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Arnold: Sexual Predators Among Us (2/2)

[Alexandra Arnold ‘10 has been a particularly thoughtful correspondent. She wrote to me not long after the end of the Parker Gilbert trial, and in subsequent correspondence and conversation she had caused my thinking about sexual assault to evolve considerably. At my request, she summarized her thoughts on this subject in two posts that appeared yesterday and today — Joe Asch ‘79]

During my freshman fall, I underwent a 22-hour training to become a Dartmouth Sexual Abuse Peer Advisor (SAPA). At the end of the term, my name and bio were added to the SAPA blitz list and sent out to campus, and I was given a sign that read “a SAPA lives here” to hang on my dorm room door. To be honest, I never expected anyone to contact me.

During my freshman winter, I told my own story at the annual Dartmouth Speak Out event of being raped several years prior. The disclosures — from friends, from classmates, from people I’d never met — began flooding in the next day and have continued, unabated, ever since.

As an increasing number of people confided in me, I noticed two things:

First, many of the Dartmouth survivors with whom I spoke did not identify their experiences as sexual assaults. Often, they had spent several days, weeks, sometimes even years, struggling to rationalize away the situation, dismissing their pain as invalid, before finally reaching out, tentatively, for support. They used language such as “it was a really bad night” and told their stories hesitantly, as though waiting for me to tell them that they were overreacting or that they were somehow to blame for what had happened.

Second, the same perpetrators’ names featured in story after story after story.

Following each conversation with a survivor, SAPAs were required to fill out a form containing all of the information that we were allowed to disclose to the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program (SAAP) Coordinator. Those forms did not include the alleged perpetrator’s name, and the SAPA confidentiality policy prevented us from sharing that information with anyone.

Ostensibly, this was intended to protect survivors: in line with the empowerment model used in rape crisis counseling, Dartmouth SAPAs are trained to prioritize allowing survivors to make their own decisions around their healing and to provide support as they move forward and regain control over their lives. Effectively, though, the policy protected predators.

Guy with flowers.jpgI cannot adequately convey the anger and frustration that I felt upon hearing each survivor’s story, watching them grapple with agonizing shame and self-blame, while knowing that their individual traumas were part of a larger and far more sinister pattern on campus.

Serial perpetrators do not exist in a vacuum. They are aided and abetted by a culture that does not fully accept acquaintance rape as “real” rape, that believes the “miscommunication model” to be the prevailing scenario of sexual assault on college campuses, and that excuses predatory behavior as a continuation of normal sexuality rather than an aberration and abuse of power. The perpetrators whose names I heard repeated throughout my years at Dartmouth were not readily identifiable as predators; they were all well-liked, with friends who would have rushed to their defense were they ever formally accused. They were “nice guys,” every last one of them.

Dr. Paul Batalden, Professor Emeritus of the Geisel School of Medicine and a prominent expert on health care improvement, is fond of saying that “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” The only way to change the results is to change the system.

I don’t know exactly what the best system is, but the existing one needs a serious overhaul. As a community, we who care about Dartmouth and the safety of students on campus need to honestly confront the social structures and attitudes that give rapists a social license to operate. We need to focus on creating circumstances that make it harder for predators to excuse and to receive support for their behavior. We need to value survivors speaking out, because the more people who can recognize their painful experiences as sexual assaults and talk frankly about what happened to them, without fearing for their safety or the social consequences of disclosure, the harder it will be for the same perpetrators to abuse with impunity. We need to give up our misguided notions of who perpetrates rape and who deserves it. Only then can we create real change.

Part 1, Part 2

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