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My Alma Mater’s Handling of Rape-A Response to The New York Times Article

July 16, 2014

As a graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges (‘08) I’ve spent the last few days trying to organize my thoughts surrounding the New York Times story “Reporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t.”  The article tells the story of Anna, a current student who reported her rape and sexual assault to the colleges last September. The piece details the subsequent hearing held by the administration over just 12 days and the eventual clearing of all three accused football players. Anna was left with no grounds to press criminal charges, and was instead faced with repercussions of her own while her assailants walked free.

When I read the article, I immediately emailed twelve friends who are also William Smith graduates a link and with my initial reaction of shock, anger, shame, and confusion. Since I sent the email, just three days ago, I have read many responses from fellow graduates and current students as well as President Mark Gearan’s letter addressing the outrage surrounding the article.

Many of these responses are eloquent and embrace positive change for the colleges. Many of them are hateful, spiteful and painful to read. Worst of all, Gearan’s response is cowardly, impersonal, and bureaucratic. In my time at HWS, I looked up to President Gearan as a man with an open mind, a love of learning, and a high level of respect for humanity. But his letter defended the institution, rather than the students the institution is supposed to nurture. As the former director of The Peace Corps, I would have hoped him champion the latter.

HWS is being held up as an example of a nationwide problem. There are comments on the colleges’ Facebook page that read, “Anyone with female children would be insane to send their daughters to this deplorable, violent, misogynist hell hole” and “So very happy I chose a different school for my son.” I had a mostly wonderful experience at Hobart and William Smith, and so did my twelve friends. In emailed responses we agreed that we  may have made some questionable choices, especially involving alcohol while in college, but all-in-all, our memories were mostly positive.

There’s no denying that drinking and sex occur on college campuses. Alcohol impairs judgment, and in the college environment there is a good deal of social pressure that can contribute to the mishandling of rape and sexual assault. However, alcohol does not cause rape and we should be careful to point out that distinction. College students are not going to stop drinking, but they do need to know that drinking is not necessary to have fun, and that drinking too much does not equal more fun. Andrea Rosenthal (’08) posed a question that I think is important to ask. If “the culture of college lends itself to these situations, how do we get THAT to change? How do you tell young women and men they don’t need to get absolutely black out to be social, enjoy college and have a fun experience, especially when we did a lot of the time?”

As women, we need to stand up for ourselves when we know that we have been taken advantage of, and as a society we need to stop rationalizing rape and sexual assault. This is not easy to do. Consent is a tricky thing, especially when alcohol is involved, but “no means no” is taught in rape prevention classes for a reason. There are no grey areas and there are no exceptions. It doesn’t matter what the relationship between victim and assailant is or was in the past, it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator was attractive, or what the victim was wearing or whether or not there were witnesses.

We have to stop making excuses for abusive behavior as a society. Eileen Casey-Campbell (’07) wrote, “I’m angry that anyone could assault another human being. I’m angry about the culture that leads to sexual violence and leads us to hide it away in shame. I’m angry that a corporate institution gets to adjudicate felonies with no oversight and arbitrary procedures.”

As William Smith graduates, we stand behind Anna’s bold decision to go public with her story. I encourage current students at HWS, and colleges across the nation to remember this story and act bravely to combat rape culture on campus.

These are not the words of scared, judgmental, entitled girls, these are the words of William Smith Graduates. These are the words of the community that stands behind Anna, and the words of intelligent women of William Smith who are ready for a global change.

So how do we shift the conversation towards change? How do we stop the slut-shaming and the institution-shaming, the misogyny and the favoritism towards athletes? How do we turn this very brave young student’s tragic experience into the lesson that she undoubtedly wanted us to learn from stepping forward with her story? I am not sure.

Suggestions ranged from starting organizations to push for qualified experts on every campus, revamping Title IX procedures, to starting or joining an organization that pushes for qualified men and women on every campus to handle sexual assault cases.

All of these options are good, but the best thing we can do is not get on with our lives, but continue the discussion and perpetuate the positivity and the humanity instead of the shame and the negativity. We all want love and respect and joy in our lives, so instead of focusing on what everyone has done wrong, let’s teach the next generation those values and pass along these lessons from our mistakes. Hopefully, Hobart and William Smith and colleges nationwide will follow our lead.

 

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