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Not Alone

Your Humble Blogger happened to read the opening paragraph of Jennifer Steinhauer’s article White House to Press Colleges to Do More to Combat Rape in the New York Times this morning:

Reacting to a series of highly publicized rapes on college campuses, the White House on Monday released guidelines that increase the pressure on universities to more aggressively combat sexual assaults on campus.

Over at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams refers to “a series of high profile cases” in How the White House can fight the college rape epidemic. Better would be something like reacting to a series of highly-publicized leaks of previously covered-up or ignored rapes or following a series of failed cover-up attempts at prestigious schools.

Nick Anderson in the Washington Post, however, gets it closer to right:

The Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, which President Obama formed in January, is spotlighting an issue that has gained widespread notice in the past few years because of allegations of sexual violence at prestigious schools such as Amherst College in Massachusetts and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Probably even better would be finally gained widespread notice in the last few years despite every attempt by authorities to keep this sort of thing quiet.

Sexual assault is common on our campuses. Let me repeat that, because the newspapers and websites don’t seem to be saying it: Rape is common. Every week, every state, big campuses and small, public and private, there are young women and men attacked, and we let it happen.

The new government website that created the “news” under the headlines is called Not Alone, referencing Our Only President’s speech back in January:

My hope and intention is, is that every college president who has not personally been thinking about this is going to hear about this report and is going to go out and figure out who is in charge on their campus of responding properly, and what are the best practices, and are we doing everything that we should be doing. And if you’re not doing that right now, I want the students at the school to ask the president what he is doing or she is doing. And perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted, you are not alone. You will never be alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.

And, you know, that’s all great and stuff, and well-done O.O.P., but I’m afraid when I look at the name of that site, I’m just thinking that those people who have been assaulted are not alone because there are so fucking many of them. Thousands and thousands of them, assaulted at my campus, at my alma mater, at yours, the one your sister went to, the one your daughter goes to, the one down the road. It’s not a series of rapes, it’s that rape on campus is the norm.

And even worse than that…we have all been permitting it, participating in rape culture. Telling women that it isn’t really rape, or that they shouldn’t ruin a young man’s future, or that it was all a misunderstanding. Or pretending that it isn’t happening, certainly not here on this campus. Or that rape is rare, something done by extraordinarily evil men who are nothing like the guys in class or in the dorm or in our club. Those newspapers are contributing to rape culture, even as they are undoubtedly congratulating themselves (as YHB is whilst typing this note) on fighting it.

In fact, what I will have to tell my daughter, as she goes off to college in a few years, is that—it’s true, you are not alone, you will never be alone.

You are surrounded.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Yes. And the flip side of the coin for those of us who talk to our sons before they go to college: "don't be that guy. Don't rape people. And don't stand by and let rapists get away with it."

Also, don't wait until your child is going off to college--it doesn't hurt to start empowering them in middle and high school. How do you get to the point where you can both live without fear but still know how to avoid dangerous situations, protect yourself, and be ready to speak up and defend yourself if something does happen? It happens at high school parties and dates too. Being realistic without being paranoid should be second nature by the time they are off to college. (Though it does help, IMHO, to discuss the specifics of the college situation before they go, so they are more aware of what their options are as they leave their familiar home environment.)

It's a necessary and valuable step to educate young adults as they reach sexual maturity how to resist becoming part of a culture of rape. But I think there is more to changing that culture than simply resisting it. What are the steps we should be working on to alter the whole set of socialization/sexualization norms that construct the context in which rape culture flourishes?

Nao—yes, the real effort is in talking to the young guys, as the young women are, on the whole, not raping people. At the same time, young women are participants in the culture (as are we all) and need to be aware of it.

textjunkie—to some extent, bringing a kid up to be critically aware of the culture means bringing a kid up to be critically aware of rape culture by the time the kid is a teenager, so there's that. But at least for my kids (who won't be going to prep schools) the college thing is the first time they will be truly surrounded. Dangerous situations predominantly are in bars, dorms and apartments and the like, which are rare for early teens but surround an eighteen-year-old. Also, I have to say, as someone who works on a college campus, whose Best Reader works on a college campus, who interacts daily with dozens and dozens of students, and as someone who still really believes in college on some sentimental level, I am moved to outrage very easily by how tolerant of rape college campuses are and have been. Sort of an et in arcadia thing, I suppose.

Chris—one thing that has really struck me over the last twenty years is the way the s/m and B/d community's notions of 'consent' have influenced the greater communities' discussions. Left Blogovia has (it seems to me) taken on almost wholesale the idea that 'consent' is (a) a fundamental part of the social contract (or a democracy or a liberal system, or whatever our bloggers think of themselves as inhabiting) and (2) highly influenced by power differentials. I suppose I should credit Noam Chomsky with influencing this as well, although his notion of 'consent' is (I think) very different from that notion current in Left Blogovia, which again I perceive to be surprisingly heavily influenced by s/m B/d thinking. On the whole, I approve—Mostly, I think it's a good idea to have explicit conversations about what constitutes consent in a variety of settings—I think it's likely that middle-school and certainly high-school students will understand power differential on a gut level.

Also adding—while again, great that Our Only President is doing stuff like this PSA, the tag line that one is too many actually (in my arrogant opinion) reinforces the idea that rape and assault are currently rare, which is not true. I mean, yes, one rape is in fact too many rapes, I'm not disagreeing with that, but if there were only one, only let's say one a year on each of the four or five thousand college campuses in this country, then we would be getting to a place where culturally, it was Not Done and that everyone who came to campus knew that it was Not Done, and there would be tremendous pressure Not to Do it, and tremendous social punishment when it was done anyway—but like being stabbed or shot or strangled, it really would be rare.


Oh, yes, all those pieces of the conversation are important.

I was much relieved to hear a very good conversation about tickling at homeschool group today. Two kids had been tickling a third kid, and the mother of one of the first two was making very sure that her child would stop if the tickled one said "stop", regardless of laughter. (Because it can be so overwhelming even if it's fun at first.)

That's not directly about sex, but it is about consent to a particular form of physical contact, and I think learning how to cope with that sort of thing helps kids learn how to cope with questions of consent around sex.

We've also had the "ask before hugging" discussion in our household.

Stressing the importance of consent is a good thing. I'd like to see the stress on consent extended in a more positive direction, going from a starting point of "don't be that guy" to get to "why would want to have sex without a partner who is enthusiastically participating?" I am concerned that purely sex-negative talk around the issue of rape can help to reinforce the "sex is dirty" concept that alienates people from their desires and leads to the use of alcohol to overcome the inhibitions created by a divided and guilty self. A sex-positive culture that teaches self-control, self-respect, and respect for others as the route to mutually fulfilling relationships seems to me to be the alternative that could truly supersede and extinguish rape culture.

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