History tells us that outsiders matter, that they are our richest resource of truthfulness. Strangers are best at diagnosing the state of a given community, and it is their involvement that can best spur a sense of communal self-reflection and candidness. Think about it; those most perceptive critics and lovers of American culture have been of foreign provenance – think of Alexis de Tocqueville. Or consider the myriad colonial societies who have needed that European interloper to be able to define their national identity, of what they are not and, consequently, of what they are.
Or disregard those academic examples and consider what’s happened here. The campus has been abuzz of late about a slew of sexual assaults. After talking with a sizeable cross section of students and administrators, most seem to agree that this is hardly a recent phenomenon. So what got us talking about it now? Not TI, and not a movie of the week, either. But the outsider who crawled under a bathroom stall in Frist is the one who got us talking. From then on, three assaults have been reported in the Prince and widely discussed throughout the proverbial orange bubble. It took a stranger to seemingly introduce us to a problem that is ours alone to face, or rather, a problem that becomes much more relevant to talk about in the exclusive context of the study body.
What is it about Princeton that puts people at risk? Those general cultural precedents apply just as much here as elsewhere: f never thinking it’ll happen to you, being desensitized to rape jokes and sexual humor, or of some people just being more prone to violent behavior. But what conditions—if any—might foster sexual assault here?
Sexual assaults are not any more or less likely to occur at Princeton than at Harvard, on Wisteria Lane or in Alphabet City. It’s that the elements at Princeton are different – uniquely suited to this place, or more prevalent here than elsewhere – all responsible for making assault more likely to happen, but none constituting its cause.
Alcohol is unquestionably a factor, and I don’t bring it up here to reiterate one of the fundamentals of high school health class. The popular attitude of having to be drunk to have a good time is not exclusively Princetonian, but it’s more pronounced and visible here than on a lot of other campuses. When you then consider that 75% of men and 55% of women involved in any given assault are under the influence, the danger seems to take on a real shape for your Thursday nights out.
Another reality is that the assaults, as reported to campus health authorities, aren’t really happening in bedrooms or at room parties, or in accostings at Frist—they’re happening at the eating clubs. Now, I don’t mean this in some Tilghmanesque indictment of the clubs; such argument is hackneyed and not completely fair. Some would flippantly blame the orgy of pick-ups, but you can’t chalk up what’s been occurring to two overly-naked weekends a year. In an oxymoronic way, it seems that the safe atmosphere of the eating clubs is much of the problem. Going to a club or bar in the city, you might be more vigilant about assault, considering the unfamiliar environment and the fact that you know very few of your fellow patrons. But your guard is down on Prospect, you know and trust a good portion of those around you, and you probably feel relatively at home wherever you decide to hang out. Your wariness fades away, even if the often highly sexual atmosphere of more traditional forms of nightlife does not.
Unsurprisingly, given this peculiar context, the concept of dating here is mildly out of whack. As was aptly put by a friend of mine, at Princeton it seems you’re either married or just very casually hooking up. The danger of assault can easily be associated with the latter scenario, or rather, with its precipice. In our discussion about this article, a fellow editor very smartly identified the transactional culture that can characterize Street life – social interactions are reduced to a deal: ‘I’ll talk to you for this long and then you’re coming home with me’; or if he’s given you more than 15 minutes of his time, you’ve assured him sex by the end of the night. Added to that, people here don’t like failure, and when they are drunk (which they often are), they can easily and scarily get overly insistent, which is frequently all it takes.
Given the size of our community, our deeply entrenched tradition and our affinity for affiliations, when something does happen, a whole other host of problems faces those who try to report it. To accuse someone of sexual assault at Princeton, a person faces not only the potential perpetrator, but their friends and acquaintances, the disappointment and betrayal from those affiliations that stand behind them and those traditions and traditional institutions they stand to deface. Sound a bit histrionic? Of course. But so goes the life of any, and especially Princetonian, university student. And, honestly, so go people’s reactions to this kind of occurrence.
More that all that though, more than this being a very public place, more than this being a very socially tenuous place, it is a very future-minded place. I think it’s safe to say that it is universally agreed upon that in some way or another we are the cream of the crop. Not only does that often make people more trusting and allowing of each other (because, logic might say, surely having good character is part of the package of getting picked), but it brings with it a sense of most of us having nothing short of very big futures. This presents a very big and very real barrier for anyone on the verge of accusing someone of sexual assault – in accusing, one could be ruining a future, an important career, and not just a reputation. Moreover, so many in the wider community are somewhat less than inclined to believe that a Princeton student could commit such a crime. We are better than that. We are special. And this kind of thing just shouldn’t, couldn’t happen here.
For all those reasons of site-specific context, and because of that kind of attitude, people don’t want to talk about sexual assault. Obviously, the events of the past few months have somewhat abated the resistance to know about and discuss these issues. But confronting assault still has its taboos, risks and discomforts. Anyone who takes a strong stance, even in casual conversation, can come across as gossipy or preachy, feminist or effeminate, insensitive or overly sensitive, etc. etc. Gender issues, on the whole, are passé—some would say unpleasant—and ‘feminism’ has become a bit of a dirty word. On the male side of things, some girls have been horrified at the conversations they’ve had with seemingly gentlemanly guys, who’ve confessed to truly wondering if it’s ever the man’s fault. Though some may be outraged at the suggestion, these men bring up an important point: if both partners are blacked out drunk, can any one really be blamed?
Perhaps that question best frames the reason we don’t talk about sexual assault. You don’t want to ever consider yourself as having been in that situation, as victim or offender. Nor does anyone want to pay heed to the after-school special truism that it’s usually not an outsider who perpetrates an assault, but someone you know, in your club, in your dorm, in your lecture. Scarier than its being random, is that it isn’t. Scarier than it happening in an alleyway, is that it happens here. Scarier than all that, is that there are so many factors that make Princeton students susceptible to being victims, offenders and to never saying anything at all.