One of the disturbing truths about higher education seems to be that we, as a society, and colleges, as institutions, have yet to educate young men that it’s a bad idea to force yourself on young women. Protection from the seas of unrestrained testosterone that leave young women at risk of sexual assault, seems to have hardly improved since my college days. California, for example, just passed the “yes means yes” bill defining consensual sex as “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” and requiring its adoption as policy by universities and colleges.
Although we hear about the more notorious cases such as the recent ones involving two UT football players, the problem is surely not confined to athletes. Hard and fast statistics on the size of the problem, however, are not available. A survey by Senator Claire McCaskill, found that more than 40 percent of colleges and universities admitted that they have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years. President Obama recently launched a national effort to help colleges gauge the scope of the problem and institute certain protections for the victims. The Campus Safety and Accountability Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators including Senator McCaskill, requires universities to address the issue of sexual assault seriously. Universities receiving federal funds (nearly all of them) would have to conduct “climate surveys” to better estimate numbers of incidents and measure student awareness of available help. Progress would be tracked with yearly updates, published online. Also, strict protocols are required for investigating allegations that would prevent athletic departments, for instance, from meddling with sexual assault investigations. Failure to comply with the law would subject campuses to stiff financial penalties — up to 1 percent of their operating budgets.
While I applaud these efforts unequivocally, I suspect that the size of the problem will remain undiscovered. Based on my experience, I think female coeds often resist reporting assaults to their best friends, much less the authorities, for a variety of reasons.
Part of the problem is shame and culpability in our victimization. In our days, raised by mothers who grew up in the 40s, we worried about being branded a “bad girl,” or whether we had “asked for it” by making out, drinking alcohol, wearing too-enticing outfits, or even accepting a gift or an expensive dinner invite. Basically, we grew up with the notion that “boys are going to be boys” (if not worse), so we had to use good sense and keep our date in line with our own good behavior.
This type of thinking lives on. Mary Sanchez, a columnist for the Kansas City Star, notes how it pervades our culture:
If we want to do something about sexual assault on college campuses, first we have to deal with the excuse-makers. These are the people who belittle sexual assault as youthful hanky-panky taken a little too far, who dismiss statistics of personal accounts as exaggerated or shrill. The worst are those who suggest the problem is victims who “ask” to be sexually violated by wearing certain clothes or drinking alcohol.
So, if the guy doesn’t behave, he has an excuse — the gal messed up!! Among the episodes I remember way too well from the dating battles of my college years is one that demonstrates how hard it is for the victim herself to square the circle of blame . . . even years later.
We were sophomores and my good friend was dating the captain of a UT athletic team, which came with the duty of trying to find dates, periodically, for team parties. The first time she approached, I thought it might be fun, so I accepted a party date with team member, Jim T. At first, he seemed nice and a bit quiet, but once we got to the party he turned into an octopus with eight arms grabbing and groping me. I fended him off the whole evening, returning his physical offense with my physical defense and some creativity, mostly involving threats to scream. Fortunately, I was able to restrain his advances beyond a certain point, suffering no physical harm beyond some really sore arm muscles.
You’d think I’d avoid him after that. But a month or so later, I was asked to be Jim’s date, again. My friend was very persuasive, suggesting that her relationship with the captain hinged on my cooperation. Reluctantly, I agreed with the optimistic hope that he’d be less hands-on this time. Suffice it to say that it was an instant replay of the previous date.
And then – to show you how stupid young women can be – months later I went out with him a third time. Maybe I believed that, at least, he wouldn’t push any further than he had before and I could continue to put up the same resistance and get through it. Fortunately, I was right, but after that third time, no amount of persuasion could get me to agree to another wrestling match.
I should have reported him to his coach or complained to the captain, but I didn’t want to upset my friend. Also, since no actual intercourse was at issue, I could hear them telling me how these athletes need an outlet after hard practices, release from competitive focus, blah, blah, blah. Moreover, there was my assumption of the risk. I had agreed to additional dates with this guy, so I wasn’t caught unawares after the first date. Glad it was just a close call, I accepted my partial blame, and walked away.
I was surprised, however, to revisit my experience with Jim T about 15 years later. A coworker at my office mentioned that her 4-year-old daughter had a pediatrician’s appointment that afternoon. A mother of two young children myself, I asked her the name of her pediatrician and was told that it was James T. I was startled – could this be Jim T, the same grabber-groper of females? When I asked her whether he was a member of a certain UT athletic team in the 70s, she recalled seeing athletic trophies of some sort in his office, so it was likely. Had I known him, she asked?
My thoughts caromed against each other. Should I say, “Yes, and, by the way, he subjected me to the most aggressive grope-over I ever experienced?” That he was a threat to young women everywhere? But this was before the internet and I couldn’t really be sure he was that Jim T . . . and surely, he couldn’t be practicing medicine if he were a danger to children. Plagued with doubts, I just said he might be a guy I went out with a few times in college.
Evidently, my poker face was good enough that she never suspected my consternation about him. Returning from the appointment, she reported that she had told him about me and then, “he said the most curious thing.” “What was that?” I asked. He simply said, she related, “to tell you he was sorry.”
Of course, she wondered what that was about, but I feigned memory loss on the subject. And while I remembered the reason he was apologizing all too well, I admit that I was a bit astonished that he remembered, too.
So, why didn’t I just tell her of my experience with him and let her decide if she wanted him as her daughter’s doctor? After all, he opened the door to that disclosure by giving her the message, and certainly, he was not excusing his actions, otherwise he wouldn’t have apologized (even third-hand). Was the apology a plea for my silence?
I still wonder about that silence. Did I keep quiet because I was convinced that his regrets were sufficient punishment and I was vindicated by his admission of fault? Did I believe some kind of moral statute of limitations had run, preventing my complaints at this late date? Was his status as a doctor irrefutable evidence that he had reformed? Was I giving him a pass because he could have done much worse if he had wanted to – given his strength and size – and, I should be thankful that he refrained from that? Had it been reasonable at the time to interpret my acquiescence in the two additional dates as a form of consent to his advances?
Or, was I simply one of the excuse-makers??
Even though actual rape was not involved, there is no question that he committed a battery, i.e., applying non-consensual force that resulted in either bodily injury or an offensive touching, that left a small scar in my psyche. But, the reality is that part of me can’t forgive my own behavior: going out with him three times. Even though it was purely a favor for a friend, he didn’t know it. On some level, he could have very well believed I enjoyed fighting him off. But, sad to say, he was not the absolute worst. And they all remain unreported because I felt that the young man’s excuses had some validity, i.e., that I had at least some responsibility for what transpired and was ashamed of my own stupidity.
So, will colleges and universities ever obtain accurate numbers of the problem? I have my doubts. Somehow, we need to raise young women who are much smarter than I was . . . who know that there is no reason to put yourself in a situation where you aren’t respected. No date, party, or event is worth it.
But, thinking about raising young men, I think my history with Jim T should serve as a cautionary tale in this world of social media. Imagine a college career of roughing up women, and then later, becoming a pediatrician, and just one of those women, still pissed off about what he did, decides that now is the time for her revenge. And “now” could be at any time, just as your career is beginning . . . or ending. Fortunately for Jim T — who is still practicing medicine — I have almost accepted his apology.