(Marni Morse ’17 wrote this as a final paper for GSS 201.)
“And then, at the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times. She was found breathing, unresponsive with her underwear six inches away from her bare stomach curled in fetal position. By the way, he’s really good at swimming.”
Emily Doe, Stanford University student, read this as part of her statement to the judge at her rapist’s sentencing hearing. She explained how she “was found unconscious, with [her] hair disheveled…dress pulled off over [her] shoulders and pulled up above [her] waist, that [she] was butt naked all the way down to my boots, legs spread apart, and had been penetrated by a foreign object by someone [she] did not recognize.” She read about how he claimed that she, while literally unconscious, “liked it.” And then she read about her attacker’s swim times.
It is all too easy to lay the blame on the media for this insane focus on the alleged rapist being a star athlete. But the reality is that the media is simply reflecting the distorted interest of the public and university administrators in the alleged rapist’s athletic prowess and what that means to the university. Princeton students and administrators, like those at other universities around the US, try to sweep under the rug and dismiss sexual assault and rape culture as if they don’t directly happen at their institution. Unfortunately, this blissful denial is preventing urgently needed fundamental change.
Though Emily’s statement went viral and engendered much empathy, administrators, students, and alumni of universities all across the country continue to care more about reputation, particularly that of athletes, and the campus overall, than about the victims. This victim shaming mentality also pervades the University of Montana cases Jon Krakauer describes in Missoula. Several of those sexual assaults also involved members of the University’s football team. Krakauer describes a pattern of disrespect and indifference towards the victims by the local police, prosecutor’s office, and community. The University’s President did expel a football star, but then the Montana Commissioner of Higher Education reinstated the alleged perpetrator.
Lack of respect to the victim was also clear just last year during a trial in Tennessee involving former Vanderbilt football players who allegedly gang raped a fellow student. They dragged her while unconscious into a dorm room while other student bystanders watched but failed to intercede or report a problem. The assailants even brazenly documented their attack by taking video and pictures. The defense of one assailant was that he was too drunk to remember and that the partying atmosphere on campus contributed to his actions, as if those are valid excuses for his abhorrent and criminal actions.
The Vanderbilt Hustler, the student newspaper, found that two weeks before the trial commenced, “many students were not even aware of it.” More telling however, as the New York Times noted, was that most Vanderbilt students appeared to take one of two polar opposite attitudes towards the situation: either 1) that Vanderbilt “is not the sort of place where such things happen” or 2) “they happen everywhere — and either way, no one should point a finger at Vanderbilt.”
Both of these attitudes are extremely problematic. Firstly, to suggest that these issues don’t exist at an elite institution such as Vanderbilt (or just about any other University in the US) is more than just an ignorant perspective; it is dangerous because it can encourage active denunciation of rape victims’ claims and facilitate bystander inaction. The second viewpoint is just as troubling. While at least recognizing the existence of sexual assault as prevalent and problematic, this view employs this pervasiveness as an excuse to avoid addressing the issue, rather than as a call for massive change. An understanding that no university is immune to these problems is critical; just because sexual assault hasn’t been widely covered in the local or national news does not mean it is not an issue. And the relatively low number of publically known sexual assault incidents is particularly troubling, since this reflects a culture of denial and underreporting.
When allegations of sexual misconduct at Princeton’s Tiger Inn eating club came to light the end of 2014, many students treated the issue superficially, dismissing what happened as a non-issue. And when someone did take a strong stance in response by spray painting “RAPE HAVEN” on an outside wall of the club, his/her actions were almost uniformly criticized. Perhaps vandalism was not the most effective manner to promote structural change within the system, but few people were willing to even discuss the problems of rape culture at Princeton that this response was highlighting. The entire controversy was short-lived and downplayed, as yet another instance of people trying to protect their University’s reputation, rather than accept the fact that their school, like all others, is imperfect and would benefit from certain changes. Perhaps this is because the students’ own reputations are tied up in the school’s image; to many students, their school is representative of them and vice versa. And while such a generalization is wrong to begin with, it is even more problematic when used to excuse or belittle serious problems that exist on campus.
If Princeton students don’t think that sexual assault is happening here on campus, then they are sorely mistaken and turning a blind eye. While pretending that these crimes don’t happen here, or that when they do, they are isolated cases, is easy to do, neither proposition is true. And neither is an acceptable excuse to sit back and do nothing. Stanford is not an exception. The University of Montana is not an exception. Vanderbilt is not an exception. Princeton is not an exception.