Dear college women:
I just read that yet another one of you has run headfirst into the bureaucracy of college administrators dealing with a sexual assault case. That’s been a familiar refrain in the last few years, hasn’t it? Hell, even the White House has taken notice. We can debate the merits and/or stupidity of the term Rape Culture,* but an immutable law of bureaucratic, entrenched organizations is that they always protect themselves.
Here’s what I’m not going to tell you: “Don’t get drunk.” Not because some intellectually lazy commenter out there will accuse me of participating in a culture of “victim-blaming,” (it really isn’t), but because doing so is ineffective. (it’s ineffective for a good reason: drinking can be fun for a lot of people!) Drinking responsibly, drinking too much, feeling out your own limits and boundaries – this is arguably the best time in your life to do all that, before you hit an age where you have real responsibilities, and hangovers become a regular occurrence after every night out.
Instead, my advice is this: Stand up for each other, and for yourselves.
When I say “Stand up for each other,” I don’t mean symbolic solidarity, i.e. marching in a Planned Parenthood rally, or sitting through yet another lame showing of The Vagina Monologues. Put all the cheesy feminist bumper stickers on your car you want, but know that they don’t do jack if you do not back them up with action.
Look out for your girlfriends. Tell them to call you if they need a ride home from a party. Don’t let them “take a nap” after drinking in a strange house. Go beyond your immediate friends, and look out for the drunk girl at the party – even if she’s that kind of “skanky” “attention-whore” that everybody hates. Because listen: if you see a nearly-unconscious girl being carried around/upstairs by some guy, it is a moral imperative that you at least say something. Maybe the situation is innocent, but by saying “Hey, guy, hold on a second” you’re letting this guy know that you’ve noticed him, and you’re drawing other people’s attention to him.
And when I say “stand up for yourself,” I mean stand the hell up for yourself. Click on that Swarthmore story (linked above), and read the victim’s first-hand account of her assault: “I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish.” Listen, no means no, and yes means yes, but wishing away the wide gulf in between those words isn’t going to do anything for any woman caught underneath an 18-year-old boy with a fuzzy understanding of what “sexual boundaries” means.
Teaching men not to rape is all well and good, Zerlina Maxwell, and parents should definitely do this. In a world where every teenage boy has engaged parents who are capable of articulating the concept of personal boundaries, that might work.
Even in that ideal world, violent, selfish, bad people exist, people who, like pushy car salesmen, won’t wait for you to say “no” before they’re already writing up your sales order/putting a hand over your mouth. We cannot simply wait for rapists to decide to quit raping. So let me be clear: in those moments where it’s just you and your would-be attacker behind closed doors, you are the only person who can help yourself.
Your teacher may have warned you against fighting back, but I’m telling you that you can punch this guy in the damned throat if you have to. (How do you know if violence is warranted? I don’t know, is he raping you?)
I apologize if I’m being undeservedly condescending. I wouldn’t have known any of this when I was 18, either. Two generations of kids now have been raised by parents and teachers who taught them that: 1.) Violence is never the answer; 2.) Punching the schoolyard bully will get you in trouble “for participating in the fight”; and 3.) A higher authority will handle it and sort things out. Don’t get involved. It’s not your fight. You’ll only get yourself in trouble. Violence is wrong. You’ll only escalate the situation. It’s none of your business.
How have we not seen that this is a recipe for disaster?
Here’s the choice: We can work to shift the expectation that women are compliant, insecure, and won’t stick up for each other, or we can keep on turning a blind eye to each others’ abuse. Your call.
*Most discussions about What Is Rape Culture are discussions of power, applied to gender & rape. We live in a culture of dominance, expressed over multiple dimensions. Now let’s avoid this debate in the comments, shall we?