisa E. Paige, Ph.D., graduated from Harvard in 1980, and is a founder of the national coalition of alumni/ae working to end on-campus sexual assault. Read about her at www.survivingsilence.org and www.lastpaige.com.
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