Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement
Editors’ note: This is the first of a series that we will be doing on examining the culture that makes possible sex assault not only at Notre Dame but throughout the United States.
Editors’ note 2.0 (September 1, 2015): This piece offers one narrative-based perspective on the culture of sexual assault that permeates college campuses. It is directed fundamentally to men, inviting them to recognize their own culpability is fostering a culture in which assault is possible. Future posts, occurring throughout the fall of 2015, will attend more to the situations that foster this culture. These pieces, presently being assembled through dialogue among Notre Dame undergraduates and those involved in residence life both here and beyond will deal with power dynamics among men and women; the role of pornography in misshaping sexual desire; the problems of the hook-up and party culture in forming assumptions about sexual activity among undergraduates that leave women in particular vulnerable to assault; and, what it means to discuss “healing” in terms of these assaults.
Some classes had yet to meet twice when those of us at the University of Notre Dame received the first email of the year reporting an alleged sexual assault in a campus residence hall. Two days later, another email arrived, this time announcing two possible crimes at once: one was described as “non-consensual sexual contact” and the other was the second reported assault of the week. To be honest, I sort of forgot about emails like this over the course of the summer. Even still, when I opened the first one I wasn’t immediately shocked because, for better or worse, the email looked quite a lot like all the other ones I received last year regarding similar incidences. It has almost become standard in a college environment like ours to exchange these emails every few weeks, sometimes with campus or local news stories to follow, and sometimes not. If not for an unclear decision made under the influence of alcohol more than 15 years ago, I could have been the reason for a similar report.
I was a freshman living in an undergraduate residence hall at the very same institution at which I now teach. On some weekend night in the middle of the unending winter months, some of my Zahm Hall dorm-mates were hosting a party in the 1A section. These guys were very good friends with a group of girls that all the rest of us thought were incredibly attractive (we used different language then). I don’t remember what we drank that night, but I do know that we consumed plenty. I was drunk but still had some of my wits about me, while Mandy (not her real name) was probably less aware of herself than I was.
I don’t know how or why I ended up back in my own room—148 Zahm Hall—in the B-section of the first floor while the A-section party was still going strong, but I do know that Mandy ended up back in there with me. I remember sitting next to each other on the floor next, in between our cheap couch and our cheap TV, and I remember the surprise that, despite what I would have expected, Mandy was coming on to me.
The reason I know that I still had some of my wits about me is because I remember that very moment in clear and vivid terms. I remember what I felt and what she looked like—that is, I remember that she was as stunning as she ever even as I was dimly aware that she was not fully herself. Noticing that about her made me feel some kind of inner pause or some stir of conscience or maybe just fleeting fear. All the same, I also felt excitement. This was the kind of moment with the sort of young woman that, in some unspoken manner, I wanted to find myself in. And there I was, and there she was; we were in my room and she was willing, or at least it seemed so. And then something happened. I really don’t know if or how I made this decision, but instead of responding in kind to what I perceived as her advance, I took her to her friends and I went back to mine.
I want to be clear about this: though my memory of that encounter is clear, whatever decision I made or instinct I followed was not at all clear to me. It was not a conscious act of virtue. It was also not the first time I had been drunk with a girl who was also drunk, but it may have been the first time I noticed the difference in how we were functioning, cognizant of the situational power differential between us.
I want to be clear about something else, too: though I probably went in to that night vaguely or maybe even actively hoping that, by some turn of luck, I would find myself in a situation very much like the one I found myself in, I know for certain that I had no intention of taking advantage of anyone. I don’t think that thought has ever crossed my mind, thanks be to God. All the same, had I acted otherwise, I would have had a very hard time convincing myself that I had not taken advantage of her in that situation. This is the realm of sexual assault, or at least “non-consensual sexual contact.”
I don’t know why I didn’t act otherwise: all the momentum was going in that direction. And yet some momentary flash of recognition passed before me, and for some reason I didn’t ignore it. But for that, I might have been the reason for one of those emails I received this week. (The story of my moral growth since then is another story.)
I have observed that when the “issue” of sexual assault on college campuses bubbles up because of some new incident or report or set of statistics, some will point to alcohol and the culture that builds up around it, while others will say that predators are predators and alcohol isn’t the reason they act the way they do. While research does support the claim that the majority of assaults are perpetrated by a small group of (mostly) men, the environment that makes many of these assaults possible is just the sort of environment my friends and I created at that dorm party. If only I had had a couple more shots or if only someone who wouldn’t respond to that flash of recognition the way I had was in that room with Mandy instead of me, the night could have ended very differently.
This isn’t only about alcohol impairing my judgment and it certainly doesn’t mean that Mandy was responsible for the situation we found ourselves in—what it means is that that entire night carried the implicit danger of what almost happened. The line between implicit and explicit in that case was an unwilled thought in the mind of a drunken 19 year-old freshman guy. It is still hard for me to believe I responded to that thought rather than to what I at least perceived to be Mandy’s invitation.
Here’s my point: those who persist in trying to separate the sexual assault “issue” on college campuses from the alcohol issue are dead wrong. If this were an academic article, I would try to veil my opinion in some jargon that we academics are trained to assume so that I could back-peddle a bit if need be to give those who disagree with me some room to operate—that’s just part of the game. Well, this isn’t an academic issue and nothing about this is a game.
So, with all due respect to those who think that sexual assaults and alcohol are separate issues, it has come to the point where all of us involved in higher education are responsible for this culture where section parties in campus residence halls become the occasions for potential or actual sexual assaults. Even when there is not an outright party, this is still a matter of underage or heavy drinking, or both, on campus and off campus. I do not lay this at the feet of the administration: we all bear responsibility. Faculty and staff bear the responsibility for addressing this issue head on, along with the administration, rather than letting it fall back out of view in between emails or academic terms. Students bear the responsibility of cultivating the kind of environment for themselves and their peers where the likelihood of such acts is dramatically reduced. That means taking alcohol out of the equation. This does not just pertain to the partiers; it also pertains to those of us who allow this culture to continue.
In the most direct terms, however, the greatest responsibility belongs to those who continue to create, actively contribute to, or engage in the parties and other events that are the occasions for these crimes against the law and against human dignity. To those students who think they can manage this issue, I say that while it may very well be true that you can hold your liquor, that you would not assault anyone, and that you stand against sexual assault, it is also true that you have a responsibility to take away the most common conditions in which these assaults occur, as do I. You have a responsibility to the community of which you are a part and to the students who may otherwise become victims or perpetrators or something in between because of the culture you endorse. Cutting against that particular culture will certainly cost you some really fun nights. So be it.
Now in my mid-thirties, I would absolutely choose four years of okay college nights for my younger self if it meant avoiding one really fun night where I contributed to an environment that made a sexual assault more likely.