This is not an article about the string of sexual assaults and alleged sexual assaults that have occurred on campus this year. I don’t know the facts about these. No one does, particularly—and disturbingly—not the people most intimately involved. I am not trying to write a piece of investigative journalism or get anyone arrested. This is a short essay about a single sentence clause. On Wednesday, March 1, Daniel Silverman, Princeton’s Chief Medical Officer, wrote the student body an email with the subject heading “Important Information Concerning Sexual Assault.” Seeing such an email in our inboxes was immediately heartening for those of us who have watched, with anger and disappointment, both the growing pattern of sexual misconduct on campus and the lackluster response to it. This “response” has, up till now, seemed to consist solely of a USG study break “For The Guys” in December that was both misogynistic in its publicity and generally ineffective: a couple hundred people may have attended, but, as Chen Zhang ’08 told The Daily Princetonian, “The purpose of the event is for students to be more aware of what is going on. But I think a lot of people are just coming, taking food and leaving.” The spate of sexual assaults shows quite clearly that Princeton isn’t the perfect bubble that we alternately depend on and revile. Predictably, there has been practically no dialogue about the issue. We don’t like dealing with stuff that comes a little too close to exposing an ugly side to the Abercrombie & Fitch country club.
Dr. Silverman’s email seemed to promise, for a change, a real response, the start of real dialogue, an embodiment of the idea that we as a campus could be talking about the problem of sexual assault in a way that wasn’t muddled by innuendo and distancing techniques. Yet the very first clause of the email sadly showed that this latest “response” would continue to confuse more than clarify. The first sentence is: “In light of events on campus this year related to sexual assault and harassment that concern us all greatly, I wanted to send information to you about the SHARE Program (Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education) and let you know what it can offer to you and your fellow students.” It goes without saying (and, perhaps, should continue to go without saying) that the word “Assault” itself is subsumed in the creation of the SHARE (not SH/AARE or even SHAARE) acronym—a small and doubtless unintentional point, but a telling one. I’m actually more interested in the first part of the sentence: “In light of events on campus this year related to sexual assault and harassment that concern us all greatly…” Rather than being clear, Dr. Silverman clouds the issue. “In light of” feels less substantial than, say, “Because of,” as if he wants to subtly detach his email from a clear causality relationship with what has actually happened. His email is related—perhaps even closely related—to the sexual assaults, but those assaults didn’t really necessitate his email.
Then there’s the odd locution of “events on campus this year related to sexual assault.” Does he mean, um, sexual assaults? The plain fact of these assaults is so veiled by their categorization as vague “events” that are somehow “related to” assault that the stakes of the situation are almost completely defused. The inability of even the Chief Medical Officer of the University to simply say what has happened, or even what has allegedly happened, indicates our failure as a campus to talk openly about this problem. And those mysterious “related events” are related, in Silverman’s telling, “to sexual assault and harassment,” but the issue isn’t “sexual assault and harassment,” it is, simply, outright assault. The inclusion of “harassment” serves merely to water down what the email should really be addressing. Harassment on campus is a whole other problem, and one that is—oddly, but not surprisingly—more widely addressed. Silverman’s email had the opportunity to turn our focus from the harassment that we hear about frequently to the more serious, more violent problem of assault, but in blurring the two (much like in the SHARE acronym itself), he has done little with that opportunity.
Finally, there’s the falsely, patronizingly unifying claim that these mysterious events “concern us all greatly.” I think that a large part of the problem is that these events don’t concern “us all” greatly. I’ve been a part of several conversations over the past few weeks in which my friends, and other people I like and respect, have seemed decidedly not concerned by the undeniable pattern of sexual misconduct at Princeton this year. They have questioned the specific circumstances of the alleged assaults. They have implied that sexual assault is impossible in the context of a preexisting sexual relationship. They have done everything possible rhetorically to limit the scope of what has happened, to focus on isolated incidents, to avoid thinking of any kind of “pattern” of behavior. They have generally demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual assault, both from a Princeton disciplinary perspective and from a human perspective.
While the email’s subject heading promises “Important Information Concerning Sexual Assault,” this first clause swiftly and comprehensively evades the issue, setting up the implication of the whole email, which is simply that a reminder about the services offered by SHARE will be enough to fix what must surely by now be recognized as a real and even growing problem at Princeton. There is at no point the suggestion that discourse about sexual assault on campus should start, let alone continue or widen. There is no call for student input about how University Health Services or other Princeton adminstrative apparatuses can help the eating clubs help themselves. There are no ideas—beyond a link to a brochure—about how to effectively instruct Princeton students about what, precisely, constitutes sexual assault. There is nothing. “We are here to assist you,” Danny Silverman assures us in the last sentence of his email. Really?