Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed and contributed to a conversation emerging within the student body (and engaging the school’s faculty) about sexual disrespect and assault. A lot of the focus of the discourse has been on the clear need for systemic and administrative change. However, I think that this ongoing conversation presents us with an opportunity to modify the way the men of Amherst think about sex and, more broadly, about our own gender.
First, I’d like to talk about victim blaming, an attitude that is perhaps more implicitly than explicitly present on this campus (misogyny has become rather uncouth in elite academia since Lawrence Summers quit Harvard), but is still present nonetheless. Blaming victims of sexual assault for their assault is offensive to me on two levels: I think the belief that anyone would ever willingly do something to invite violation, fully aware of this invitation, is nothing short of cruel; but more deeply, this line of arguing implies that the male gender is so base and primitive that they just can’t help themselves from raping — that the biological impulse toward sex is so strong in men that it eclipses all other functions.
Victim blaming encapsulates a larger social belief that the onus ought to fall on the woman to not get assaulted (as if she has some kind of control over it). I think it would be a lot better if we held the perpetrators of sexual misconduct accountable for their actions — “teach men not to assault.” But what does it mean, what would that lesson look like? We men of Amherst are in a unique position — because our gender is (9 times out of 10) the one that assaults, we have considerably more agency in shaping that lesson than the victims.
The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults on college campuses involve the consumption of alcohol. I think that men need to acknowledge that alcohol diminishes the capability to read and interpret social cues, and that there is risk present in this — it’s dangerous to not be able to understand what other people are trying to communicate to you (this advice isn’t necessarily male-specific, but it’s gendered in the interest of my larger point).
There’s a difference between attraction and objectification — to objectify someone is to deconstruct him or her to the most basic of all observable traits, to center the loci of identity and worth singularly on his or her capacity to give or receive sexual pleasure. I hear objectifying speech all over campus, and I’m sure that I’ve been guilty of it in my own life; it’s the messy mode of cultural thought we’ve been socialized into. But by acknowledging the larger implications of such a reductionist interpretation of human beings — namely, that men are desensitized to women through objectifying thought and speech — we can, as a community, move closer toward a place of equality and safety.
The things I’ve presented here are not new or radical thoughts, and I believe some parts of them go without saying. My goal isn’t to chastise or berate the men on this campus — not all men are rapists (or even rapists in waiting); further, we didn’t elect to be born men. But I am challenging you, the men of Amherst, to examine our presence on campus, to interrogate the ways in which we are privileged and to understand that the actions of some hurt us all. What do you value? I’m challenging you to think about what kind of a man you want to be. I’m challenging you to do better.