The viral reactions to recent news has been unusual to say the least, resulting in a an uproar across the internet. Last week the big story was the child who ended up in a gorilla enclosure at a zoo. People were quick to blame: the mom and the zoo were both the subject of several scathing articles, talking about incompetence and negligence. This week’s viral commentary stems from the news about the college athlete sentenced to a mere 6 months in a county jail for a crime that would have sent many others to spend 14 years in a state prison. Many have written a response to the story itself, as well as to a statement made by the victim and another made by the father of the perpetrator.
The event in question happened over a year ago, and the accounts are horrific. The victim’s statement is a lengthy essay and tells what she remembers of the night and the months that followed. The letter written by the father of the convicted laments how this sentence is a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action” and that his son has been “broken and shattered” by the verdict. He then goes on to say that his son can better help society by educating others about “the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity.”
Though I can understand that this man is justifiably crushed by the events (after all, who wants to see their child on trial for atrocities and then facing time in a cell), I am utterly baffled at the fact that he seems to have no concern at all for the victim or her family. I understand that this young man is very likely less cheerful and experiencing ”fear and anxiety.” As a parent, I understand the desire to try to relieve these emotions and having to cope with one’s own fear of what such emotions can lead to. What I don’t understand is how anyone could think that the actions that led to this sentence are okay, that there is any possible justification for what happened, or how this can in any way be considered a “steep price.”
Regardless of whether this young man has violent tendencies or if this was a one-time lapse in judgement, he needs to accept responsibility for his actions. He should be treated no differently from anyone else. The fact that he is a star athlete from an elite university should be irrelevant. To be honest, I think that given his privilege, more, not less should be expected of him. As a well-educated person (we are talking about a student at Stanford), he should understand that actions have consequences.
There are some good people in this story.
Two grad students who saw what was happening, put a stop to it and held him until the authorities arrived. We need more people to step in, to pay attention, to speak up. Was no one else around? Could this have been prevented? Some will have us believe that the answer is yes, if there was no alcohol involved, if the victim had dressed and behaved differently. What about self-control, decency, good manners? We need to teach our children from a young age that it is not okay to touch people who don’t want to be touched. To recognize any signs that their actions are making another person uncomfortable. To realize when someone is incapacitated and cannot make a rational decision. This situation is horrific and to trivialize it is unacceptable.
I am hopeful that a change is coming. I am seeing more young men demonstrating an awareness that they cannot assume a woman wants sexual attention, unless she explicitly says so. Buying her drinks or dinner does not entitle one to anything but a thank you at the end of the evening. However, the old way of thinking persists. There are still men who are being told that the world is theirs for the taking, that they can have anything they want, and that women are there for their pleasure. There is still also the idea that sex is something that should not be discussed. Talking about it is somehow seen as being promiscuous. How then can consent be determined?
Since these “standards” are ingrained in society, this change in thought process is tricky. Though I do not believe that how a woman choses to dress or if she chooses to have a drink indicates her willingness to submit to a man’s wishes, I have had to have the conversation with each of my daughters as they went off to college to watch out for themselves. I told them to not go out alone, to be careful to not drink too much. I cautioned them that alcohol makes it more difficult to get that “no” across, that if they were drunk, they might not be taken seriously, that it increases the likelihood that they might be taken advantage of. I am very aware of the unfairness of my having to have this conversation at all. A woman should be able to go out and have fun without worrying that someone stronger than she might force her into a situation where she might fear bodily harm. She shouldn’t have to dress in baggy sweats or constantly look over her shoulder, concerned that her mere appearance can make a boy lose self-control.
My girls listened politely, then basically shrugged me off. They are strong, independent women, and they assured me they would be fine. They could take care of themselves. I agreed with them, but asked them to be careful anyway and to make sure they went out as part of a group, and made sure to leave no one behind. There is strength in numbers.
Most women have a story to tell
I am thankful that I have no survival stories to tell, but I have had my share of uncomfortable moments. One night at a party at my then-boyfriend’s fraternity, he left me for a few minutes in a very crowded room. While waiting for him to return, a rather large guy (think linebacker large) asked me to dance. I politely said no, and mentioned that my boyfriend would be right back. He persisted and ultimately got ahold of my hand, attempting to pull me closer. Apparently, someone noticed this, and before I knew what was happening, he was surrounded by a group of guys from the fraternity, who escorted him out of the building. My boyfriend returned, saw a ruckus outside and asked me what had happened. I told him and assured him it was all taken care of, there was no need to pursue it further. This story had a happy ending, but it could have gone another direction. I was fortunate to be in a relationship with someone there and that one of his friends read the situation and decided to intervene. This is just one example of “what if … things had gone differently.”
Another time, I let a guy buy me a beer, which made him think that he had purchased a tonsil-swapping, pelvis grinding night on the dance floor and beyond. (He quickly discovered his mistake and was soon making a spectacle with someone else.) Other times, I have been ridiculed for saying no, for making it clear, in no uncertain terms, what the limits were, for not being “easy” (and therefore being “new” or “frigid” or a “tease”). I have been lucky that my circumstances weren’t different, that I was not alone someplace with someone bigger and stronger than I who could and would force the issue. Not every girl is as fortunate. I recognize this and have made a conscious effort to not allow myself to be put in a position where I may not have a choice. I have then had to pass this advice on to my daughters – men can be trusted, until they can’t, so always be aware.
I have been catcalled and otherwise objectified, had my behind pinched and fondled, and have had very suggestive, very public comments made by men who did not know me. Most women I know have experienced at least some of the same. Complaining about these events has often resulted in being told that we are “too sensitive,” or “too serious,” or that these men were just “showing appreciation.”
The term “rape culture” has been tossed around a lot in recent years and I will admit that I have had a tendency to downplay the idea. I guess I had accepted the status quo, that this is the way things have always been and will be. I don’t live in fear, but sometimes in states of heightened awareness. But what if I didn’t have to? There seems to be a growing awareness that there is a problem, which may be the first step in solving it.
In recent years, I have seen that there is a trend on college campuses to address the problem, in the form of sexual assault awareness programs, much like the widespread alcohol awareness programs which are meant to be preemptive in nature. Some colleges are now requiring incoming students to complete awareness training for both sexual and alcohol abuse . These online and small group sessions explain what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse, talk about consent, and encourage bystanders to take action when they see inappropriate behavior. Someone who is drunk cannot give consent. That message is beginning to get out. Are we on the cusp of a new revolution? One that engenders respect? One can only hope.