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Kathleen Mayer: Freshman Women and Sexual Assault at Dartmouth (2/3)
One of the most damaging and ridiculous things that people say is, “Well, she went to his room with him. What else did she expect?” A friend of mine told me that a Dartmouth Trustee asked her this question when she recounted a story of a woman who went to a man’s room with him to hook up, but not intending to engage in penetrative sexual intercourse. He pinned her arms down and had sex with her while she begged him to stop. And the Trustee who asked, What did she expect?, was a woman, no less.
I wonder how this Trustee would react were I to tell her a story about a dinner party I hosted during which a guest went into all of the rooms of my house without permission, rifled through the medicine cabinet, and fell asleep in my bed despite being asked to leave several times. Even asking a person to leave your house once should suffice to make that guest seem exceptionally rude to any civilized person if he were to ignore that request.
I wonder why we so quickly recognize the privileged status of someone’s home before we recognize the same about a person’s body. I wonder why the idea of a limited or specific invitation into one’s personal space is so easy to understand and to apply in civilized society when it comes to our nice carpets and bedspreads, and yet suddenly it becomes an unreasonable burden to place upon the desires of a man if you ask him to understand and apply such a concept to our bodies — as if men are such foul, idiotic beasts that they could never possibly see another person’s body as something they don’t have a right to each and every part of when they have been extended an invitation to one or a few parts of it. Perhaps it’s true that if I allowed a pack of wild dogs through my front door, I should expect nothing less than that they’d run rampant through the house. I should be able to expect better of human beings — which brings me to another point.
I don’t actually expect better of human beings. After a certain number of stories about what happens to women when they make themselves sexually available to any extent, no matter how limited or how directed at a particular person, I start to see the way things actually are. But there is a difference between the way things are and they way things ought to be. In a society in which a woman’s sexual availability to someone is interpreted as her sexual availability to everyone, it is indeed true that she should expect harassment and behavior of entitlement towards her body when she dares exhibit any sexual agency.
It was also true that Emmett Till should have expected retribution for whistling at a white woman. It was true that a German person hiding a Jewish family during the Holocaust should have expected severe punishment if found out. (Please forgive my extreme appropriation of other oppressions for the moment; they are meant merely to be illustrative in a broad sense of the logical fallacy that a social standard is self-justifying by virtue of its normative nature alone.)
My sole point here is that the question, What else did she expect?, is always the wrong question. What may be true is not what is right. We should not have to expect that walking home late at night, or being drunk, or going to someone’s room with him, or wearing clothing which shows that we do, indeed, have women’s bodies complete with women’s body parts, will make us susceptible to attack or unwanted touching of any kind.
If you haven’t hard these arguments already, you will come to expect them.
Here, now, is where I will talk to you, freshman women, because I do have something to say to you. But it has nothing to do with thinking that it is your responsibility to change the mindset of the people around you. You can’t and you won’t and it’s not your job.
If someone violates your bodily autonomy and commits an act of sexual assault against you, you have done nothing wrong. I don’t care how drunk you were. I don’t care how many times you said yes before saying no. I don’t care how unsure you are, or how scared, or how bad you feel about the prospect of ruining someone’s life over what he insists was simply a mistake or a misunderstanding. You know better than anyone else what happened. People will tell you not to make a big deal over it; people will say bad things about you and hate you and maybe even threaten you or try to intimidate you or make you feel guilty.
People will even hate me just for writing this, because I’m sure they’ll think I’m encouraging so-called “false rape” charges, despite the fact that rape is the most underreported crime of all, and the FBI consistently reports that only about 8% of reports are “unfounded” (this may mean lacking evidence, rather than false), which is about the same rate as with any other crime. Let’s apply that to the 171 Dartmouth assaults that I mentioned above, of which only 11 were reported — that’s 6.4% that were even reported. Only 8% of those 11 cases (so, a negligible percentage; maybe one of them) could be reasonably suspected of being false.
Do you think it’s possible you’re focusing on the wrong victims here? If your first instinct is to doubt a woman is telling the truth when she tells you about being raped, re-evaluate how your empathy operates. Doesn’t it seem like underreporting is a much worse problem than false reporting? And don’t you see how the shaming and suspicion and aspersions cast on women who dare to speak up may contribute to the actual problem here?
People will tell you that there was something you could have done to stop what happened or avoid it altogether. That’s because those people see sexual assault as a fixed circumstance like bad weather: just don’t go outside in the rain if you don’t want to get wet. Those people ignore that an act requires an actor. You are not the actor. You are not, you are not, you are not. You have every right to report what happened; you also have every right not to, but it’s up to you and you alone. Your body is yours. It is your home. It is your sanctified space. You will always live inside of it, and you get to decide, at every minute and every second of every day, who gets to share in your bodily experiences with you, and guess what? You also get to change your mind at any time.
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