Looking both ways: Advising caution versus ‘victim blaming’

Imagine that Williams wanted to decrease the incidence of cars hitting students on Route 2. It should first, warn students about the dangers and second, record and report these accidents in order to measure its own progress.

The same approach applies to decreasing the frequency of sexual assault. Williams should be more transparent with the community and honest with our students.

Transparency begins with history. Former Dean Bolton provided this summary last spring: “In the 2014-2015 school year, the College received 10 reports of sexual assault, as well as one of dating violence, three of stalking and one of retaliation.”

Few additional details were noted, and nothing about the circumstance surrounding each report. Compare that opacity to the praiseworthy transparency of the Honor and Discipline Committee, which provided the details of all 30 cases in its latest annual report. An example from the 2013-2014 report:

“A senior, a junior and a first-year student were found to have submitted final exams for an astronomy course. The students said that the senior and junior had copied solutions provided to them by the first-year student. All three students were sanctioned with failure in the course.”

The College should provide just as much transparency with regards to reports of sexual assault, and for the same reasons: transparency informs the community — making future violations less likely — and reinforces a consensus about unacceptable behavior. Of course, in all cases, the College must protect the identity of the specific students involved.

Without greater detail, it is impossible for anyone at Williams, outside of the Dean’s Office, to judge the seriousness of the sexual assault issue on campus or to evaluate the College’s attempts to alleviate it.

For example, if many assaults involve first years, then the College should beef up its efforts via JAs and entries.

If most of the assaults occurred in specific locations, then Campus Safety and Security should adjust its patrol routes. And so on.

Progress and judgments about administration effectiveness are impossible without detailed information.

But transparency without honesty is not enough. The problem — and perhaps the reason why the College likes keeping secrets — is that transparency may reveal some harsh truths about sexual assault at Williams. Among those might be that the vast majority of sexual assault reports allege a female victim and a male perpetrator, and the victim is often either drinking and/or going to a bedroom alone with the perpetrator. If national statistics are any indication, these circumstances are likely common to many cases at the College.

Such fact patterns would be obvious if Williams practiced transparency.

The problem, at least from a certain ideological perspective, is that the same fact patterns would demonstrate that individuals can lower their odds of suffering sexual assault at the College with two practices: not drinking heavily and not going to or inviting students to their bedrooms.

Unfortunately, the College dismisses this viewpoint.

To tell women not to drink to excess, to advise them to be cautious about going to the bedrooms of acquaintances, is to “blame the victim.” Perhaps.

If so, we face a trade-off. The administration can either inform first-years during First Days — and hopefully make sexual assaults less likely — or it can maintain its silence in order to spare the feelings of assault victims. Which do you think is more important?

Similar advice applies to male students. Drinking heavily is dangerous. Sober students are rarely accused of sexual assault. If you are drunk, how can you be certain that your romantic partner is an enthusiastic participant, especially if this is your first evening together?

When my daughters use a crosswalk, I tell them to look both ways. An ideologue might claim that I am “blaming the victim” of a previous accident in that same crosswalk, someone injured by a car despite having the right of way.

A driver can’t legally hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk just as a man can’t legally rape a drunk woman who comes to his bedroom. But, if you really want to decrease the rate of accidents, you tell students to look both ways when they cross the street even though, in an ideal world, they shouldn’t have to. Similarly, if you really want to decrease the frequency of sexual assaults, you tell students not to drink too much and to be wary of going to or inviting others to their bedrooms alone. If the College does not start to be more transparent and honest with its students, we can, sadly, conclude that it is not doing all it can to make sexual assault less likely.

David Kane ‘88 was an economics and philosophy double major. He lives in Newton, Mass.