After what seemed like a successful Orientation Week, which included discussions on the alcohol policy and a Project SAFE session addressing sexual violence, one of my freshmen approached me and said, “What I’ve learned from all of these talks is that it’s worse for me to have Everclear in my room than it is for me to rape someone.” As an advisor who also sat through the talks in question, I realized that my new student had a point.
Throughout the alcohol discussion, there was emphasis (as there rightly should be) on the severe consequences of providing hard alcohol to minors and the possession of any high-proof substances such as Everclear or Bacardi 151. And yet, when my new student asked during the Project SAFE presentation what the consequences were for rape or sexual assault, the response was disturbingly vague. Obviously, Rice has very clear sanctions for students charged with sexual assault or harassment, as explained in the Code of Student Conduct. But a large chunk of that presentation was focused primarily on bystander prevention, with little mention of the consequences for perpetrators, the culture that enables that sort of behavior, or the difficulty that women face in reporting assaults, especially in cases of date rape.
I distinctly remember going through “Girl Talk” during my first O-Week. A bunch of freshman girls sitting on the floor, listening expectantly to the advice handed down from one generation of Rice women to the next:
“Don’t walk around the Outer Loop at night in your short skirt and your Miss America makeup.”
“Have a system with your friends so, if a random guy starts grinding up on you at a dance floor, they can tell you whether he’s hot or not.”
I, like many other girls, experienced the unwanted dance floor groping later on during the year, and, interestingly enough, I don’t really recall whether or not the guy in question was hot. What I do remember most vividly in that situation was the laughter of the bystanders. Apparently, it’s hilarious if someone comes up to a woman from behind and knocks her over two feet by the sheer force of his gyrations. I never got the fucking memo.
Yes, I agree that teaching girls how to stay safe and teaching bystanders how to prevent horrible assaults is valuable. To some extent, I agree with the comparison of such training as having burglar alarms to help stave off burglars. But at this point, the message young women seem to be getting is that in order to keep our houses safe, we ought to lock ourselves up from dusk ‘til dawn, board up our windows and doors and stand at the ready with a couple of bodyguards and a semiautomatic.
This is ridiculous. We need to address, on an institutional level here at Rice, the existence of a culture that permits girl after girl after girl to be groped and harassed on dance floors and cautions girl after girl after girl that maybe she should reconsider her choice in clothing. These are the things that demonstrate an utter lack of respect for women, and these are the messages that we send young women, both subtly and overtly, starting from their first days at O-Week up until they graduate and, sadly, continuing into the world beyond the hedges. Everyone likes to think of Rice as a bubble that’s safe from the injustices of the world, but perhaps we should consider that we all bring a little injustice with us as we walk through the Sallyport for the first time.
If we want the women on our campus to feel secure in coming forward and reporting one of the most despicable and violent crimes against humanity, then maybe we should work a little harder to create an environment that doesn’t implicitly shame them. Maybe if they do decide to come forward, we shouldn’t go out of our way to caution them about ‘ruining someone’s life’ or asking if they feel if it’s ‘worth it’ to take the matter to court. Imagine if someone mugged your or stabbed you, and that was the response you got from the people around you. That would be downright absurd, and yet it’s something that women who wish to report sexual harassment or violence face on a regular basis.
During Project SAFE, one point that was made abundantly clear was how sexual assault happens at a much lower rate here at Rice than at other college campuses. Well, Rice, if you want me to give you a standing ovation, that’s not going to happen, because touting these statistics as a source of pride is a slap in the face to anyone on this campus who’s ever experienced sexual harassment, assault or rape. An assault on one person is an assault on us all and on everything that Rice stands for.