Revising the social dictionary

Over the past two weekends, I have attended two conferences on the topic of rape and sexual assault. One was hosted by our own Men for Consent (MFC) and took place here at the College. The other was two hours south at Vassar. There were a lot of similarities, a few differences and many good conversations. After a few days of pondering and reflection, one theme kept popping back up: consent is not enough. Supporting each other is not enough. Creating safer and more fun social spaces is not enough. Those are the first steps, but not the solution to our problems. It will not eliminate the culture we have here of not being able to make eye contact on Monday with someone who saw you naked on Saturday. It will not eliminate the anger when your friend tells you how they were called a pussy or a slut and did not know what to do other than be upset.

So what does it take to really have a good sexual and social culture? That is hard to explain and hard to answer, and I spend far too much time thinking about it. I still don’t have an answer, but I have a few ideas. The first is to think about what you say to your friends. Think about the last time you said, “what’s up, slut?” or “what’s up, f****t?” as a greeting. It may seem completely benevolent and fun between you and your friend. But consider the person who overheard you in the dining hall or at the party? It sends a subtle message reinforcing these words’ casual power in our lexicon. But of course you don’t say things like that. This is Williams, of course, and we’re nice to each other. Okay, maybe we are, but I dare you to keep a mental list over the next week, or even the next day, of times you say derogatory or degrading words rooted in sexuality. I bet if you were actually honest, your list would not be at zero. Imagine what it would be like if it were at zero, or if everyone’s list were at zero. To further hammer home that point, take five minutes to ask your best friend of a different gender or identity what some of the meanest things they have ever been called were; then ask them if they were called those things at the College.

The benefits of eliminating words like these are clear. If we work to eliminate degrading words and their casual use, it fosters a healthier social climate for everyone. It might be a term of endearment, but nobody actually wants to be called a bitch.

So what else should we do, as a community, to change our sexual culture? A critique of the dating scene that often comes up is that it starts as a hook up, then as more hook ups, then a relationship starts to form. What if it were the other way around? I’m not advocating for month-long courtship rituals, although those can be nice too, but something a little smaller. Instead of going back to someone’s room to hopefully have a drunken night of fun that you may not remember all of, why not exchange digits and agree to hookup later in the week. Maybe lunch and afternoon delight? We have all graduated high school, so you don’t have to sneak around like you’re at your parents’ house anymore. Perhaps you can even get to know each other a little beforehand.

Finally, just say hi. It is not hard. We all know how to communicate. You certainly said hi or some other form of greeting that weekend, why not right now? It is the smallest gesture and minimal communication, but it still feels better than the mini-heart attack of “Did they notice me?” and “How am I going to play it cool this time?”

Hopefully you’ve stuck with this op-ed to here, and for that, bravo. Obviously, I do not have all the answers. There is a lot we do not know, and a lot we do know but do not know how to act on. Hopefully we can figure those things out, but for now, we should do what we can. My final point is that if we actually want to change our cultures here at the College, MFC can’t do it alone. The Rape and Sexual Assault Network can’t do it alone. You can’t do it alone. But if we all make small changes in our daily routines, even if it’s just the language we use to greet and speak about each other, that is collectively a huge step forward. You don’t want to be called something horrible, so why would you do it to your friends?

Henry Bergman ’15 is the co-president of Men For Consent.  He is from Chicago, Ill., and lives in Bryant.

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