From caution to accountability: On targeting the root of sexual assault

A hallmark of a Williams College education is the ability to critically analyze complex problems from numerous angles and determine the optimal solution. In a December op-ed (“Looking both ways: Advising caution versus ‘victim blaming,’” Dec. 7, 2016), David Kane ’88 argued that the College’s optimal strategies for reducing sexual assaults would be to provide “greater detail” about prior incidents on campus and to “tell students not to drink too much and to be wary of going to or inviting others to their bedrooms alone.”

Kane’s desire to empower students with more information is admirable, but he misses the point of what it truly means to “prevent” sexual assault.

Focusing on secondary measures is not an effective way to alter the landscape of sexual misconduct at the College or at the national level. Claiming we should center our efforts on being “more transparent with the community and honest with our students” renders sexual assault an unfortunate but unalterable facet of the College. To treat it as such implies that, in choosing to attend the College and to consume alcohol or accompany someone to their bedroom, one is inevitably risking experiencing this crime.

Sexual assault is not inevitable, but eradicating it requires that we start targeting the root of the issue. Instead of grappling for a preventative medicine (i.e. instructing women to watch what they drink and wear), we should be working on a cure. Rather than stopping at warning students of the dangers of accompanying someone to their room, let’s change the moral culture of the student body and make it such that just going to someone’s dorm does not put a student directly in harm’s way. Let’s create an environment wherein sexual assault is actually treated with the moral disgust and the proper consequences it deserves. As Chelsea Thomeer ’17 advocates in her op-ed response to “Looking Both Ways,” (“Metaphorical abuse: Why ‘victim blaming’ is the wrong route,” Jan. 25, 2017), we need to “change the system.”

How do we accomplish this? As women are the predominant victims of assault – though I in no way intend to marginalize male victims – we begin by looking critically at the ways in which men interact with other men regarding issues of sexual consent and misogyny. There is a reason why President Donald Trump was somewhat realistic when he characterized his dismissive glorification of sexual assault as “locker room talk.”

In 2005, psychologists at Ohio University conducted a study examining the perceptions college men have about their own and their peers’ comfort level with misogynistic language and nonconsensual behavior, as well as their perceived likelihood of intervening in such situations. Statistically significant results indicated men believed their peers were substantially more comfortable with misogynistic comments and sexual assault than they were. The men also demonstrated a perception that their peers were significantly less likely to intervene in these situations. Subsequent replications of this study indicate the same findings.

These false perceptions create a culture of silence that perpetuates sexual misconduct. The researchers reasoned that because many men feel they are alone in their discomfort when a peer makes a sexist remark or disrespects consent, they choose not to speak up, thus allowing these harmful behaviors to persist.

This is not to cast a stereotype on all men – many, particularly at the College, are vehement activists against assault and vocal advocates for treating women with respect, even in private conversations. Their efforts should certainly be acknowledged, but I hesitate to say they should be applauded. Standing up for women is something to take pride in, no doubt, but it should be an element of common human decency, not a feature that distinguishes a minority from the pack.

So hold your peers accountable when they say or do something that makes you uncomfortable – and this applies to women just as much as men. Challenge comments and behaviors that are misogynistic or nonconsensual, particularly when they are made by your own friends. Do not assume you are alone in your discomfort, and do not underestimate the impact your voice has on the attitudes and actions of your peers. We are social beings who respond to reinforcements and consequences for our behavior. If comments that objectify women or dismiss and glorify sexual assault become truly socially unacceptable in common discourse, their pervasiveness will decline. Let us sustain a discourse that fiercely opposes assault, not just internally, but publicly and proudly.

We can no longer allow sexual misconduct to remain a quiet issue for fear of expressing a seemingly unpopular opinion or creating conflict within a friend group. Staying silent does nothing to shift our culture from one of caution to one of accountability.

Alessandra E. Miranda ’20 is from Sandy, Utah. She lives in Williams Hall.

  • Augustine25

    David Kane ’88, the editor of the alternative Williams blogsite, Ephblog, has given some excellent advice regarding the safety of the school’s students. Unfortunately, no amount of conversation or anti-male re-education will ever stop rape, even the extremely low levels of rape that exist on college campuses compared to the world at large. My wife completed a self-defense course. I pity the fellow who tries to attack her. Students, faculty and administrators would be wise to follow Kane’s advice. He is not joking. He has the best interests of the school and its students at heart.