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Kathleen Mayer: Freshman Women and Sexual Assault at Dartmouth (1/3)

Recently, there was one of those brief waves of controversy that wash ashore — and inevitably draw back within a week or two — over a particularly out-of-line comment made by Todd Akin regarding the tense political landscape of how to legislate women’s bodies in the case of rape. Akin’s remarks were so coldly insensitive, carelessly worded, and quite simply reflective of such a bad understanding of basic human biology that they were an easy target for anyone who wished to promote pro-choice political activism.

Crying Girl1.jpgHowever I don’t want to talk about abortion, and frankly I don’t think Todd Akin matters very much. It irritates me that the statements about women’s bodies that get the most attention are the ones that are so patently stupid in terms of their factual assertions that no reasonable or informed person would agree with them, when really the insidious concept underlying the statement that our bodies have “ways of shutting that whole thing down” in the case of rape is actually manifested in much subtler and more widespread ways all the time. Akin extended a fairly common abstract notion into the realm of science, where it can be starkly exposed as the absurdity that it really is. Yet that idea is mainstream, one that we see every day without batting an eyelash, one that many of us — no matter our political affiliations or stances on abortion — may actually defend as true:

It’s up to women to do something about this.

The notion that women are the ones who are supposed to do something to stop rape actually comes from a very man-hating perspective, one which posits that somehow only the male members of our species haven’t yet evolved past the primitive state of sex-crazed creatures without consciences. Akin’s statement illuminates an abstract yet common ideological norm of our culture by trying to force it so awkwardly into a flat-out wrong concrete scientific assertion about our physical bodies: that we women have in fact physically adapted special biological defenses to the “inevitable” attacks from unwanted male suitors who have no self-control.

I started out writing this essay as a direct address to the incoming freshman women at Dartmouth, who are in a position I was in only five years ago. But what can I say to you? Why should I indulge the notion that women should do something about this problem, as if sexual assault on campus is some fixed circumstance like a termite infestation or bad weather, and I, as a veteran of the Dartmouth social scene, can dole out little tricks for you to use in the inevitable event that you run into these situations yourself? Why should I accept, or ask you to accept, that the world you are entering is one in which you will be almost constantly vulnerable to being sexually assaulted?

I don’t want to have to prove to you that sexual assault happens regularly, but I know that many readers will not accept that statement at face value. It’s really not my point, but fine, here’s something I’ll throw at you to quell that need you may have inside of you to dismiss what I’m saying outright: in February of this year, an anonymous group of upperclassmen placed 171 dolls on the steps of Dartmouth Hall to represent the sexual assaults that they, as a group of fewer than two dozen people, knew had occurred happening on Dartmouth campus. That’s approximately seven or eight assaults known about for each of these upperclassmen. Of those assaults, only 11 had been reported. I myself can think of eight instances I’ve been told about personally that happened to Dartmouth women at the hands of Dartmouth men.

I don’t need to make a list of insidious comments for the incoming freshman girls, because if they haven’t heard it all before, they’ll hear it soon enough. People reinforce the notion that women are supposed to do something about rape all the time. They say:

“Don’t go to the frats if you don’t want to; it’s your choice.”

“Don’t get too drunk.”

“Don’t have casual sex with one guy, or several guys, if you don’t want to give the impression that you’re down to have sex with anyone.”

“Don’t let someone walk you home if you don’t intend to let him have sex with you — you’re confusing him!”

“Don’t have sex with a guy once if you aren’t prepared to do it again the next time.”

“A lot of those assaults are a girl being drunk and regretting her actions the next day.”

These excuses — which all amount to attempts to lay blame on the victims of rape — have always boggled my mind. I shouldn’t have to opt out of having any social life at Dartmouth and bear the onus of avoiding sexual assault, when I am not the one responsible for it. You might as well tell the victim of a mugging that she shouldn’t have left her house. I shouldn’t have to blame myself for anything more than my choice to get drunk, just because someone took advantage of my drunkenness toward their own sinister ends. Just because I choose to sleep with one person doesn’t mean I’m open to having sex with anyone. And just because I have slept with someone once doesn’t give him a free access pass for the rest of my life, nor does access to one part of my body give him access to any part of it.

As for the last demeaning remark, I almost have to laugh at its obvious absurdity, if not for the fact that it’s probably the most common one of all. If someone were ashamed of her actions, why would she make them known to a wide body of people and open herself up to the judgment, criticisms, interrogations, and further shame that come with reporting an incident of sexual assault? Unless she were sure that she had been assaulted, why would she want her supposedly “shameful” actions to become the business of dozens of other people, including many strangers?

A three-part series: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

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