The College Bro’s Burden: Consent and Assault Cast a Shadow on Sexy Times
Sexual assault is quickly gaining visibility on college campuses across the country. Student activism ranging from vigilante journalism to Title IX suits have increased awareness, empowered survivors, and launched campaigns for administrative action and lasting change. Sexual assault, which is estimated to effect as many as one in four college women, is the least reported of all violent crimes.
Any sort of action that calls attention to the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, holds the administration responsible for upholding justice and ensuring the safety of its student body, and empowers survivors couldn’t possibly be construed as a bad thing…right?
But don’t break out the streamers just yet! In the wake of this budding visibility, a new crop of victims has emerged, bemoaning their alleged demonization and demanding that their voices be heard. We speak, of course, of a number of college-aged men who feel extremely wronged: by man-hating activists, unfair disciplinary hearings, and the general specter of issues of consent and assault hovering ominously over their sexy times.
First came the activism.
The U.S Department of Education is currently investigating more than 70 colleges and universities for alleged violations of Title IX, the gender equity law that dictates how schools must investigate issues of sexual assault and gender-based misconduct. Damning articles recalling mishandled cases and traumatic treatment have gone viral, petitions for on-campus change have become commonplace, and some students are even resorting to vigilante justice.
An excerpt of a Harvard Crimson piece, titled “Dear Harvard: You Win,” reads, “Dear Harvard: I am writing to let you know that I give up. I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only—quite literally—to save my life. You will no longer receive emails from me, asking for something to be done, pleading for someone to hear me, explaining how my grades are melting and how I have developed a mental illness as a result of your inaction. My assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened.”
While the ways in which these institutions re-triggered the trauma of sexual assault for innumerable victims while simultaneously letting their assailants off with a slap on the wrist were shocking and disgusting to read, at least we could rest assured that people were noticing, that survivors were speaking up, and that ignorance, insensitivity, and assault would no longer be tolerated.
Then came the backlash.
During his spring semester at Duke University, senior Lewis McLeod was expelled for committing a sexual assault. McLeod, whose failure to earn his degree barred him from starting at the Wall Street firm he’d committed to working for upon graduation, claimed that the incident he was expelled for was actually consensual, and that “he stopped after she started crying.” So McLeod took the necessary steps to defend his good name and profitable career path, filing a lawsuit against Duke University and alleging that he was expelled without cause. Similar suits have been leveled against the University of Michigan, Drew University, and St. Joseph’s University.
In May, information leaked regarding a Columbia University student who was suing the university for an unjust trial and punishment. The student’s suit claimed that he was “deprived of the most basic due process and equal protection rights and was discriminated against on the basis of his male sex.” That’s right—the “political climate on campus and pressure from woman’s groups,” aka increased awareness of sexual violence and a nationwide call for justice, was the true assailant here—turning an innocent young man into a hapless victim.
Of course, it doesn’t take a degree from any of these implicated institutions of higher learning to debunk these cries of victimization. False rape allegations are estimated to occur at a rate of between 2 and 8 percent—of course, these statistics are most likely unreliable due to the chronic underreporting of sexual assault. While the risk of a rapist going unreported or unpunished is anecdotally and statistically high, it’s extremely unlikely that an innocent student would be expelled on a false charge. Given what we know about the rareness of false rape allegations, combined with this fresh crop of men claiming they were wrongfully accused, it appears that “the boy who cried victim” is far more common than “the girl who cried rape.”
But plaintiffs aside, what about those poor, unfortunate college boys who are now being forced, non-consensually, to consider how issues of consent and sexual violence might affect their lives? A recent Bloomberg article has taken up this worthy cause, exploring how increased sexual assault awareness is, for men, “an added dimension in a campus scene that already appears daunting.” Oh, do go on.
According to William Pollack, a Harvard Medical School Psychologist quoted in the piece, “we’re starting to scare the heck out of the wrong people.” The article includes a number of harrowing tales of college boys making conscious attempts to ascertain the intoxication level of the women they are with, in some cases even being forced to reconsider pursuing sex because their potential partner was arguably beyond the point of giving consent.
While the article concedes that, “sexual assault is undoubtedly a real problem,” it bemoans the fact that average Joes will now have to live in constant fear of either accidentally assaulting someone or being falsely accused of an assault. Because that’s totally how it works.
This sort of argument might be hilarious misguided, but it’s also scarily uninformed. For starters, sexual assault is a violent crime. It’s a crime of power and control—not some freak accident that occurs when a confused boy falls on top of an incapacitated woman and is too drunk to get up. The Bloomberg article perpetuates the myth of this rampant alcohol-related confusion, relying on a “blurred line” argument because Robin Thicke is cool and why wouldn’t a reputable news source just parrot erroneous assumptions instead of actually trying to shed light upon issues of assault and consent? The piece cites a fear of being “mistaken” for a sexual offender as one cause of increased caution, as well as a desire not “to cross the line.”
Martin Jaffe, a sexual assault activist and student at Columbia University, spoke with The Daily Beast about the ultimately harmful nature of line-crossing rhetoric. “As someone who thinks a lot about consent, ‘a line’ is not a very helpful conceptual framework…that makes it seem like it’s an objective thing as opposed to an ongoing process of paying attention to a person and seeing what they actually need and want.”
This conceptual framework, when left un-interrogated, perpetuates the idea that rape can occur when some invisible boundary is crossed—a boundary that inebriation makes even blurrier and more difficult to ascertain. Jaffe counters, “alcohol is involved in a lot of sexual violence, but it’s not the underlying issue. It’s much more about the messages that men have been given about what it means to perform their gender…these messages that reinforce male entitlement and encourage coercive behavior are much more deeply engrained.”
According to the Bloomberg article, “alcohol now can cast a shadow over sex when there’s any suggestion that it may have dimmed a woman’s judgment.” Never mind the fact that rapes aren’t committed by incapacitated bodies—they’re committed by people who take advantage of this inebriation and ignore the illegitimacy of barely conscious “consent.” Apparently, “some men feel that too much responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been put on their shoulders,” when women should be the ones monitoring their own drinking in order to minimize the risk of attack. That’s right—these men find the notion of discouraging and not engaging in sexual assault so exhausting that they’re urging women to “protect themselves” instead.
Unfortunately, pesky activists and passionate students have made sexual assault impossible to ignore, even for men. Numerous colleges have already updated their sexual assault policies and revamped their mandatory consent education courses for undergraduates. As a college student myself, I have to say that I have absolutely no sympathy for any man who feels like he is struggling under the weight of “too much responsibility.”
While one in four college-aged women is a victim of sexual assault, every single woman knows the specter of sexual violence, and has either fought or succumbed to the urge to edit her behavior or change her outfit in an attempt to stay safe. To be a woman is to be consistently, justifiably afraid, and to acknowledge sexual assault as a possible side effect of pursuing an education. One in four of us are forced to live through the violent assaults that these men resent being made cognizant of.
While 9 out of 10 victims of sexual assault are women, and 99 percent of perpetrators are male, it’s important to note that men can also be victims of sexual assault. Additionally, Jaffe says that even if men are not survivors, “their lives are also negatively influenced by violence in a lot of different ways.”
The problem with the Bloomberg piece is not a reporting issue but a failure of narrative framing. The article voices increased caution towards and awareness of consent as an added impediment to the social lives of college aged boys, and casts sexual assault-related suspensions and expulsions as a justifiable fear for these men. In fact, far more men are not held accountable for sexual assault than are falsely accused of it. Furthermore, Jaffe argues that what this piece portrays as a daunting added dimension for newly aware men is actually nothing more than pure and simple progress.
“If men are re-evaluating their default practices and relationships, then that’s a good thing,” he says. “Men don’t just have the responsibility to think about sexual violence, but they will actually be happier and healthier and will liberate themselves a lot if they are thinking about these issues more.”
A nationwide cultural push to underline the importance of consent isn’t a burden or a punishment; it’s an opportunity to combat violence in the hopes that every student, regardless of gender, can have a college experience free of fear.