EducationLettersSex & Gender

Adjusting the Lens on Rape Culture

Notably absent from Zaretsky’s idyllic depiction of the college campus as an outpost of sexual freedom and experimentation is any discussion of the role of the drug and alcohol culture in such settings. Zaretsky’s campus thrums with intellectual and cultural exchange — as he says, in classes, athletic and cultural events, and lounges. There are no kegs, no peer pressures, no hazing, no shots, no roofies, and certainly no insistent hands. There are mouths and minds and rights engaged in neat and productive discourse, and, of course, the assumption that the mouths exercising those rights are not challenged — beyond the spirit of a good conversation over coffee, that is.

He says saying no is a right. And as such, it is a prerequisite to a sexually emancipated culture. I agree. However, the right may well exist, but so too does the complexity of exercising that right. Saying no is not only a right but a practice, and, leaving aside the interesting consideration that praxis in its Aristotelian conception designated ways of life open to free men, it is a practice that Kate Gentile points out is inherently complicated, inherently messy, inherently intersubjective. It is that last qualifier that really jams up the works. The notion that “Yes means yes,” as Gentile says, assumes a unitary self, a linearity of desire, and a presence of mind and control over one’s emotions and actions — and in the heat of the moment at that! Such a coherent and sure-footed adult I have seldom met, let alone a young man or woman just at the threshold of adulthood. They are often not quite sure what they want to wear; what they want to be; and whether and how they want to be touched. Good, I imagine Zaretsky will say, here is the place to experiment! But what goes into conducting an experiment? At minimum, some clarity as to a hypothesis worthy of testing, and some logical process for assessing its viability pre- and post- data collection. As a teacher at both the high school and university levels, while I have many brave, wise, and responsible students, I am nevertheless privy to frank expressions of inner turmoil and uncertainty across a range of domains. It is funny to think — especially with x factor of sexual education for young adults from widely disparate upbringings — that when one steps foot upon a college campus, petty insecurities like the desire to be liked or popular, powerful cultural forces, or the not-yet-knowing-who-I-am-or-what-I-want simply (magically?) congeal into a pragmatic, coherent agent ready to go about exercising the right to sexual experimentation. Gentile captures this aptly when she writes,

Yes means yes. It does not mean “I’m afraid you won’t like me if I say no” nor does it mean “I’m scared to say no,” or “I know I said yes two minutes ago, but now I’m not so sure.”

I do not mean by saying this to diminish young people’s capacity for responsible decision-making. But if someone were myopic enough to suggest that to avoid what has peskily come to be called date rape is as simple as to change one’s mind and vocalize it, I would be very interested to hear such a person account for the aggressive or dismissive or otherwise denigrating and abusive reactions which may then arise from the recipient of such a declination. The mere possibility of such reactions colors beforehand and perhaps skews the yay- or nay-sayer’s potency as an agent of decision. Moreover, we’d have to consider how such, ahem, irrational reactions are lubricated by alcohol. I myself have been berated and called a tease for declining an advance, and I know countless other women who have had similar experiences or, worse, have submitted for fear of dealing with the discomfort — not to mention potential danger — of saying no. Experimentation, if it is to be safe, would have to happen in an environment of mutual respect and consciousness. Yes, consciousness. Now what can I mean by that?

I do not point to man-as-beast or predator here. I have gotten in trouble before, actually, for voicing my disinclination to blame one participant (male or female) any more than the other when we take into account a certain set of circumstances in which these sad and destructive encounters often take place. Rape culture is not just boys-will-be-boys, and it is not just aggressive male privilege acting out when no parents are around. Thankfully, Gentile brings to our attention the problem of locating, containing, and splitting off the “badness in individual bodies,” calling us instead to look at the community that fosters such behavior and relocate responsibility in all members of the community as “agentic citizens of that social body.” If we are to do so, I think it necessary to bring one more dimension of the college campus to the fore: Rape culture is often bounded by the activity of binge drinking (Krebs et al. 2009 say 80% of sexual assault cases involve alcohol), wherein both participants have already relinquished the prerequisite presence of mind necessary for responsible experimentation and exchange. Unfortunately, my own myriad discussions with students, advisees, and, yes, peers when I was back in college, spell out a situation in which neither person is in full conscious control of their actions, let alone their decision making capacities or power of recollection. Let me be clear: I do not, as did the forensic psychologist in the Vanderbilt case, suggest that inebriation somehow absolves the participants of responsibility for actions perpetrated while under the influence; nor do I “blame” the women for making themselves vulnerable. I simply want to look squarely at a culture that celebrates self-destructive behavior, loss of consciousness, and sex as matter of course recreational activities.

Blacking out and getting laid — however it should come to pass — is sought by some coeds as a regular means of celebrating the weekend. Yes, by men and women alike. So too is responsible ‘hooking up’ (remember the NYT article about the ambitious UPenn coed who did not want to be bothered with a relationship?), but that is not what I refer to here. Even if “black-out/hook-up” is not the stated goal, even for someone seeking a little responsible experimentation, what happens in the delirium of excessive amounts of alcohol, what was said, no or yes, assertion or submission, the power to decide, is so often lost along with the rest of the evening’s details. And a culture that harbors such an attitude — and wields shame to silence dissent or regret — even in only a subset of its members puts all members at risk. I must say, I do not refer only to those horrific cases of gang-bangs and unconscious women. There is a world of gray area between those extreme, practically sensationalized cases and the minutiae of a vaguely but definitely pressured encounter. All are of concern, and the pervasiveness of the drinking culture alone is enough to blur, if not wholly destroy, the illusion of well-bounded, self-directed subjects. Is a college freshman’s tossing herself into campus culture — booze, boys, and books, let’s say — a self conscious choice? Or has the culture normalized such a value system, confounding one’s right to choose? Gentile puts it frankly:

Affirmative consent also relies on the idea that people always say what they mean and power and privilege and the unconscious and culture have no influence on these expressions and experiences of desire.

I would simply suggest if one truly believes that rape culture is a myth, and one unjustly fabricated out of a pure ground ripe for responsible experimentation, a dramatic reconsideration of the factors at play is imperative. If we are to understand rights as delineating spaces reserved for a certain kind of action, we must, as Gentile has done, closely investigate the dynamics and features of those arenas in which such rights are purportedly preserved. If aspects of the context foreclose upon the exercise of those rights, or we have not fully understood the subjects those rights are meant to empower, then we have some work to do in understanding the power of rights themselves, as well as how different subcultural norms infuse those rights with specific potentialities, both good and bad. Moreover, if you have not had the experience of second guessing yourself due to the influence of another who wields not only a rational argument but quite insistent hands as well, then you must occupy quite a different seat in the matrix than do I and many of my students, colleagues, and friends.

Also for you:

Ali Shames-Dawson

  • Jeremy Safran

    Great letter Ali!


    • Ali Shames-Dawson

      Thank you, Jeremy!

  • Teresa Hurst

    Thank you for this. Poignant and beautifully written.

    • Ali Shames-Dawson

      Thank you, Teresa. I’m so glad that you read it and found it meaningful.

  • Wendy D’Andrea

    Right On Ali!

    • Ali Shames-Dawson

      Thank you, Wendy!

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