You Should Read This: Sexual Assault and its Supernumeraries

A few weeks ago, a former Wesleyan student filed suit against the University, as well as the national Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, its Mu Epsilon chapter here at Wesleyan, and the Baird Society that owns the building and grounds occupied by Mu Epsilon. In a nutshell, the suit alleges that the University and the other parties did not take sufficient action to prevent the rape of the former student at a Halloween Party at Beta in October of 2010. The coverage of this lawsuit, by Wesleying and by local and national news sources, involves a Brobdingnagian array of diverse but connected issues. I’m going to try to touch on as many as I can. I will inevitably sound preachy at particular points, and for that I apologize in advance.

I really hope that these statements are unnecessary, but here goes: sexual assault, like pretty much any kind of assault, is problematic and unacceptable. The environment in which sexual assault remains possible is likewise problematic and unacceptable.

This post attempts to make those things a little bit clearer, comments on the subject in light of recent events, and includes many of my own opinions tying this particular issue to broader and equally terrifying patterns of college/youth/generational/human attitude that underlie the culture of permissible rape. This post is long. You should read it anyway.

Let’s start with some facts:

  • Millions of rapes occur every year, both forcible (as noted in the image above) and non-forcible. The vast majority are perpetrated by men against women, though still significant numbers of rapes are perpetrated by women against men and by men against men or women against women.
  • About one in four women will be subject to a sexual assault in their lifetimes. About one in six men will be subject to the same. [United States Department of Justice]
  • About one in five women at a college or university will be subject to a sexual assault during their years at school.
  • A 1991 study found that 76% of boys and 56% of girls in high school believe that forced sex is acceptable under certain conditions. These “certain conditions” typically included ‘if those involved had been dating for at least six months’ and/or ‘if he spent a lot of money on her.’ [Parrot & Bechhofer, 1991]
  • Sexual assault survivors are typically acquainted with the perpetrator beforehand, oftentimes being friends or even in a long-term relationship.
  • Both individuals have typically consumed alcohol or other substances (about three in four perpetrators and one in two survivors). [Abbey et al., 1998]
  • In most studies, large percentages of survivors interviewed that described an incident meeting the study’s definition of rape would not themselves term the incident as rape.

In the edits at the bottom of my previous post, I noted that an alum had assembled this Tumblr page advocating for public criticisms of Wesleyan’s policies regarding sexual violence (and, incidentally, the taking of revenge against Beta) but had, to my now-confirmed understanding, made some false claims about those same policies. I promised to do some “journalistic digging” and I have, in fact, done just that. After extensively poking around the Wesleyan website and speaking at some length with Vice President for Student Affairs Dean Mike Whaley, here’s what I found:
  • Wesleyan’s policies regarding sexual assault are somewhat different from what they were two years ago. This page provides a useful summary of current policy.
  • All decisions are made by the survivor. These include decisions on whether or not to report to the police, to get a rape kit done, to pursue internal judicial proceedings, to pursue external proceedings, etc. It is not University policy to make the decision or to only encourage or permit internal proceedings.
  • The University always recommends a rape kit, just in case the survivor wishes to report to the police at any future date. Public Safety is available to provide rides to both the hospital and the police station.
  • Internal adjudication is much quicker than legal proceedings; the standard of proof is lower, and the process is usually considered a little less painful. Most survivors choose this option.
  • Any incident reported to the University is at minimum noted as a Confidential Crime Report that goes into our Clery Crime Statistics. Anything further than this report is at the survivor’s discretion.
  • There are many, many university personnel (as well as several student groups) available for support, most notably Alysha Warren, appointed last year as the Sexual Violence Resource Coordinator and the Counseling and Psychological Services therapist specifically focusing on sexual violence.

As mentioned, many of these policies are fairly new. In late 2010, the Sexual Violence Task Force was assembled to make a more concerted effort at tackling the issue of sexual violence on campus, and in spring of 2011 it produced a set of recommendations (some have been implemented, the rest are in the works). As others have rightly noted, this Task Force was assembled in large part due to heavy and sustained clamoring by members of the community about the need to address sexual assault on campus. Of particular note is this 2010 Wespeak that was undersigned by over 500 Wesleyan students, faculty, and alumni.

As a community, we’ve made some progress. Nevertheless, policy can still be violated today by individuals employed to enact our policies, and we can still experience painful episodes of misconduct and inaction.  Moreover, sexual assault remains common on our campus. Our Clery stats say that eight forcible sexual offenses occurred in 2011; most estimates put the real figure in the dozens. Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes here on campus, as it is pretty much everywhere else.

It’s not fair to say, as the Tumblr does, that the University systematically attempts to swiftly silence survivors through mostly meaningless internal procedures (as you might still, right now, find at other places), thereby protecting assaulters instead of survivors. That is not the current, established policy of our campus. However, there exists an environment that enables rape, an environment which extends far beyond the realms of university policy, an environment that is not generated or even really encouraged by policy but nonetheless incorporates policy as party to its horrors, an environment which we as a species have yet to escape.

Here’s where things start to get a little more abstract and a little more important.

We here at Wesleyan pride ourselves on our intellectual diversity, our collective ability to voice alternative or unpopular opinions, our support for diversity of quality thought. There are two major problems with that pride:

1. It’s just not fucking true.
2. Radical individualism looms large over any sense of community we might imagine.

To the first point, our campus community has an alarming tendency to ruthlessly and publicly vilify individuals for actions or statements holistically unrepresentative of their character, or even for outright opinions or lifestyles that are reflective of character. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then I’d suggest you check out the ACB the comments section of this article from last spring. Keep in mind that several of the more heinous comments were removed by our moderators (a right we almost never feel the need to exercise, except in cases of flagrant personal attack). Some comments are productive, some less so. In any case, I sadly cannot say that the conversation surrounding that particular controversy was conducted with ubiquitous or even common respect for alternative opinions. Our community’s system of large-scale dialogue is dysfunctional if not broken altogether.

We need to respect each other more, even and especially when we disagree. I am the first to admit that I can improve in this regard.

The second point is much more nuanced. Bear with me.

We here at Wesleyan embrace the liberal ideal of the individual. We cherish the rights of the individual. We support the free expression of individualism. This something I dearly love about Wesleyan. This is the ‘individualism’ piece of “radical individualism.”

However, with every freedom comes responsibility. And it is our profound failure, as individuals comprising a community of fellows engaged in the common purpose of enlightenment, to shoulder that responsibility that so wounds our sense of community.

So what, then, do I mean by ‘radical?’ John F. Kennedy, as President of the United States of America, stated these words: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” I don’t think such a sentiment would carry much political weight today. Today, the economists have won the argument: everything is about marginal gains for the individual actor. Where and what we choose to study/work/eat/drink/play/discuss/challenge/connect/embrace/reject/live is chosen, almost invariably, to further our individual livelihood/satisfaction/curiousity/ambition/purpose/lethargy/interest/happiness. But we have responsibilities not only to ourselves, but also to the whole community of individuals.

You see, if we as a group of individuals, as a community, indeed as a human species are to retain our rights to free expression of individualism, we must also observe our duty to respect the rights of others to be individuals and serve in defense of those rights. Mutual respect of individual rights is what glues communities together. Everyone has a right to control their own individualism. No one has the right to control anyone else’s individualism. Everyone has a responsibility to protect and promote everyone else’s individualism.

A sense of responsibility is vital to the very concept of individualism, and yet it is warped by a ‘radicalism’ of me, me, me, why should I do this, why should I risk that, what do I gain.

This is the environment that enables the mistaking of ‘want’ for ‘right.’

This is the environment that allows rape to be perpetrated.

This is incredibly important, so I’m going to put it in all-caps and bold it and make it colorful because I quite literally cannot emphasize this enough: EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS. You should consider reading it before you continue here. To quote:

Let’s review some basic principles: Sex is a want not a need. Arousal is a hope and not a guarantee. A rightful transaction is between two willing parties.  And last, but certainly not least, expectations don’t cash in as entitlements.

But let’s throw in some other related horrors, shall we?

We drink alcohol because we the have the right to do so via individualism and because we expect gains by doing so (based on Wesleyan survey data, those gains are typically having a good time with friends, celebration, happiness, etc). But when we drink alcohol, we still have a responsibility to uphold the rights of other individuals. Those rights include, but are certainly not limited to, such things as not getting puked on, not having to deal with a drunken asshole, not having property damaged or destroyed, not being harassed, and most definitely not being physically or sexually assaulted. The same goes for pretty much any substance you care to name.

We endorse a culture of casual hook-ups for a variety of reasons, but we can again connect this to mutually responsible individualism without going into details. There is, however, a connected problem, and that is a lack of communication. Every year, innumerable rapes occur despite independent observers (be they friends or strangers) that note precipatory events (be they drinking, flirting, dancing, touching, pushing, grabbing, dragging) and feel uncomfortable yet take no action. The passivity typically results from an ‘unwillingness to interfere’ or ‘not wanting to accidentally ruin the moment’ or a fear of jeopardizing a friendship or a feeling of awkwardness. Such things are mere trifles in comparison to the consequences of rape. Similarly, an aversion to the use of mutual verbal consent between sexual partners because it ‘ruins the mood’ is problematic. Right of individualism does not include rape to avoid awkwardness.

It is always easier to pretend, unless you’ve lived it, that tragedies as horrific as sexual assault simply do not occur. It is often easier for friends to ignore, ostracize, and forget a survivor than to confront another friend, or even a stranger, for inexcusable actions. The easy road blatantly disregards the responsibilities that individuals owe to the survivor and to the community. I won’t elaborate; the linked article speaks for itself. You should read it.

Similarly, it is easier for colleges and universities to ignore the problems presented by campus rape, sweep cases under the rug, assume prolonged instability/over-reaction/craziness in the survivor and consequently deny them all sense of individualism, self-reliance, and self-strength by making all important decisions for them. Again, the easy road ignores the rights and responsibilities of individualism, and again the (different) linked article speaks for itself. You should read it.

On that note, sensationalist media and college rankings (which I intentionally lump together) create their own related evils. They encourage institutions to pursue, either explicitly or subconsciously, policies that hide issues like rampant sexual misconduct, chronic substance abuse, fiscal irresponsibility, and abuses of power rather than addressing them publicly, openly, honestly, and fairly. Subtly, college rankings and sensationalist media inhibit all institutions from adequately addressing the ubiquity of these issues for fear of being seen as the one and only institution with the problems.

Wesleyan has been relatively transparent about these issues in recent years, but there is always room for improvement. You can sign this petition to help make that happen.

Oh, and speaking of transparency and dialogue, people who are categorically disinterested in dialogue baffle and terrify me. Such a sentiment is one that I cannot fathom.

Anyway.

Sexual misconduct on college campuses is a big issue.  It is not bounded by the imaginary gates and walls of Wesleyan, it is not limited to college culture, it is not even restricted to the attitudes of our generation. Rape is an issue of humanity itself.

Take fucking care of your friends. Take fucking care of people you’ve just met. Take fucking care of people you don’t know. We are a community, of Wesleyan, of higher learning, of humanity, and we have a responsibility to each other, to our ideals, and to ourselves.

Here are some things that I consider fact, and I really hope you do too:

  • No one has a ‘right’ to anyone else’s body. Ever.
  • Sex, in any form, should only occur between mutually consenting partners.
  • Desire does not equal right.
  • Alcohol-induced desire does not equal right.
  • Alcohol-enhanced desire does not equal right.
  • Desire plus expenditure of money does not equal right.
  • Desire plus expenditure of time/interest/effort does not equal right.
  • Rape is preventable.
  • The occasional awkward conversation is a pittance to pay for the prevention of rape.
  • We are all responsible for preventing rape.

Go forth and prevent rape. Lead our community to a brighter future, lead our generation to a better culture, lead humanity to a more humane existence.

You are as vital to this process as anyone else.

 

[Edit 24 Oct 2012, 11:23pm pyrotechnics: Another student survivor, this time of Tufts, has published an account similar to two others already linked here, one each by an Amherst student and a Wesleyan student. You should read all of them.]

 

[Disclaimer: Wesleying is not in any way funded or run by Wesleyan University. Our sole association with Wesleyan is that Wesleying is staffed entirely by current Wesleyan undergraduates, who blog about life at the University. Wesleyan has no control whatsoever over our actions, writings, or management. Furthermore, Wesleying makes no claims to objective journalism. Our writers are permitted, and often encouraged, to include personal or other opinions in their posts. While many Wesleying writings are objective, including much of the article above, readers should not be surprised to find opinion included as well.]

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  • ’12

    Thank you for the time and thought that went into this unfortunately necessary post.

  • anon ’13

    Yes. A great post that really gets at the heart of a cultural value that perpetuates this horror. Thank you so much.

  • anonymous

    this seems like a very smart and informative article but I misread the title on the facebook link and was briefly confused that this wasn’t about sexual assaults perpetrated on/by superhumans

  • ’13

    Angel Haze just released an amazing song about her own experience with sexual assault. Well worth listening to: http://soundcloud.com/angelhazeym/angel-haze-cleaning-out-my#

  • anon

    As someone who was sexually assaulted on campus, I will say it is definitely fair to say the administration systemically silences survivors of sexual violence. Has it occurred to you that the reason why they pressure survivors to pursue internal proceedings rather than legal proceedings isn’t because it is less traumatizing for the victim, but largely because it reduces the risk of bad publicity for this school? Do you have firsthand experience navigating this system? Until you have experienced the frustration and isolation that comes with doing so, it is unfair of you to dismiss the claims made by survivors who have.

    • pyrotechnics

      The statements above reflect Wesleyan’s current policies, not those of even the recent past. Furthermore, I cannot speak as to what actually occurs, having no access to survivors currently going through the process today (and having no firsthand experience, as you say). I agree that the University has pressured survivors to pursue internal proceedings in the past. The University may still do so today, though it would be a violation of policy. I have made an edit to reflect this.

      All that being said, to ignore the efforts that Wesleyan community has made in recent years would be a disservice to journalism and, more importantly, a disservice to the hope of continued progress in the future.

      And yes, it has occurred to me. In fact, I wrote about it: “sensationalist media and college rankings. . .encourage institutions to pursue, either explicitly or subconsciously, policies that hide issues like rampant sexual misconduct.” There is a tacit encouragement. But does the University, today, intentionally choose to pressure survivors into not making an official report to MPD in order to limit bad press? My research says no. If anyone has counter-evidence to that research, please do not hesitate to contact me (staff@wesleying.org, address to pyrotechnics).

      The core of this whole post is that the University can and has made errors of judgement, yes, but the University does not create the attitudes in the minds of perpetrators that enable them commit rape. That environment is complicated leviathan that exists within our cultural human soul. That environment “extends far beyond the realms of university policy, . . .is not generated or even really encouraged by policy but nonetheless incorporates policy as party to its horrors,” and that environment “enables the mistaking of ‘want’ for ‘right.'”

      That environment needs to change, and that’s all that I’m really trying to say.

      • dumbfounded

        “My research says no. If anyone has counter-evidence to that research, please do not hesitate to contact me”

        Sheesh, you have an actual rape victim saying otherwise. You wrote a truly fantastic essay calling on everyone to take responsibility, calling on transparency and dialogue.

        Then this person reaches out to you in her comment – she is an actual rape victim who it seems has actual experience with the process and wants to tell you and us what it was like and you argue with her. You don’t see the opportunity for learning, you repeat statements — you correct her that you allowed it could happen — and other ideas from your essay only now they are mere theory used against an actual rape victim, rather than the wonderful call to dialogue and learning that it was on the first read.

        If i were you, I would have invited her to share more with everyone and would have been grateful that someone with actual knowledge trusted me enough to reach out to me. That is the whole point.

        How could you not have noticed this? How very silly. I recommend that you correct yourself and invite her to engage in dialogue here. I would like to hear about this person’s experience. I already read your excellent essay. I want to hear from her.

        • pyrotechnics

          Yep, you’re right. Although I did ask for continued dialogue (“please do not hesitate to contact me”), I specified a private forum for that dialogue rather than here in a more public space. I would note once again, however, that I am referring only to current (Fall 2012) policy and thus am not, in any way, trying to dismiss actions taken by the University prior to this point. I am not trying to disregard anon’s comment, or even really disagree with it, only that I am trying to clarify the distinction between past policy and present policy. In that sense, I don’t think anon was (necessarily) “saying otherwise.”

          Anyway, I’m not trying to dismiss anybody or their contributions to dialogue around this issue. I invite any and all, including and especially anon, to share their thoughts and experiences on the matter, either publicly or privately. I’d like to hear them.

  • ’14

    Very well written. This should be so basic for everyone

  • ’12

    the quote in the picture has more problems as well–rapes do not “occur”–they are perpetrated.

  • ’12

    You might want to reconsider the photo used in this post–http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/08/19/712251/how-todd-akin-and-paul-ryan-partnered-to-redefine-rape/.

    Nearly all jurisdictions define rape as including rape that is coerced without the use of physical force, or rapes perpetrated when the victim does not have the ability to consent for a variety of reasons (intoxication, age, inability to consent because of mental capacity etc).

    • pyrotechnics

      Noted and revised. Thanks.

  • ’12

    lars, ripsymi

  • Nicole Updegrove

    Thank you.