Opinion

At colleges plagued with date rape, why 'no' still means 'yes'

In the context of date-rape statistics, the sexually charged antics of college men aren’t just harmless fun. Up to 30 percent of college women have been victims of date rape. It's time to change the campus culture that entitles male sexual dominance.

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The recent “She Roars” conference at Princeton celebrated 42 years of coeducation and featured such powerhouse alumnae as Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, and Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp. When I entered Princeton in 1973, the university had been coed for four years. Now, it was hosting a celebration of women’s empowerment, unveiling a landmark study on undergraduate women’s leadership.

On the conference’s opening night, a female a cappella group, the Princeton Tigerlilies, gave a concert. The girls sang prettily, dressed in short black frocks and high pumps.

Then the group’s all male a cappella counterpart, the Nassoons, performed. For the song “ShamaLama,” they serenaded one of the Tigerlilies onstage, with choreography: In rhythm, they pantomimed unzipping their flies, and bluntly thrust their pelvises forward at the lone young woman on stage. Sixteen guys, one girl. The guys smirked, the girl smiled meekly.

I am an ex-director of a collegiate a cappella group. As are my husband and both of our sons. We’re steeped in the traditions and humor. But this was worse than tacky. Women around me were agape with disbelief.

Should we have been surprised, with Yale being sued for its frat boys chanting “No means yes,” and headlines on alleged sexually predatory behavior dominating the news (think Dominique Strauss-Kahn)? Despite decades of women’s “empowerment,” male sexual prerogative is alive and well in our society, and among these Princeton undergrads.

Remembering a rainy night in 1973

My She Roars schedule showed no events addressing this kind of hostile environment or date rape – and only a glancing reference to sexual assault in the “Undergraduate Women and Leadership” report.

I began feeling angry. Because of the way my own life had changed at Princeton during freshman year. On a rainy night, whose events I’d suppressed for years until hearing a report about date rape on NPR brought it back.

Following a big exam, my resident advisor (RA) treated his rugby friends and me to a beer at a neighborhood roadhouse. After we returned to the dorm and said our goodnights, there was a knock at my door. The rugby team captain asked if he could sleep on my roommate’s vacant bed, since it would be such a rainy walk up campus.

I still don’t know why I let him in. I was not drunk; I remember every minute of the next hour. I said no, he said yes. I struggled; he was the rugby player. When he had finished raping me, he went back to his dorm in the rain. I remember him calling the next day to “see how I was.” I remember hearing people laughing in the background.

He was the friend of my RA, someone I respected. It didn’t make sense. I told no one. I stayed in my nightgown the whole next day.

For years I thought that by letting the guy in, I was somehow complicit in the crime.

A culture largely unchanged

I wonder about the climate for Princeton women now, where girls smile prettily while sixteen men pantomime what is essentially gang rape in front of an audience of middle-aged women, many of them moms.

Sexual conquest for a nineteen-year-old man is one step on the ladder to success. Not so for the nineteen-year-old girl who did not consent.

When the memories of my incident surfaced, I called my pastor. She had had a similar experience as an undergrad. How many others are keeping this hidden?

I am lucky, married to a man who respects and loves me, and the mother of two sons who are self-aware gentlemen. Why not simply be grateful for this wonderful conference at my alma mater, filled with brilliant women and old friends? Why write about this now?

Because I still carry the events of 37 years ago with me, as will many woman who have been raped. And because there is a girl reading this now who will be starting at Cornell in the fall, or Penn State, or Miami, who will be entering an environment largely unchanged from the Princeton campus I walked onto nearly four decades ago.

It’s a culture where “no still means yes.” It’s a culture where male sexual dominance (and violence) underlies daily interactions, frat parties, and even a cappella concerts. Skeptics might protest, “They were only having harmless fun. Those guys aren’t rapists.” But it’s precisely this kind of attitude of sexual conquest that entitles men to rape women. And there’s nothing harmless about that.

How campuses entitle men to rape

The date rape statistics speak for themselves. One in four women will be sexually assaulted on a college campus. Between 15 and 30 percent of college women have been victims of acquaintance rape at some point in their lives. And these aren’t violations at the hands of strangers on the street.

According to the National Victims Center, 84 percent of women know their assailant. And 57 percent of rapes occur on a date. For women victims ages 18 to 29, two-thirds know their attacker. And more than 60 percent of rapes occur in residences.

That’s the reality we’re sending our bright college women into. In context, the antics of those college a cappella boys aren’t the stuff of innocent comedy. Those moves are representative of a larger culture that accepts and desensitizes us to sexual violence against women.

I keep asking myself: Why was there nothing in Princeton's She Roars conference that addressed this? College campuses can no longer afford to be complicit in this culture. Women – and men – need to take a stand to change the language, the behaviors, the relationships, the clubs, and the institutions that allow it.

The benefit will be a wiser, more open, more equal society in general.

And perhaps the men's a cappella performance at the next She Roars conference will not be quite so tone-deaf.

Tina deVaron is a singer/pianist/songwriter based in New York City. For the last six years, she has been featured at the Carlyle Hotel's Madeline's Tea event and for many years entertained at the Waldorf-Astoria. She has released two CDs of her songs about motherhood (If Mama Ain't Happy and Water Over Stones), and is working on a musical based on her songs.

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