The Silence of the Lambs

One of the Ivy League schools that participated in the American Association of Universities’ study on campus rape and sexual assault, the University of Pennsylvania, picked up on the discrepancy that advocates of the outcome ignored.

About a third of Penn female undergraduates say they’ve been sexually assaulted, according to the results of the American Association of Universities’ Campus Climate survey, whose results were released on Sept. 21. Specifically, 27 percent of female undergraduates have experienced “nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching involving physical force or incapacitation” since entering college.

But there’s an interesting discrepancy when the statistics are examined more closely: Only 30.7 percent of women who said they were sexually assaulted while at Penn actually reported it by senior year — a small fraction of the total number of women.

At the same time, 58.1 percent of students overall believe that a report will be taken seriously by the administration, raising the question of why Penn students don’t speak up.

There are two narratives proffered to explain this discrepancy.  Those who advocate for the premise that rape is so ubiquitous on college campuses that rebel militias in the Congo feel inadequate contend that it’s because women are so helpless, so frozen, so powerless, so traumatized, that they cannot bring themselves to speak of the horrors of their experience.

In other words, their silence is proof that rape is not merely pervasive, but too terrifying to complain about, and therefore the need to eradicate sexual misconduct on campus is overarching.

The other narrative is the one suggested in the Daily Pennsylvanian.

The AAU survey suggests that it isn’t because students don’t believe in the university’s ability to advocate for them. Rather, it’s because they don’t believe that what happens to them is serious enough to report or important enough to go through the hassle.

In light of the breathtaking breadth of the scope of rape and sexual assault, whether in the words of surveys or the minds of self-described victims, this isn’t entirely shocking.  When an undesired invitation to go to dinner falls within the ambit of sexual assault, even the most fervent advocate realizes that they aren’t going to get a lot of mileage out of their complaint.

But Penn’s director of student sexual violence prevention and education, Jessica Mertz, whose job and income would never influence her views, isn’t taking this lying down:

“In my experience, part of the reason is that students have an idea of what, in their head, they think what reporting means, and it’s very different from what it actually looks like and what the options actually are,” Mertz said. “Reporting doesn’t have to look like going to the police, necessarily; it could be different depending on what the person’s needs are.”

“If people are experiencing coerced sex or incapacitation or force, but they’re not calling it sexual assault, then they’re generally not reaching out for help,” she added.

If it’s not one rationalization, it’s another. What it cannot be is that the baggage-laden phrases now used to characterize pedestrian conduct is just, well, trivial nonsense.

Coerced sex?  That used to be called seduction, where one person sought to persuade another that sex would be a good thing.  To suggest it’s coercion is to suggest that women lack the capacity to resist, to make up their own minds, to be responsible for their own choices. Mertz must think very poorly of women.

Incapacitation?  There isn’t much issue that a blacked out women is incapable of consent, and that sex with an unconscious person is rape. But then, incapacitation is a different word than “unconscious,” and has been variously subject to the idea that any alcohol, no matter how minimal, ends a woman’s agency to consent. Or at worst, its a line left to anyone’s guess.

But force?  This is a tough one, as it would seem any woman forced to have sex against her will is more than sufficiently serious to report to authorities.  Except even this word, force, has been diminished to the point of meaninglessness.

The word “force” has been stolen from our lexicon to become the catch-all for any conduct that, either before, during or after (and sometimes long after), fails to reflect a choice that remains pleasant in perpetuity.  The reason it has been usurped, like the word “rape” itself, is that it conjures up the image of a horrific violation.  It’s a carefully manipulated word, compelling one to inquire when used, “and what exactly happened that you were ‘forced’?”

All of this creates an untenable scenario.  If the failure to report conduct that one calls “rape” or “sexual assault” proves its existence, then it becomes rather difficult to believe or dispute. Much like someone’s embrace of a zombie in the sky, it relies solely on belief.  And there are, clearly, a great many people who believe.

On the other hand, if a third of the co-eds at Penn are claiming they were the victims of rape and sexual abuse, but just couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it, then the problem isn’t that there is a rape epidemic on campus, but a feelz epidemic that has turned the banal sexual relationships of college students into a sexual battleground.

Logic suggests that one narrative is far stronger, far less dependent on a blind belief that posits excuses in lieu of evidence.  But then, logic has nothing to do with dogma. And there is no reasonable discussion with ideologues that will change their religion that the deafening silence means exactly what it shows.

2 thoughts on “The Silence of the Lambs

  1. QN

    Another important factor, to my mind, is the definition of “nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching involving physical force or incapacitation.” To a lawyer, that sounds like the classic definition of rape. But when you look at the definition actually used in the survey, you find out that definition includes “verbal coercion.”

    Or at least it did with respect to the University of Michigan study. When you actually drilled down to the number of self-reported incidents of what would be considered rape under the law, the statistics line up more with NIJ CrimeStat.

    But, to be fair to these people (and I’m really, really trying), I think the AAU survey could be useful if you cared, for example, about allocating administrative resources. If a large portion of the student population does *feel* (I know, I know) that they’ve been violated, you might devote a larger percentage of administrative resources to counseling or whatever. The problem is when you take these AAU surveys and use them to justify the quasi-criminal Star Chamber insanity that is the student disciplinary system.

    Just my $.02.

    1. SHG Post author

      If I wanted to burn a few thousand more words, I could get down in the weeds, line by line, with the definitional (on many levels) problems. Space limits (and the attention span on the internets) precludes that in a blawg post.

      As for the allocation of resources, perhaps a better approach is to give a smack to the perpetually miserable and outraged rather than enable their elevation to victimhood. Once enabled, they won’t get any better.

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