Letter submitted by Lorraine Leeson, Julian and Virginia Cornell Distinguished Visiting Professor in Linguistics, 2013-14.
Last Thursday I happened to have lunch in Swarthmore. The restaurant is small, with four or five tables, and conversation travels. Two middle aged men, who, from their discussion appeared to be members of the Swarthmore College community, were talking about the topical issue of “sexual misconduct” on campus.
What initially caught my attention was their commentary on whether being lesbian was a question of ‘nature versus nurture,’ which quickly led into consideration of the issue of rape and discussion around the issue on campus. One of the men said that women college students get drunk to give them the bravado to become sexually active and try out things that otherwise wouldn’t be sanctioned socially and then, post-hoc, cry rape… The other man added, “And then they prosecute innocent men.”
This was their conversation as they went to pay their bill. A private conversation in a public place. And one that is incredibly out of step with how modern society views the issue of rape and abuse.
I didn’t get to say anything on the day, but if I could retrospectively do so, there are a number of things that I’d like to add to their conversation.
Firstly and foremostly, I’d remind them that rape is not about sex, but about power and control. It is never the victim/survivor’s fault. Given the seeming blasé nature of the men’s conversation, I feel it is worth reiterating this fact, plus adding that both men and women can be the subject of rape.
Indeed, their lunchtime conversation prompted me to check the US’s figures and I learned that in the USA, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18 (Finkelhor et al., 1990). A staggering 1 in 3 American women will be sexually abused during their lifetime (George Mason University, Worldwide Sexual Assault Statistics, 2005).
I’d tell them that the reporting rate for sexual violence is very low indeed… The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (Ireland) suggests that only 1 in 20 reports a rape when the rapist is known to them. As they say, “Terrible things happen behind closed doors and too often that is where victims stay. Male and female. More often raped by people they know than strangers.”
I’d remind them that perpetuating myths is not helpful and I would tell them that every 2 minutes someone somewhere in America is sexually violated (www.rainn.org). Bringing this closer to home, this translates to 945 rapes being reported in 2010 (approx. double the national average, as it happens) and 833 in 2011 (by the Philadelphia Police Department’s Uniform Crime Report). There are 1,876 registered sex offenders living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the ratio of number of residents in Philadelphia to the number of sex offenders is 825 to 1. (http://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-Philadelphia-Pennsylvania.html – October 29, 2013).
In this broader context, I would tell these men that the leafy confines of Swarthmore College campus is not immune to instances of sexual misconduct. I would add that the conversation about how to best respond to such crimes happening here on campus is timely and wholly appropriate – because these are serious crimes and the consequences last a lifetime for those who are the victims of such crimes.
But their conversation also made me reflect that if I were a student, the parent of a student (or potential student), or indeed a colleague who had suffered sexual violence or misconduct, the attitudes expressed so casually last Thursday would leave me rethinking how I might trust such men to act appropriately in responding to this issue, and by extension, how I would trust the College to respond. I would like them to know this too.
In a TED talk in 2012, Mr. Jackson Katz, a recent visitor to Swarthmore, has said that sexual violence is a men’s issue. He also says that “We need more men with the guts, with the courage, with the strength, with the moral integrity to break our complicit silence and challenge each other and stand with women and not against them.” (http://www.ted.com/speakers/jackson_katz.html) I’d like to invite the men – and women – of Swarthmore to take up this call. It is only when out of touch, misinformed and harmful expressions such as those I overheard are challenged that we can start to ensure that sexual violence is not reframed as acceptable behavior mitigated on the grounds that “s/he was asking for it”, “s/he was drunk”, “s/he was wearing provocative clothing.”
The bottom line is that sexual violence is never acceptable behavior. As I see it, institutions – and those staffing institutions – must be clear on this and ensure that they do not, in any shape or form, validate outmoded, highly sexist views. This is the minimum required to begin to encourage those hurt by sexual violence feel safe enough to report the crime.