Rape is rape. Regardless of whether it takes place on a darkened street corner, as a woman walks home to her car, in her home, by a stranger or someone known to the victim. Or on a college campus. Geography does not matter. Perpetrator does not matter. But when it does occur on a college campus, it defies our sense of safety. Campuses, full of bright young things, doing bright young things, should be safe…….
They are not.
A young woman is raped on an elite college campus, the perpetrator receiving a lenient sentence. She pens a heartrending and deeply honest account of her experience and her grief. I’ve read it several times – once from the perspective of a woman, once as a mother with daughters, once as a scholar who studies violence against women and trauma, once as a clinician who has worked with rape victims, and once as a college professor. It should be required reading for every young woman and man. It is both brave and heartbreaking because, it is the experience of too many young women.
The American Association of Universities reports that nearly 1 in 4 college women has reported unwanted sexual contact. These statistics are consistent across a variety of studies and yet we are not seeing a systematic response.
Rape is rape and the fault lies in the perpetrator. Blaming women for being drunk, a short skirt or even being at the party in the first place is specious at best. Blaming a victim for a rape is like blaming a mugging victim for carrying a wallet.
The perpetrator’s father’s entitled paean to contextualize his son’s crime (“20 minutes of action”) put the lens on deeper issues of privilege, entitlement, a society that perpetuates violence against women and sexualization of girls and women, and our endless focus on achievement over compassion. Are parents so bogged down in their children’s “success statistics” that teaching kids the simple goal of being a good human being is being left at the wayside?
Ironically, the very college campus at which this happened is supposed to be a repository of the best and the brightest – and one only need to watch documentaries such as the Hunting Ground or read various reports on campus sexual assault such as the AAU report to know that sexual assault is too commonplace on our campuses. Much of it goes unreported, and too many campuses are turning a blind eye or simply aren’t mounting up the resources to address it systematically.
As a professor and a parent, I have a front row seat to the boiler rooms, cultures, families and schools that grow the students who are attempting to get the Holy Grail – the Ivy League and elite university admissions. The paths to these promised lands are manifold and extreme– legacies, athletic ability, perfect grades, perfect scores, summers spent in elite university programs and expensive summer camps, access to elite internship programs. Every breath is analyzed from the perspective of whether it will “look good on an application.”
In all of this – have we lost their humanity? A culture of robots who can regurgitate, bubble in multiple choice tests, get great swim race times, and achieve, achieve, achieve. Where is feeling and emotion built into this? Respect for others? Self-regulation? Self–reflection? I suppose if there is no line on the application, there is no need for it. When do they learn to talk about feelings? Fears? Hopes? They are so programmed to please us and the world, that they can lose sight of what matters. Obsessive focus on achievement obviously does not cause rape, however it can dehumanize us. When we make success and achievement peppered with entitlement such a focus, we lose compassion and circumspection. When the evaluatory mechanisms of merit are reduced to swim race times and AP test scores, conscience, propriety, and respect can get lost.
In the father’s letter about his son – he talked about his son’s ACHIEVEMENTS – past and future – his swim race times, his hard work, his lost future – as though these are virtues. When people talk about their adolescent kids, they too often frame them in terms of achievement, and not their souls. There is no GPA for empathy and compassion (community service is not empathy and compassion – too many young people are doing community service “for their college applications” ). I mean the real thing – the ability to step out of your busy life to listen, to be present, to hear the perspective of another, and attempt to understand it. If we could quantify genuine empathy and compassion, and the ability to focus on meaning and purpose, AND compute that as part of the GPA– universities would look VERY different.
Does this mean that teaching empathy, compassion and self-reflection and addressing the blind focus on achievement and elitism will stop this college rape culture? Don’t know. It’s an empirical question – but this isn’t just about alcohol and frat parties. This is about an endemic culture of entitlement and mindlessness that is seeping into psyches and society.
When there aren’t enough hours in the day after the AP classes and SAT prep and athletic and play practices – when would we insert this time for empathy? Ideally it is built into life. How often do we ask our students and children – “what do you want your life to look like?” I recently asked my own university students this question – “why are you even going to college?” and they stared at me blankly. One student finally had the courage to say “because we think we have to….” When the parents view their children as extensions of themselves, and could not endure the disappointment of little Brock not going to Stanford – they lose the opportunities to be PARENTS. To teach children that the only things that matter are respect, compassion, humanism, kindness, equality. But that means the parents have to believe those things too – and when buffoons are raising kids, they raise buffoons, or worse.
The blind obsession with achievement means that we are not having VERY important conversations with our children. I resent the fact that I have to spend many hours telling my daughter that as she gets older she is to never leave a glass unattended at a social gathering, to never leave a female friend alone at a party, to not walk home alone even when she is someday on a campus. I am teaching my daughter how to enter a war zone where violence against women is still permissible, and too many universities, invested in protecting endowments and reputations act slowly if at all. Parents of sons – listen up – for all the time I spend teaching my daughters to protect themselves, you should be teaching your sons how to respect women, how to manage and regulate their own behavior and monitor their friends, how to spot a young woman who may be unsafe and get her to a place of safety, and despite raging hormones to have a healthy vocabulary around sexuality and reflect on our prevailing paradigms of violence against women.
As long as we imbue virtue in someone SOLELY because they were admitted to an elite college without taking a holistic view of the child – we continue to foment this culture. We must find ways to educate sons and daughters beyond classrooms, grades, and achievements, and for parents to take a long dark look in the mirror at whether we are parenting our children or programming them. And then – we have to address the structures that continue to blame women for being raped, justice systems that still appear Neanderthal and inequitable, a media that glorifies violence against women.
Problems this complex do not have just one cause. And we need to take a long hard look at our systems of excellence, and the “get out of jail free” cards that come with achievement. Perhaps Common Core should be re-written to include Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Respect, and there needs to be an AP exam on Self-Reflection.
It’s time for a rewrite and a revision on our culture at large.
Tags: achievement, college, entitlement, privilege, rape