A Women's Issue? A Political Issue? A Human Issue

by Giavanna Munafo, | 11/21/03 6:00am

Sometimes things happen that open our eyes to issues we consider only when they touch us individually. "Drugged on Campus," a story in the most recent issue of The Dartmouth Free Press, combined with various student and administrative responses to it have done this, I think. "Jane's" choice to speak out has engendered increased awareness, difficult questions and challenging opportunities for us all.

That choice has made possible, maybe even necessary, many conversations and debates now happening in dining halls and classrooms, residence halls and Greek houses. It has raised voices of outrage that believe her story and voices of skepticism that do not. And it has prompted various institutional efforts to insure that students know about relevant resources and have opportunities to express their concerns and bring ideas forward.

Perspectives about what happened when "Jane" interacted with her dean conflict. How people who share one event can experience and remember it so differently is always one of our most troubling human realities. Whatever happened, "Jane" did not feel she received the support she needed. I wish she had willing to seek more help, obtain information about options and contest treatment that felt unfair or inappropriate.

But many of us do not feel comfortable doing these things. And, when we are feeling more needy than usual our ability to ask for help so often plummets. Women experience particular pressures to sacrifice their own needs in order to satisfy the needs of others and internalize responsibility for things that go wrong. These pressures often lead women to accept harmful behaviors rather than challenge them. They also combine with other pressures -- the notion that being a happy, popular woman on campus must include partying hard (as hard as the men, I often hear) and, for straight women, being sought after by popular guys. Do these ideas cause sexual violence or lead to drugging? Do they contribute to heterosexual dynamics that add up to trouble? I'd say yes.

I recently met with a group of students over dinner to talk about what students can do about drugging (including the use of alcohol as a rape drug) and sexual violence on our campus. One student commented that she thought the ways some men on campus are exploring the connections between what it means to be "a man" and the ideas that lead to sexism or violence are very heartening. But, she asked, are we creating parallel structures for women to explore how our ideas about being "a woman" can be unhealthy, even dangerous?

As one of the people on our campus most directly charged with both addressing gender-related issues (gender relations, gender inequity, gender joys, gender troubles) and responding to women's needs/interests, this question got me thinking. I admit to momentary frustration.

Yes, of course we are, I thought, and began an internal inventory of all the speakers, films, workshops, discussions, classes and acrobatics my colleagues and I produce, support or engage in regularly. But, really, I don't know if the College is providing effective (key qualifier) structures and opportunities for students -- not just, but most importantly, women -- make sense of what their world expects of "women." This intellectual, speculative, emotionally challenging endeavor is complex and we all have a role to play. It's about recognizing independent "free" will as well as the forces which warp and/or preclude it. For those who believe that sexism is alive and well, it's about listening respectfully and responding thoughtfully to reservations about or downright rejections of feminist credo -- like the 1 in 4 stat that gets so many people all in a dither. And, it's about examining our own motivations, whether we are radically anti-sexist or proudly patriarchal.

Those who are critical of the attention given to rape and drugging on college campuses tend to dismiss prevention efforts as paranoid hysteria or, more damagingly, a sympton of feminism's victimization of women. This infuriates me. However, if I write off those who ascribe to these beliefs or find them provocative, I will be hampered (if not utterly doomed) in my effort to change a culture imbued with ideas about gender that are harmful for all of us and that, among other things, underwrite violent and destructive behavior, including so-called "date rape."

So, what actually works? Here is where I ask for your help. You tell me. You operate in that culture I assert to be part -- maybe even a huge part -- of the problem (though that same culture is also many other things, some of them fabulous). In what moments do you truly reconsider your own beliefs about gender? What spaces or questions or materials make that happen? It's not (just?) that I am in some sort of administrative bubble it's rather that more ideas lead to better ideas.

I have received some thoughtful responses recently from students who urge me to include "conservative" perspectives as I plan opportunities for ongoing dialogue. When I ask what this request means in more specific terms, I am told that the ways we approach prevention and response "blames" men and is, therefore, counterproductive. Or that we infantilize women by insisting that consent under the influence is not really consent. Or -- from women and men -- that women really can't expect men to respect a "no" given after mutually pursued consensual sex has gotten past some "point of no return".

I think each of these viewpoints arises out of real and meaningful experiences. I think each one expresses the reasonable concerns of good people who know that no one, no matter their judgment or behavior, deserves to be drugged and/or sexually assaulted. This issue is not a liberal or conservative one. It is a human issue.

Every one of us needs to be in the conversation and part of the solution. We must all insist that change is up to us. But first we must accept the fact that men's violence against women is rampant. I say "men's violence against women" intentionally, knowing that doing so both eclipses same sex abuse (as well as abuse of men by women) and triggers many people's impulse to defend men. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge the reality that the overwhelming majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by men against women (largely women they know), and that such crimes occur at alarming rates. Then, together we can start down the road of rebuilding our connections with one another.