Dear too-many colleges: here’s why you’re next in line for a Title IX suit

ivy

Another week, another famous institution of higher learning in the news for mismanaging cases of sexual assault on campus.

This time, it was Harvard. The most common response, from what I can tell, seems to be summarized thusly: “Oh myyyyy – even at Hahvahd?” (eyebrows raised in surprise, mouth forming a delicate “o” of prim concern).

The morning the story broke in the local news, I happened to be having lunch with these two guys who work in administration at a nearby college. Guy #1 says to me, “So, have you heard about Harvard? And the sexual assault case?” Why yes, yes I have. Guy #1 continues, in a voice of genuine concern: “So, what can we do to keep people from drinking so much?”

Guy #2 murmurs in agreement, eyebrows knitted with empathy.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. EXHIBIT A. This, right here, is the crux of why colleges keep finding themselves in trouble when it comes to dealing with sexual assault.

I know, I KNOW. It’s not like Guys #1 and #2 are alone in their thinking here. Just read the comments section of any article on the college-sexual-assault topic for a primer on the latest and greatest in victim-blaming. The idea that intoxication negates one’s ability to provide consent seems to be a logical stretch for quite of few of the world’s armchair analysts.

But here’s the thing. I don’t really care if some random dude with a laptop disagrees with whether rape is rape when alcohol is involved. I mean, I don’t like it, but one guy with an opinion just doesn’t matter all that much. The extent of his power ends once his opinion’s been expressed.

However. If you’ve made a career for yourself in college administration or college health, and you continue to think that the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses is really about excessive drinking and morning-after regret, don’t act shocked when your school is next to hit the news with a Title IX suit and a bunch of unflattering media attention of your own.

Yes, you could be the next Harvard. Or Dartmouth. Or Mizzou. Because sexual assault is happening on college campuses EVERYWHERE. It has, without question, happened on your campus. And if this common-yet-ultimately-wrong-minded perspective frames how you choose to respond to a sexual assault survivor’s case once it’s been brought to your attention, there’s a good chance that survivor will feel justifiably wronged. And, if they’re feeling brave enough, they just might decide to take this dissatisfaction with you and your colleagues public. Very, very public.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying that there’s a problem with binge drinking on college campuses that we need to address. But it needs to be addressed as an issue that’s separate and distinct from that of sexual assault. After all, just because it might be easier to mug someone who’s walking home late at night after they’ve had few drinks with friends, it’s not like the mugging itself isn’t still a crime.

I mean, someone who’s been attacked and robbed isn’t told by the authorities that their mugger didn’t REALLY commit a crime, because, y’know, you WERE pretty wasted, after all, and maybe sorta kinda asking for it by walking down the street in the middle of the night. I mean, who’s to say you didn’t HAND that aggressive stranger your money when he asked nicely? Who knows? He said, she said. You know what? Let’s just chalk this one up to youthful indiscretion and a lesson learned.

Hell no. Safety bulletins are sent out, city and campus police start patrolling overtime, and no one rests until the assailant’s been caught.

Intoxication may make a predator’s job easier. But it doesn’t make them NOT a predator.

In a perfect world, everyone would GET THIS, and this tortured public debate over what-is-or-isn’t-rape would cease to exist. I’m not naive enough to think that sexual assault wouldn’t still happen – because some people are terrible human beings – but society would deal with it the way it does any other violent crime. Meaning a) those who choose to commit a crime are consistently removed from the community for the safety of others, and b) the threat of criminal charges and incarceration might make some of the would-be assailants of the world think twice before committing assault. Both of which would result in less sexual assault. And I’m pretty sure we can all agree that less sexual assault = GOOD.

Those of us who work on college campuses need to be held to a different standard than Random Laptop Guy. You can’t hold regressive and harmful views on a topic as important – and yes, public – as sexual assault, with those views shaping your institutional response to individual reports of rape, and NOT expect that it might come back to bite you someday.

Unless, of course, you’d been hoping to end up on the front page of the Globe someday. In which case, vaya con Dios, my friends.

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More than an absence of No

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The chief complaint varies: “STI testing”, “pregnancy test”, “GYN problem”. It’s not until I enter the exam room and see my patient, eyes downcast and voice in a near-whisper, that the real reason for the visit becomes clear.

Apparently, it continues to be open season on questioning the legitimacy of the sexual assault epidemic. This time, it was the Wall Street Journal that decided the world needed yet another article blaming women for their own rape. So brave, WSJ! It’s about time someone stood up for those poor accused assailants.

I mean, it’s not like assault survivors have had their trauma minimized and dismissed for years – er, decades – wait, no, EONS now or anything. “She was drunk, so she was asking for it” is today’s “she was wearing a short skirt, so she was asking for it”, which is really just another version of “she’s female, so she’s always, somehow, asking for it”.

In case you missed it, the numbers around rape in college are pretty insane: approximately 1 out of every 4 to 5 college women will experience sexual assault at some point while they’re in school. Numbers like this are hard to ignore; a incidence rate of 20-25% must meet epidemic criteria by pretty much anyone’s standards. But rather than saying “holy crap, we need to do something about this”, some people prefer to respond to these numbers by questioning their legitimacy, citing evidence that assaults involving college students often involve alcohol — ergo and therefore = not-rape.

If you’re one of these people, a question: have you, or anyone you know, ever actually been to college? You know, that place where day-that-ends-in-Y is cause for celebratory drinking? Where the next generation’s ingenuity is expressed through the laborious construction of elaborate snow-carved beer pong tables? Where it’s often harder to find an event WITHOUT alcohol involved than with?

In other words, yeah, binge drinking in college is a legit problem. I’ve seen more injured wrists and broken collarbones than I’d care to admit due to the ubiquitousness of college alcohol use. But part of being a young adult living on your own for the first time sometimes means figuring things out the hard way – like how to consume alcohol responsibly, without the puking and blackouts. Today’s monster hangover paves the way for tomorrow’s dignified glass of Malbec (or three) with dinner. We’ve all been there. I know I have.

Which is why I see myself in the eyes of my patients. The ones who come to the clinic after a night where yeah, maybe they had too much to drink, but that didn’t mean they planned, or deserved, to wake up too-early the next morning, dawn not quite ready to breach the horizon, in an unfamiliar room, clothes and hours unaccounted for. In pain.

There is no amount of alcohol, no level of intoxication, that justifies assault.

If you think that the real epidemic is one of morning-after-regret-turned-false-accusations, spend some time with me at work. Look in my patients’ eyes as they struggle to tell their stories. And know that you, and others like you, are part of the reason that most of them will never file a formal report, no matter how many ways I talk to them about their rights, and resources, and recourse. All they can handle, in that moment, is a modicum of damage control: please, just tell me what I can do, what I need to do, to be okay.

Today, all I can offer is damage control – antibiotics, EC, labs, lots of counseling. But tomorrow, I’m hoping for more. I’m hoping I’ll stop waking up to rape apologia in the mainstream news. I’m hoping that the socially accepted definition of consent will shift from an absence of “no” to an enthusiastic “YES!”

Because eventually, I’m hoping that the gradual elimination of rape culture (eternal optimist that I am) will mean that I get to spend more time focusing on the more mundane aspects of a career in college health: strep tests, ankle sprains and contraception.

Fifty shades of WHATEVER

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I admit it. I read Fifty Shades of Grey.

I know what you’re thinking: didn’t you already tell us a story about consuming trash this week? Why, yes. Yes I did. Don’t change the subject.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, as most terrible ideas do. It was all buzzy and exciting and everyone was talking about it. Besides, I’d just bought a Kindle, which allowed for maximum anonymity while reading it on the subway. You don’t read your “be impressed by my exquisite literary taste” stuff on a Kindle. Does anyone ever buy the e-book version of Infinite Jest? Of course not. The only reason anyone ever buys Infinite Jest is to impress other people in college, and you can’t impress anyone if it’s hidden inside a tiny black tablet. No, smut is perfect for the Kindle.

So, I read it; I felt a little ashamed about reading it, more because of the terrible, terrible writing than the BDSM; and then I forgot about it.

Until this week. Apparently, they’re making a movie! Because of course they are. Even if I can’t help but think that the same demo that was willing to read this thing in secret might feel differently about hearing the words “One ticket for the mommy porn movie, please” come out of their mouths, but what do I know? I’m no film production executive.

But you know who is? Universal Pictures chairperson Donna Langley. Apparently, esteemed author (cough cough) E L James just loves her, because according to an article in this week’s Entertainment Weekly, she really “‘understood the material'”. Okay, so she’s an English speaker and literate. Got it. But what else? Surely there was a little something special that convinced James to sign with Universal over all the other studios beating down her door with movie deals?

Maybe it’s because Langley has things like this to say about the plight of the modern woman:

“‘Women now are forced to make so many decisions, all day, every day. The fantasy of not having to decide when, how, and where [to have sex] is just so delectable.'”

UGH, ladies, amirite? What’s with all these DECISIONS I’m being forced to make in the course of living my daily life? All this autonomy hurts my tiny, woman-sized brain. Please, go ahead and strip me of all free agency as an independent human being and reduce me to the sex object I’d much rather be. I mean it. THANKS.

But seriously: really, Donna Langley? Really? Is not getting to decide when and where to have sex a “delectable fantasy”, or is it assault? Because, um, I hate to state what should be obvious, but it really, definitely sounds like assault.

And I’m pretty sure we ladies have been fighting for the right to make other pesky “decisions” for ourselves for millennia, and many, many women throughout the world still don’t get to. So, I’ll go ahead and say that not being able to make decisions for myself would ALSO not meet my personal criteria for “delectable fantasy”, but maybe rather something more like…oh, I don’t know…oppression? Yeah, I’ll go with oppression.

Why does it matter? It’s not because I could care less whether and how you, random stranger, choose to spend your free time with a respectful consenting partner and a jumbo package of zip-ties. Because I couldn’t.

No, I care because we, as a society, have not yet earned the right to speak as cavalierly as Ms. Langley does here about about sexual autonomy.

Not as long as 20-25% of ALL college women will experience sexual assault by the time they graduate.

Not as long as the response to this completely mind-blowing statistic isn’t uniformly one of horror and outrage and petitions and marches on Washington, but instead articles like this one, in which the author – like so many before her – chooses to blame the victims for drinking, rather than blaming the RAPISTS FOR RAPING.

Not as long as your average teenage girl continues to stumble through adolescence in a haze of increasingly twisted cultural messaging around female sexuality before heading off for college, where there’s a one-in-four chance she’ll end up in my clinic one day, terrified and ashamed and alone, after a friend of a friend of a friend hands her a red Solo cup of blackout one night and proceeds to save her the trouble of deciding for herself “when, how, and where”.

Until this type of clinic visit is a distant memory, you, Donna Langley, need to stop talking.

Look, I even made that decision for you. Isn’t that just delectable? You can thank me later.