Thursday, November 1, 2012

Higher Ed, the Amherst Crisis, and the Unspoken Issue of Men

In this presidential and congressional election year, we've heard some pretty wacky things said on the issue of rape. We can thank Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and others for inadvertently bringing the issue of rape to the fore while trying to fight a culture war on abortion that they have long since lost.

But as important as those debates are, the candidates fighting them are up at 50,000 feet. Down in the trenches, and therefore somewhat farther from the center of the media spotlight, is the current Amherst Crisis. You can read the student letter that brought the issue to prominence (written by a rape victim/survivor who left Amherst College), as well as summaries in the New York Times and today's Chronicle.

If you have any interest or concern at all in these issues, these stories - especially the letter from Ms. Epifano - are well worth the time to read them. Her story is both heartbreaking and, most importantly, not unique - either at Amherst or in higher education in general.

I suppose all of this hits home for me in part because the epicenter of the crisis is at Amherst, which is the (evil) twin to my own alma mater. Whatever happens there could easily happen at Williams, and I hope that folks in the Purple Valley (and at Wesleyan, Swarthmore, and dozens of other such institutions) are taking this opportunity to do some serious soul-searching. From this point forward, any institution that gets caught mishandling these kinds of cases gets what it deserves - there's no excuse anymore (not that there ever was much of an excuse to begin with).

But I think the real impact of reading these stories comes, paradoxically, because I'm male. As important as all of this coverage is, the voices that are being heard, the stories told, and the pictures taken are almost all of women. The Chronicle story is indicative - every person quoted save one is a woman, and the pictures are overwhelmingly of women.

In one sense, this is appropriate. A big part of the problem of rape has been silence - women not being able to tell their stories, to give voice to their pain and frustration and anger. Being able to speak is powerful, and I would not want any of these voices to be silenced or dimmed.

But men must be part of this conversation as well. I note how quickly the terminology has changed - we've gone from talking about "rape" to discussing "sexual respect". In some ways that's probably appropriate, because it broadens the range of what we should be thinking about. But there's also a euphemistic quality here that makes me a little uneasy.

While acknowledging that there are sexual assaults committed by women against men (or women), the plain truth is that the bulk of the issue here is men using power to force themselves on women. As important as it is to give women voices as both recovering victims and to strengthen their ability to defend themselves against such assaults, we've got to get men into the conversation here - because (to put it bluntly) men are the problem.

As soon as you put it that way, the defensive chorus begins. In an earlier story I heard (anonymous) male Amherst students complaining that some of the anger is unfair, because "it paints us all with the same brush". "I'm not a rapist," many men will say. "It's those other guys. Leave me alone - I didn't do anything."

Sorry, guys - welcome to the world of group politics. In this world, what some group members do reflects on the group as a whole, for better or for worse. Ask women, African-Americans, Jews, Latinos, and a host of others how this works. Is it fair? Probably not. But there's a lot in this world that isn't fair. Get over it.

So what's really at issue here? What kind of conversation do men (especially young, college-aged men) need to have? First, call a spade a spade - some among us are rapists. And many of those are otherwise "nice guys" - they don't have "rapist" tattooed on their forehead, they don't go around hiding in bushes wearing dirty trenchcoats with nothing underneath, or torturing small animals in their spare time. They're the guys we hung out with in college - or, for you younger guys, the ones you still do. Let's at least acknowledge that they exist.

The next step is to do something you would think is obvious, but is anything but: label this behavior as unacceptably evil. And because rape doesn't exist in its own universe but is connected to all sorts of other behaviors and ideas about sex and relations between men and women, let's get serious about examining those attitudes and behaviors.

Let's face it - there is still a lot of misogyny (perpetuated by both men and women) in the college environment. The Chronicle story mentions a T-shirt with a picture of a nearly-naked woman being roasted over a spit. Some years ago, I had to stop my college's chapter of Habitat for Humanity from printing T-shirts that said "Habitat for Humanity: We Hammer. We Nail. We Screw." Fascinatingly, the people most upset by my decision to pull the plug on that particular project were the women in the group. But the guys were just as enthusiastic.

I applaud and support the conversations, public and private, that women are having about appropriate boundaries, respecting themselves, and being smart in self-protection. What we need along side those are men's conversations: what is appropriate sexual behavior? What does "respect" mean? What other kinds of attitudes and expectations do we carry around that, let loose in the atmosphere, encourage some men to push (and, ultimately, violate) those boundaries? And when guys do violate those boundaries, what do we do about it? (The answer to that last, historically, as been "nothing". That needs to stop.)

Finally, a part of what made the Epifano story hard for me to read were her accounts of college administrators' responses. I recognize in them the Due Process logic that defines so much of what I and my administrator brethren do. Due Process is a great thing, and it should be valued and upheld. But there are times - and this may be one of them - when upholding due process makes the problem worse, that in defending the rights of the accused we are trampling on the victim.

I've heard some (again anonymous) male voices complaining that without those due process protections, they would be vulnerable to false charges of rape that could be seriously damaging. There a bunch of lacrosse players at Duke who can speak to that problem quite eloquently - although that was less about due process and more about a media feeding frenzy that assumed guilt until innocence was established (a problem for another time).

On the other hand, what would happen if there were a little less due process protection? College men would have to be a little more careful about what they do and who they do it with, so as to not put themselves in a position to be accused. They would have to be much more careful about who they took home at night, and why. They would have to think through their actions first. That kind of thoughtfulness is what is needed. I don't know that doing away with due process is the way to get it - but I think the thought experiment shows us something that is currently missing, which is sufficient incentive (or cultural expectation) to get men to think through the consequences of their choices ahead of time.

I don't expect any of this to change anytime soon. The Chronicle article talks about Amherst's goal of "changing campus culture" - something that, it is pointed out, must be done "with students at the center". I hope that Amherst students and students at colleges across the country will take this opportunity to have real and serious conversations about sex, sexual relations, and the cultural expectations we hold. Because it's fairly clear that the current culture isn't working very well, and is causing a lot of damage.

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