Monday, May 05, 2014

Addressing Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Five years ago, I became actively involved within the currents and fixations of young feminists my own age. I quickly noticed that one of their strongest, if not the strongest chosen causes was an all-out crusade against sexual assault. I felt as though I was at a tent revival lobbying for the passage of Prohibition. I still have this same sensory response today. It surprises me how relatively few feminists identify as religious, even though their zeal is religious by any other name. One almost expects them to be singing in unison the old hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers."

I was in completely sympathy and solidarity with those who experienced their own trauma through that particular kind of abuse, though the experience was not my own. It never was and it never will be. The brutality I observed came from other boys. Male on male bullying is hierarchical and has existed for so long it's difficult to know where to begin. The older boys bully the younger boys and younger boys bully those even younger than they are. It’s almost ritualistic, a routine each of us goes through when it is our turn for punishment and to mete out punishment ourselves.

In the earliest years of my life, I never directly observed any woman being physically or sexually abused by a man. To reiterate, in those carefree days, punishment like that was almost always directed towards other men. In an eternal competition for who was the toughest and most physically imposing, women would have never been allowed to participate. One of my sisters tried it, a born tomboy, but was immediately rudely pushed away to told to leave the boys alone.

Having said that, I have never directly observed myself any instance of sexual assault or physical violence committed by a man against a woman. The closest thing ever to happen to me in my own life was the time I wrestled roughly with the female cousin of a friend of mine. I have to say I don't understand why we took such an immediate dislike to each other. Our momentary tumble in the grass of the backyard didn’t last more than a few seconds. It was never repeated.

When I entered high school and then college, I would at times hear rumors about sexual assault. The alleged attackers in these situations happened to be of the sort of men I avoided whenever possible. Though I had once been an athlete, I quit midway through high school, partially because I loathed crude jock behavior. And yet none of my former teammates, to the best of my knowledge, were the sort to take illegal liberties with women. They may have been dense and boorish, but they were not malevolent.

By the time I had enrolled in college, a fifteen-year-old early admission student who had been home-schooled signed up the same quarter I did. Because we were in the same English Comp class, I peer evaluated her paper, as instructed.

She seemed to me to be a slightly precocious, albeit highly sheltered high school student, with no business being in college at so young an age. I'm not questioning her academic prowess, but rather whether she was emotionally mature enough to have skipped high school altogether. She was extremely naïve and unaware of the world, which eventually proved to be her undoing.

In the middle of an unrelated conversation, during a brief pause during class, she volunteered that she usually dated black guys. I wasn't sure why she told me that, but I would eventually learn, along with everyone else when rumors began to fly and details became known. Months later, despite the fact that she was a minor and several years underage, we'd learned she’d become the plaything of most of the football team. She had stopped going to class, started using drugs, and began being passed around from player to player.

If Brittany had been lonely from day one on campus, she felt absolutely isolated during those first days in Blazer Hall. [Brittany's parents] say in their complaints that, because the school didn't offer her another RA for a roommate, they chose a single room for Brittany. They say they preferred Brittany living alone to her sharing space with female students who might have beer in the fridge and boyfriends staying over.

On her third day in Blazer, Brittany says, she entered the elevator and encountered a mountain of a man, a Blazer football player with a bushy afro and hands as thick as cinder blocks. Brittany tried to avoid making eye contact, but the man faced her as the doors shut. "Whussup, shorty?" he huffed, according to Brittany. She remembers feeling the blood drain from her face. He said he knew her; she was that child genius. He asked if she'd help him with a paper. Brittany panicked and stammered: "I'm 15."

"Well, you don't look it," she says he told her.

Brittany's emotions swirled as she stepped off the elevator. The comment about her appearance transformed her initial fear into a feeling that surprised her: acceptance. Maybe she belonged in this strange place after all. "That made me feel a lot better," Brittany says. That night, she says, the player brought his paper -- and a six-pack of beer -- to her room.

Brittany says she had never had a beer -- or any kind of alcohol -- but felt compelled to accept when she was offered one. According to Brittany, one led to another. And another. Brittany got wasted. She'd never even kissed a boy, and now she was making out with the player. Then they had sex.

The university I went to, UAB, had a minuscule Greek presence that was almost laughably limited. If I felt any compulsion to join a fraternity, I could have signed up for every single one. Had I gone to Alabama or Auburn, the two big state schools, fraternity boys and sorority girls would have been in copious quantity. In elitist fashion, certain Greek organization would have pushed me aside for not having the right credentials or for having an acceptable last name.

Aside from smuggling alcohol and other drugs into the dorms, it would be difficult to create easy circumstances where sexual abuse could take place. In those days, only the poorest students and athletes lived in campus in ancient dorms long past their prime. It wasn’t until I had graduated that they revamped the campus and built brand new dorms. Most students lived off campus in apartments, in those days. This created a problem not for the university, but instead became a matter for the local police.

Every report I read about a young woman who has been raped appears in a college setting seems to take place during a massive party held on school grounds. I have no way of knowing if this is the truth or not. I never experienced such a thing myself. Without frat houses, we were forced farther downtown to loud bars blaring bad music. Upon arrival, women displaying strategically ample cleavage implored me to buy overpriced beer on ice, while guilt tripping me into tipping them.

Girls feeling appropriately daring and coordinated danced on the bar, if not on the dance floor. Anyone who wanted to commit an act of sexual assault would have had to be very daring, this is to say stupid. I suppose cars might be an option, but the lots were supervised by the physical presence of someone and by way of surveillance tape. mostly to prevent petty theft. This is to say that aside from one very glaring incident, I never was aware evidence of either stranger or acquaintance rape, as a fifteen-year-old cannot legally consent to sex.

Almost every instance of rape or sexual assault that I know of seems to begin at a bar and concludes elsewhere. I’m sure that numerous instances of date rape happen behind closed doors and are never vocalized, but naturally I never saw them myself. Most of the high profile cases are a question of stranger rape, no less excusable, but much more rare. That's what grabs the attention.

Feminist ire falls most heavily upon sexual assault that is out in the open, rape that could be stopped if someone spoke up. It’s understandable, but we need to have a dialogue regarding the particulars. Not every college campus is the same, nor does it have the similar dynamics. Schools with especially hard-drinking cultures may well lend themselves to more frequent allegations of sexual assault. But I don't want to make judgments before knowing the facts.

I don’t feel that the sort of man who would rape a woman would surround himself with moral, upstanding characters. They serve as accessories to these crimes and are complicit due to their silence. Women at times even believe it was somehow their fault. I met a woman once in college who had been drugged and violated at a college party. In her mind, it was her fault for not being more cautious, and being raped was what she deserved. She was almost blasé about it, which left me flabbergasted.

In the end, we wonder where to direct our focus to address sexual assault. Is this simply a matter of universities and colleges protecting their cash cow scholar-athletes? Or, is it evidence that universities don’t want to police major offenses like sexual assault and/or rape? Everyone has passed the buck on numerous occasions. I’ll be honest. I’m not sure where real reform begins. It seems to me that men must keep their own in line. Feminists, who are mostly female, can agitate as much as they wish, but those sadistic enough to resort to inexcusable crimes like these may never listen to them.

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