Verbum Ultimum: Upholding Standards

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 5/15/14 7:17pm

It’s not a coincidence that a lawyer defending Parker Gilbert ’16 dismissed the circumstances of the case as “drunken, awkward college sex” (our emphasis). Most view college as a time for experimentation — a period that exists in a vacuum, somehow outside of the real world. Drinking and partying are the norm — ambiguous, questionable and downright traumatizing sexual encounters are far too common. But why must drinking necessarily open the door for brutality, abuse or disrespect? We claim that no one condones sexual assault, but what do we condone?

As Dartmouth students, we are constantly told that we are exceptional, and a rhetoric of exceptionality reaffirms this fact wherever we go. These platitudes create a culture that encourages us to take risks and act boldly but also leads us to see ourselves as better than — or at least different from — others, establishing a dangerous precedent. While students subscribe to the concept of “right” and “wrong” in theory, when their own actions come under scrutiny, they will go to incredible lengths to blur lines that should not be blurred. We ask for week-long extensions. We forge doctors’ notes for better housing. We shrug off hazing as a bonding exercise. We are quick to condemn others for unethical behavior, but when it comes to our own actions, we consider ourselves exceptional.

Often, students paint sexual assault as an issue fraught with ambiguity, referencing cases that allegedly fall into a moral gray area. But sexual misconduct cannot be considered ambiguous. Claiming so undermines and invalidates the experiences of many survivors while exonerating and defending perpetrators. If someone walks away from a sexual interaction feeling violated and dehumanized, there is something wrong with what occurred. And if we write these instances off as ambiguous, there is something wrong with how we treat each other here. Our interactions should not be so lacking in respect and basic communication that it is possible for one party to end up feeling seriously violated without the other even realizing or caring.

We must strive to establish a culture of consent, promoting active communication as the norm. “No means no” is not a sufficient modus operandi. “Yes means yes” should be our baseline standard. Consent must be active and unambiguous — and, to state the absolute obvious, obtained without coercion or incapacitation.

Instances of sexual violence at Dartmouth or on any college campus are not isolated acts in which evil or twisted individuals buck established norms to commit a crime. The issue is far more complex and broad-reaching than a small set of perpetrators acting in a vacuum. Instead, our current campus standards serve to reinforce the perception that assault and coercion are acceptable — or at least not entirely unacceptable — forms of behavior.

We automatically accept that no one condones sexual assault — that we all stand as a united front against it. But this mindset allows us to avoid delving deeper into the root social and cultural causes behind sexual violence at Dartmouth.

Sexual violence involves a complicated interplay of power structures, ranging from race and socioeconomic status to systems particular to Dartmouth, like our Greek life. We call this institution a summer camp, forgetting that our interactions inside the “Dartmouth bubble” still matter. We condone systems that give us an overwhelming sense of entitlement and allow us to eliminate accountability for our actions.

For many, Dartmouth is a safe haven for rule breaking or bending, a place where the standards regarding our behavior are somehow lax or malleable. Our social spaces reflect the broad-sweeping and disturbing lack of respect that pervades the student body. Students pee on floors in fraternity houses with impunity. Others throw cups full of liquid on the ground and leave the mess behind for someone else. Signs in dorms are torn down, food left behind on FoCo tables.

We are both bystanders and participants in a culture that perpetuates disrespect. We are desensitized to the consequences of our actions. We implicitly further the types of attitudes that underpin instances of sexual assault — allowing students to feel entitled to behave irresponsibly and to do what they please with others and with others’ bodies.

The recent policy revision reflects a shift toward enforcing accountability on this campus, a powerful marker of progress and an attempt to uphold the standards of respect to which our community pays so much lip service. But we are not remotely close to ending the fight against sexual assault. We must continue to battle the pervasive groupthink of entitlement and disrespect that facilitates and encourages this epidemic.

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