Perry: Rethinking Relationships

In the #MeToo era, can men and women finally be themselves?

by Tony Perry | 10/9/18 2:15am

As the country reflects on allegations of sexual assault against a young, drunk Brett Kavanaugh, I cannot help but think about my own college days at Dartmouth in the late 1990s. I did not sexually assault anyone, but I can see how it could happen and wish I knew then what I know now.

When I was at Dartmouth, the Greek system all but defined social life. It was a marked contrast to my high school days at a math and science boarding school in Oklahoma, where alcohol could get you expelled. I had my first beer in the basement of a hot, packed fraternity — a cheap, bitter and watery lager consumed not for enjoyment, but for intoxication.

Like most Dartmouth students then, I spent many weekends going from house to house, drinking, dancing and hoping luck might lead to more. I thought drunken hookups were good things and just part of college life for those who had them. That, I thought, was the point of going out each weekend.

I hadn’t really thought about what is meant by consent, beyond the obvious fact that “no means no.” I didn’t think about whether two drunken, lust-fuelled people could make an informed decision about something that could affect them for the rest of their lives. It’s about more than the “walk of shame” we laughed about. It’s about the possibility of a life of regret.

I see this playing out so clearly with Brett Kavanaugh. Whether or not he sexually assaulted a young Christine Blasey Ford, he certainly liked his beer and his nights out in high school and at Yale — just like many at Dartmouth have. I don’t doubt that a sober, hard-working Brett Kavanaugh wouldn’t have dreamed of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford or anyone else; the question is whether a drunken Brett Kavanaugh did.

Nearly 20 years since graduating, I now find myself working in a quality improvement team at a mental health hospital in Oxford, England and doing similar volunteer work with a hospital in Lahore, Pakistan. I have seen that when things go wrong — such as a hospital-acquired infection, wrong-site surgery or a death in hospital by suicide — the solutions more often than not lie in the environment. This is not to say that individuals, like Brett Kavanaugh, aren’t responsible for their own actions — they are.  However, it is essential to look at the environment and the underlying social culture in order to see lasting change.

As a student, I felt the pressure of the Greek system. I was a non-Greek and often felt like an outsider. Though weekend parties were usually open to all, real popularity and social success belonged to those selected as members of fraternities and sororities — especially the “right” fraternities and sororities. I saw that in who got invited by whom to formals, and how the guys who got on most with women (and vice versa) behaved. 

I also felt the power of peer pressure and the wish to belong. To spend more time with women, I had to win the favor of men. This was no easy feat, given that I’d always felt more comfortable around women. I tried to prove my worth and certainly had my moments. I drank more than I should have, tried to dance at parties (badly) and hoped that “luck” would go my way. It just wasn’t me. I preferred quiet nights in with friends over nights out but struggled to admit it.   

Bring that together with crowds of young people and it’s so easy to see how someone could cross the line. It just takes a moment for it to happen. I can see Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge having a drunken laugh together — perhaps about “getting lucky” that night — just as Christine Blasey Ford enters the room. As sexual assault cases at Dartmouth show, that kind of moment is all it takes.

I felt that being Greek — or not — was a life-defining choice. If I couldn’t make life work at Dartmouth, then what chance did I have in the “real world”? I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I knew that there is a very big world beyond the Hanover plain, made up of people with all sorts of goals and dreams. I wish I could tell myself that it’s okay to be myself — and that, by doing so, I could truly grow. I wish I could tell myself that it would all work out in the end — that I’d find a fulfilling job, have a wonderful family and lead a fulfilling life doing things I would never have dreamed of. I would have been much happier.

The #MeToo era gives me hope, even as we as a society are still working out what it means for our day-to-day interactions and the crimes of the past. True progress, in my mind, will see people coming together based on the compatibility of their characters and their values, rather than what they see or don’t see through beer-tinted goggles.  

I’m pleased that Dartmouth is leading the way on improving students’ social lives with the ban on hard alcohol and the development of the housing communities. I hope today’s students see that they can make friends and have relationships by simply being themselves. Life is hard enough without trying to be like someone else.

Perry is a member of the Class of 1999.

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