Princeton students are special. We’ve been told this upon every rite of passage we have experienced. No one ever dares to contest that they have near-superhuman aptitudes for creativity and hard work, Renaissance men and women all, steeped in the finest principles of humanism. Yet there is one thing in which we cannot manage to surpass the national average.
Just eight days after The Daily Princetonian wrote up Anne-Marie Slaughter and Shirley Tilghman’s discussion on gender inequality as part of the Alumni Association’s Conversation on Women & Leadership, it had more disheartening news to report: A 2008 survey reported that the percentage of undergraduate female respondents who had been vaginally penetrated against their will while enrolled at Princeton was around the national average for female college students, 15.9%, or one in six. The findings of that study have been criticized, most vocally from the safe anonymity the Prince’s comments section offers, for not having been collected with sufficient statistical rigor. But fiddling with numbers as if this could change the reality that sexual assault really is frighteningly widespread suggests, at best, someone in denial, and at worst a will to minimize the numbers to prove the problem doesn’t really exist. In any case, reducing the discussion about the traumatic experiences of individual human beings to a numbers game is pathetic. It’s as if we believe we have a moral obligation to address the problem of sexual assault if and only if a certain number of occurrences are registered, and we are trying to negotiate the number under that threshold. New research should certainly be conducted, if only because we are working with five-year-old information, but the 2008 study alerts us to a serious problem that will not concern us any less if we ignore its importance. We are implicated; would we not be implicated if the number turned out to be, say, “only” one in seven? You definitely do have several female friends who have experienced a non-consensual sexual experience. If you think you don’t, they either haven’t told you or it hasn’t happened yet.
Furthermore, a less-prominent statistic from the same study reveals the problem is even more serious than it appears. A total of 31.7% of the 1099 female undergraduates who responded to the survey experienced non-consensual sexual contact. It may have been unwanted kissing or groping, maybe someone took their clothes off, maybe it was forced foreplay, forced oral sex, forced penetration by someone’s penis or fingers or by an object, or perhaps “only” an attempt to do one of these things. Such assaults have happened and will happen to friends of yours. They have taken place here at Princeton, not just in “dangerous” places, alleys in New York someone was foolish enough to wander into. As for rapists, you likely know a few too. The study gathered no evidence about this category of people—this is notoriously hard to do—but obviously someone is committing these assaults and it would be the worst kind of snobbery to think that no one from Princeton would do such a thing. The odds are very good you know someone who has committed sexual assault (usually someone they know: their significant other or their friend or their friend with benefits or their crush from precept). Some of them probably wear SHARE “Consent is Sexy” tanks around campus. Their RCAs dragged them to Sex on a Saturday Night during their first frosh week. They make up some percentage of the audience of sexual harassment and rape prevention workshops.
These facts have become slightly harder to ignore since the Prince’s publication of a study that the University let sit unpublished since 2008. Sohee Kim’s article about the study was the most-read on the Prince’s website for about a month and its comments section is now around 200 strong. Soon afterwards, four seniors, Shreya Murthy, Siofra Robinson, Kellie Valladares and Kanwal Matharu, penned a wildly successful petition to the Administration that received 900 signatures in about a week.
This action was absolutely necessary, and the writers of the petition are right that a new survey and a statement by the University are in order. However, I think the reason so many people signed a petition to that effect was that they recognized the news as shocking but had no idea what they should do. This petition came out on the heels of the article; signing it carried ultra-low risk and high self-congratulatory reward: it made its signatories feel as though they were part of the solution. I’m not knocking the petition, quite the opposite: firstly, because the atmosphere on campus is such that it was bold of the writers to associate their names with this project, and also because such action is likely the only way to get the Administration’s ear. But let us hope that it suffices to achieve its objectives, because I doubt a critical mass of the student body will commit much further to the pursuit of institutional change than typing in name and netID in a Google Doc form. It seems as though displaying too-strong feelings about the survey is in mildly bad taste. Even at the height of the survey’s buzz, which has since been dissipated by the whirlwind of midterms, I didn’t hear it brought up in conversation nearly as much as if it had been the latest installment of the “Love and Lust in the Bubble” series.
Perhaps the Prince is to blame for devoting so much more coverage to the hookup culture than to rape culture; maybe “Love and Lust,” that increasingly sterile succession of blatant grabs at page views, should be taken to task. But if we get into such frenzy about sexual experimentation, it seems we’d give even more attention to a topic like rape, which we actually have a moral responsibility to address. I guess such a grim reality—one in six—makes us uncomfortable.
Not only are we diffident, we’re apathetic. The topics closest to our hearts and always on our lips are frivolous. Bicker will always spark at least a fifteen-minute conversation while any mention of classism and economic inequality within the student body meets an uncomfortable silence. We only want to talk superficially—without getting too worked up, because that’s a faux pas—about things that won’t change and don’t matter and can be summed up with a pithy quote from This Side of Paradise. If that sounds harsh, it should, because I am angry. I am angry at, among other things, the mysterious way in which guys who have been partying hard on the Street for several years somehow still don’t have enough experience with drunk people to know when a girl is too wasted to say no.
But that is far too neat and easy of a condemnation to make. Blaming the so-called “hookup culture” unescapably implies that rape results from girls drinking too much and wearing short skirts and having casual sex—that a night out on the Street is bound to go wrong sometime and girls should be more careful. In Galit’s words, the hookup culture ends up being “a convenient narrative to direct responsibility away from those upon whom it is incumbent to not have sex with people who don’t want to.” We all know this narrative. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a girl goes out, gets very drunk and has sex with someone she doesn’t know; in the aftermath, she feels like a slut and so accuses her partner of rape in order to make herself feel better, but he doesn’t feel he assaulted her, so he must not have. But does this narrative, which (coincidentally, I’m sure) places the blame squarely on the woman making the accusation of rape, have any truth to it whatsoever? Other similarly specious narratives exist: take the case of two blackout partners, one feeling violated but being unable to communicate it and the other, completely unaware anything is wrong, waking up to a rape accusation the next day. It’s doubtful that these stories actually happen with as much regularity as they’re offered as evidence that sexual assault is overblown. We inevitably consider the problem less seriously when we can just file away these many, many occurrences under well-known scenarios that all come down to “It wasn’t really rape, just an unfortunate misunderstanding.” And to set the record straighter than my feelings of what is and isn’t probable ever could, Galit stated that in her experience, a majority of the cases of students reporting sexual assault to the university of which she has been aware “have not been connected to the Street.”
So, once and for all, this isn’t a problem you can solve by just telling people to abstain from sex and alcohol. This is a problem we should address with education, one that doesn’t start and end with Sex on a Saturday Night, because one night spent watching a morality play is not going to undo eighteen or more years spent in a particular culture—Galit posited that “rape culture is inextricable from culture.”
So of course Princeton doesn’t generate rape culture all by itself. It starts from even before puberty, with glances and catcalls, and people bring it here in their suitcases. But it is not sufficient to accept the problem exists and then pass it off to the “real world.” We are here to be educated, and, we hope, about more immediate questions than how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Maybe we can even learn basic things about how to treat our fellow people: For the record, five no’s followed by one okay does not mean yes.
Furthermore, Princeton University needs to set an example where right and wrong is concerned. Sohee Kim’s article stated that “forty forcible sex offenses were reported to Public Safety between 2009 and 2011,” but only “five students were disciplined by ODUS for acts of sexual misconduct”: two suspensions for sexual assault and one for non-consensual penetration; two disciplinary probations for sexual harassment. Whoever these people were, they received more lenient sentences for violating a person’s body than they would have for violating the Honor Code. This, together with the non-disclosure of the 2008 survey, suggests that Princeton values its reputation more highly than the wellbeing of its students.
Galit highlighted the consequences of this outlook: in cases of people she knows, reporting sexual assault has usually ended with “my friends being screwed over and justice not being served… [These experiences] made me so jaded to the belief that the University had our backs that as a CA leader I couldn’t tell my frosh in full faith that if they felt they’d been assaulted that the University was a resource they should turn to.”
The system that is supposed to serve justice, the Committee on Discipline, is a sort of pseudo-legal or paralegal system authorized to legislate on potentially criminal issues; it is not mutually exclusive with the criminal justice system but because students may be reluctant to go to the police, especially on a sexual assault case, some cases may be judged only by this legal system, which has different evidential standards and, because it is made up of students, may exercise different levels of clemency. And because the Committee on Discipline is so closely associated with the Administration, it seems important to question what such a self-interested party’s priorities may be when dealing with cases of sexual assault. Galit says that “our system of internally dealing with questions of sexual assault is one akin to Amherst’s; it’s one that other universities have changed and reevaluated…the models we have in place to address sexual health and well-being in general should be critically reevaluated.”
Though the students who make up the Committee on Discipline care about what they do and about justice, a system whose priority is giving justice to the victims and perpetrators of sexual assault must be dissociated from an authority whose priority seems to be safeguarding Princeton’s reputation. This is the authority that preferred not to publish the 2008 sexual experiences survey because, as Women’s Center Director Amanda Sandoval said, “in this news environment, people would make a big deal about it.” Not creating a ruckus in the press was more important than admitting that a problem existed and exists on campus and needs to be addressed—that change needs to happen.
As Triangle sings to us every year, “Nothing ever happens in Princeton,” but that’s how Princeton likes it. And the idea that Princeton must forever stay exactly as it always has been carries the troubling corollary that Princeton is perfect as it is. The reality that 1 in 6 women experienced non-consensual vaginal penetration in this supposedly pristine place no doubt incited too much cognitive dissonance to be disseminated to the public. I find it maddening that a university that celebrates exceptionalism covers up the evidence that it is just like all others in this saddest of ways.
In an institution that constantly lauds itself as a collection of the most enlightened young people in the world, there exists a culture in which my friend W. can say, without irony, that a guy explicitly asking for consent would be awkward and kill the mood and that a girl shouldn’t back out of sex once she is back in someone’s room—that instead of refusing at the last minute and being a tease, she should just act maturely and go with it.
Before you start looking for this guy W. to prosecute him for all the rapes he has probably committed, W. is a straight girl. It was shocking to see that this strong, ballsy woman who wouldn’t take shit from anyone had internalized misogyny to this degree. What could I say to that? That maybe not everyone is brave enough to speak up? That for many women, there has been at least one time when they would’ve liked to be given an out, and would’ve taken it?
Galit offered a more sobering take on that situation: that we misunderstand what gaining consent is. The assumption that sexual assault simply consists of a failure to go down some “lame” laundry list of permissions asked is incredibly immature. “People need to understand,” said Galit, “that the other person needs to actively decide to participate. Both parties should think within themselves: How does this person feel? Do I think they want to be here? How can I make sure they’re having a good time?”
As I heard her say those words, I was shocked at how obvious they sounded, and yet how unfamiliar they were. This was common-sense advice that I had never really been given. Perhaps because something about them edged too close to the reality of sex, which many people consider more unacceptable than leaving young people without practically applicable guidance.
Galit, along with fellow senior Lauren Prastien, has worked to change this. They are a leader of Let’s Talk Sex, a sex-positivity-focused offshoot of Sustained Dialogue that made every attempt to work with the USG to plan a Princeton Sex Week similar to events hosted by Harvard and Yale with an aim to demystify the topic of sexuality.
You’ve probably never heard of this initiative at Princeton because even before it was announced it received considerable blowback from religious and conservative organizations on campus and was shut down. Galit said that when working with the USG, she felt everyone was very friendly but could not ignore “a general sense that we were a bunch of Birkenstock-wearing granola liberals trying to stir up controversy.” The Administration seemed to have deemed Yale and Harvard’s Sex Weeks too radical. According to a source that requested anonymity, the Administration informed the USG that it would neither support nor allow a Princeton Sex Week because of alumni donors. But the force for immobilism that Princeton alumni have shown themselves to be is hurting students by keeping them from gaining more enlightened views. If we’re not mature enough to handle the topic of sex, the atmosphere of puritanism and prudishness that pervades this campus will only keep us from becoming so. As it is, sex is a taboo, titillating subject, good for gossiping or joking around about, but a frank conversation about sex that isn’t sanitized or medicalized “is something that still seems to be radical,” says Galit.
But sexuality makes up part of our identity, and when, at our age, we are driven to explore our identity, how can we make sure that happens in a healthier environment if we can’t be educated about it in a reasonable manner? Is it so contentious to say that education about a topic allows us to understand it? This is perhaps the real problem: that education has, at some point, failed us.
Just like everyone else, I thought that education was supposed to make people better. I was told all my life—we have all been told, all our lives—that civilization is a rampart against our baser instincts, that art exalts the soul, that love of learning brings people together. So I would like to make sense of this evidence that all the philosophy in the world cannot stop some of us from sometimes doing a horrible thing to another human being, and all of us from avoiding the topic like a family secret.
We have been hailed as the leaders of tomorrow as if that makes us better than other people. To make ourselves better than we are now, at least, perhaps we could be honest about Princeton’s culture and its deep flaws and fault lines. We could swallow our fear of stepping out of line and speak up if we feel someone’s words or actions are unacceptable. And we should give the benefit of the doubt to those who report non-consensual sexual contact, and not dismiss their stories or assume they misunderstood the situation. Whether we do this to assuage our consciences, or out of a sense of duty, if we could empathize with the victims and begin to talk frankly about what circumstances allowed them to be sexually assaulted, that would be a step towards all of us becoming truly worthy of the advantages we’ve been given and becoming truly better than what we are.