According to much of the media, there is an “epidemic” of sexual assault, including rape, on our college campuses. The problem is apparently so bad that California recently passed a “yes means yes” law that requires “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” on campus, and President Obama announced a new national initiative to put a stop to it. Not to mention the countless rallies, awareness sessions, YouTube videos, and so-called SlutWalks aimed at telling men to keep their parts in their pants and their paws to themselves unless otherwise directed.
There’s been an ocean of ink spilled on this subject, most of it falling into two camps: the first reasons that no matter what language or set of rules colleges and universities adopt in an effort to curb sexual assault, most cases of alleged abuse comes down to “he said, she said.” This camp also tends to assume that, in any given case, the male party will be found guilty by default, fairly or not. The second set of voices points to a culture of male dominance — one that all too often leaves young victims of sexual assault without recourse to justice (especially on campuses where certain members of the student body, especially prized athletes, aren’t held accountable for their crimes), such that action from the top needs to be taken immediately to stop the assaults.
Both sides of the debate have validity. However, what neither seems to recognize is that much of the time, young women have agency. There are of course exceptions — the football player who pushes a girl into a closet and rapes her, the drunken frat boy who doesn’t stop at “no,” the ex-boyfriend who, allowed into the confines of his ex-girlfriend’s dorm room, forces himself on her. Even so — at least in my view — women are not, and certainly don’t need to be, helpless victims of a misogynistic endgame.
This is the point at which I think the debate has gone powerfully stupid. Where, in all this spillage of verbiage and amping-up of anger and outrage, is female agency, the ability of young women to make their own fates and claim their own power? What’s feminist about teaching our daughters that, as victims of a sexist culture, there’s no use in taking control of their own bodies, not only in terms of using birth control, but also when it comes to drinking, dressing, and representing themselves? What’s pro-female about ignoring the reality of non-verbal communication, of nuance and gesture and expression?
I have a personal interest in all this because of my own undergraduate twins and their older brother. My oldest son’s freshman year roommate had a different girl in the room with him every night — a major source of misery for my son — and was eventually booted off campus after being charged with sexual assault. My younger son, currently at a college in Massachusetts where frat life is minimal, claims that campus assault is a real problem, and anyone who thinks otherwise is being willfully ignorant. And yet my daughter, in South Carolina — where Greek life dominates — says that she has never known anyone, or of anyone, who has been assaulted. “But if you get completely wasted at some frat party,” she said, “and you wake up naked with some guy next to you, you might not even remember what happened.”
Yup: that’s college all right. If memory serves, college is a time when that heady brew of youthful idiocy, curiosity, and horniness is likely to result in at least one misadventure between the sheets. Just add copious amounts of alcohol or drugs and, voila, a potentially potent brew of disinhibition, peer pressure, confusion, desire, and even memory loss (with alcoholic blackout). Thus my own memories, garnered both from my own and my friends’ experiences, of trying it on, acting it out, experimenting, bowing to peer expectations, having a one-night-stand, disregarding the inner voice that’s telling you to get out of there, indulging in a quickie and waking up with a morning-after hangover of regret and perhaps shame? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. But assault? Not so much.
Not that sexual assault is something to take lightly. In my view, sexual assault is a crime and needs to be treated as such, period, end of story, no matter how scantily clad, or wasted, the victim. But if there is in fact an explosion of sexual assault on campus, why now, after decades of feminist consciousness raising and “take back the night” marches?
My daughter-in-law thinks that in fact there isn’t an uptick of sexual assault on campus, just a greater willingness to report it. Perhaps. But that equation leaves out the cultural swings toward even greater confusion (and instant gratification) that her generation was raised on, as compared to my own desperately confused generation. Because at least in my own desperately confused generation — during which the “three date rule” stipulated that you owed it to the guy to sleep with him after three dates — we had grown up with parents who, more often than not, themselves grew up with notions of what was then called virtue: i.e., good girls and good boys waited (or at least didn’t spread it around).
Compare that to today’s college students, whose parents grew up with easy access to birth control and may themselves never have figured out that the anything-goes culture of our own youths was less than ideal.
What keeps coming up for me is the old song “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” except in my version, it’s “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Stupid,” with additional lyrics, including a refrain, that exhort fathers to accord their daughters both love and respect and teach their sons that real masculinity lies in restraint.
Take back the night? I’m all for it. But while all the conferences are being held and the marchers are marching, it wouldn’t hurt to stop ignoring the complexity of human interaction, the birds and the bees, and the remarkable power of alcohol to make otherwise intelligent people stupid. Young people who find themselves in sexually confusing situations might want to emulate their grandparents and resort to common sense. And if, God forbid, they are victimized, they need to report it immediately, and get help.
Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter.