A Professor's Perspective On Sexual Assault On College Campuses

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Emma Sulkowicz, a senior visual arts student at Columbia University, carries a mattress in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year on September 5, 2014 in New York City. Sulkowicz has said she is committed to carrying the mattress everywhere she goes until the university expels the rapist or he leaves. The protest is also doubling as her senior thesis project. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Source: Andrew Burton/Getty Images News/Getty Images

I hear this story, or variations of it, all too often: “Last week I was at a frat party and woke up with a guy on top of me,” one of my students wrote in a paper. “I’m not sure what to call it.” I responded in the margins, “I know what to call it — rape.”

At the public liberal arts college where I teach creative writing, literature, and courses in women, gender, and sexuality studies, students tell me their stories about sexual assault in their writing, in class, or in my office. Sometimes they tell their stories in response to an assigned article about sexual violence, other times they write poetry and creative nonfiction stories in which they try to make sense of their experiences. 

For example, with a deep sense of irony, a student in my nonfiction class wrote a personal essay about feeling like something was wrong with her because she hadn’t been raped by the time she was 16. After all, most of her friends had. “Wasn’t rape a rite of passage?” she asked. 

Sometimes they come to my office just to talk, to tell someone, to get it off their chest. I ask them how they’re coping and refer them to counseling.

For way too long, the conversation has been stifled. But no longer. We are talking. Some of us are screaming. And on college campuses, especially, some of us won't shut up. And that's the best thing we can do.

When I mention this recurrent narrative to friends, many tell similar stories — early on in their college careers, they were either coerced into having sex, or they woke up with a man on top of them. If it didn’t happen to them, it happened to a good friend. In her sophomore year at an Ivy League school, a friend told me she woke up with a man on top of her, a “shy-seeming guy” she didn’t know very well. 

“I tried to make it go away in my mind,” she said. “I was embarrassed, ashamed, and didn’t feel I could confront him. I wanted sympathy, but didn’t feel like I deserved it.” The only thing she could do was glare at him. Fourteen years later, she says, “This is a big thing I’ve carried around quietly.”

Why are these women waking up with men on top of them? Short answer: They've trusted a male friend, or a decent-seeming guy they just met at a party. Maybe they unwittingly took a drug. Whatever the situation, consent was left out of the equation. After the fact, these women are embarrassed, angry, ashamed. Some feel they have no recourse since they followed a man into a room, or don’t remember how they got in the room in the first place. As a result, they suffer in silence. Or cut themselves. Some struggle with eating disorders. Some think about suicide. Some drink too much. Some don’t know what to call it. 

For way too long, (mostly) men have gotten away with rape and sexual assault. (As many have distressingly implied, "Boys will be boys.") For way too long, victims were threatened and shamed if and when they did speak up. For way too long, the conversation has been stifled. But no longer. We are talking. Some of us are screaming. And on college campuses, especially, some of us won't shut up. And that's the best thing we can do.

Before I started teaching a novel that depicted a rape scene, a student came to my office to tell me about her recent sexual assault in the dorms, how she still struggles with flashbacks and might need to leave in the middle of class. Other students request trigger warnings. Two years ago, before discussing a novel that contained implied sexual abuse, a student in my literature class raised her hand. “I’m disappointed in you — as my mentor and professor,” she said, “for not giving us a trigger warning before assigning that book. For someone with PTSD, this book could have retraumatized them.” The class fell silent. 

I apologized and asked the student if she could speak with me privately about her concerns. She opted instead to read the passage of the novel to the department chair — in her eyes, sexual assault still exists, and the school administration was failing to act, and needed to know that. 

I agree: Students should demand protocols from the administration that help end sexual violence on campus. The issue needs to be addressed repeatedly, not just for an hour at orientation, or in my class. Students need to learn about the dangers of binge drinking. Time and again, university administrators have covered up incidents of sexual assault for the sake of benefactors and perspective students. Instead, administrators need to explore ways for victims to find recourse. 

I’m not interested in how Bill Cosby is coping. What I want to know is this: How are my students coping?  

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article, “Jameis Winston Is Cleared in Hearing Over Student’s Rape Accusation.” We learn that three football players who were in the apartment at the time of the alleged attack refused to testify. We learn that the only person in the apartment at the time who testified was the woman. We learn that despite her testimony, despite the blood and bruises found on her body later than night, an examination by the New York Times has found that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university. A university spokeswoman simply told the Times that the university’s “code of conduct process has worked well for the vast majority of sexual assault cases” and has “provided victims with the emotional and procedural help they need.”

According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, Winston answered one question about consent. He said she verbally and physically consented by "moaning" during the sexual encounter. This is why more women (and men) don’t come forward. 

Last month, I flipped through People magazine at the grocery store and could hardly believe the headline: How Are the Cosby’s Coping? When speaking about Camille Cosby’s unwavering support of her husband, a family friend of the Cosby's said, "I think that their half-century of marriage and love and accomplishment, that outweighs things like this."

Things like this. Twenty-seven allegations of rape.

I’m not interested in how Bill Cosby is coping. What I want to know is this: How are my students coping?  

Things like this. Do we even know how to talk about sexual violence?

Of course, rape culture is nothing new. Soon after I graduated college myself, a friend and I threw a big party in her parents’ East Village loft. All was well until another friend ran from a room, her tights barely pulled up. She woke up with a man on top of her. She pointed at the man, who sat calmly on a couch. “That man just raped me!” she said in the middle of the party. He sipped his beer. “I have a girlfriend,” he said.

My friend went to the hospital. She called a rape crisis line. She wanted to press charges. A cop interviewed me. He gave me a scenario: “What if you let a friend stay at your apartment and you noticed a piece of jewelry was gone the next day. How can you be sure your friend took it?” Later, the cop asked, as if it had any relevance, “What was she wearing?”

By making the assumption that women are asking for it by the way they dress, the rooms they walk into, or are inadvertently led into, aren’t we making the assumption that once provoked, men can’t help themselves, and in turn, the responsibility falls on the victim? And with that logic, are we to assume all men are capable of rape? This logic is a disservice to men and women.

I told my class about the cop’s question. A student said, “We should be able to wear whatever the hell we want. We should be able to walk down the street naked. This doesn’t give any man permission to rape us.”

"Amen," the other students said.

The good news here is that the conversation about sexual violence on campus has started. And students have found the courage to write and speak about their most painful experiences. 

Our culture encourages women — through the media, music, ads, everywhere they turn — to value themselves only if a man validates them. So, sometimes, they follow a “nice” guy into his room. They wake up with a guy on top of them and don’t know what to call it. 

I know what to call it. It’s not called “things like this.” It’s called rape. And I hope someday, perhaps when my students become professors themselves, it will be called history.

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