Imagining Responsible Victim Responsibility

Residential counselors received an email last week with information that they could then pass on to their residents regarding the upcoming Homecoming weekend. The following portion of this email, which was posted on the Facebook group Fixing Amherst College’s Sexual Violence Problem and then later quoted in a Newsweek article, sparked much controversy and discussion.

“Keep an eye out for unwanted sexual advances. A lot of alums come back for Homecoming pretty jaded with the bar scene and blind dating of the real world and are eager to take advantage of what they now perceive to be an ’easy’ hook up scene back at Amherst. Also, many alums tend to be pretty drunk all weekend long. Alert your residents to this unfortunate combination and keep an eye on your friends, your residents and yourself.”

One of the lines along which this issue was debated was the assertion that this email was never meant to be seen by the general student body and was intended solely for the RC’s. This might be the case, (although friends have received this portion of the email from their RC’s in the years past), but is irrelevant to a discussion about whether or not the thought behind such an email was concerning. It is troubling enough that if all that was required to fix this email was a “translation” into appropriate language, the burden of doing this was to fall on RC’s, who although extensively trained, are still also students. However, it is the implication that all that was needed was a rendition in the right words without a change in intention and this was all merely an issue of semantics is what disquieted me the most, because this is simply not the case. Such an impulse to change words without changing meaning is the problem with politically correct and euphemistic speech, which not only doesn’t fix the problem, but also delegitimizes people’s right to point out there is a problem.

So, what was exactly the problem with this email? First, there was the trivialization of rape as something “jaded alums do”. Such a notion is roundly insulting to both survivors who hear a violent crime reduced to a mere outcome of a few bad dates and alums who are characterized as having no agency over their actions. People do not become sexual offenders by virtue of graduation and having entered the “real world”, and though some alumni might be rapists, this has nothing to do with their being alumni. It would have been more honest and accurate to say that sexual offenders among the alumni were more likely to act here at the College because of a decreased likelihood of facing serious consequences as compared to the “real world”. It is this which makes the hookup scene “easy”, rather than the willingness of students to participate. Second is the reiteration of the tired cliché of drunkenness of the perpetrator causing (and therefore excusing) sexual violence. It is people who act, not substances.

Neither of the above points appear to be particularly contentious and should on their own be sufficient grounds for saying that this email was inappropriate. However, most of the debate I encountered was centered on a third point that claimed the issue was placing the burden of not being raped on students. It was argued that this basically amounted to victim blaming, and though critics of this view were sympathetic, they countered that as long as we lived in a world where rape still was a problem, we were obligated to keep our women safe by informing them of potential danger. Growing up resenting warnings about not leaving the house after a certain point, but nevertheless heeding those warnings because of the very real danger they pertained to, I am not unfamiliar with either point.

However, the choice need not be between sending an email that tells women to watch out and not sending an email at all. Placing the burden of safety on potential victims is problematic, but the truth is that we live in a society where it happens all the time, explicitly or otherwise. What makes this brand of victim responsibility particularly chilling is that does not allow for any real action by the individual. Instead, RCs could be advised to remind residents that they could call Campus Police at any time should they feel uncomfortable, reiterate to students what the procedure is to report an assault and stress that the college would be supportive whatever the “value” of the alum in question might be (already students are afraid to report misconduct by classmates, so the perceived power dynamic between a student and an alum must be even more paralyzing). All of these solutions place the burden of action on the potential victim, but the burden of action is easier to bear than that of helplessness. Further, the College is itself accountable to act in some manner in each of the steps suggested above that might encourage moving towards an institutional rather than individual push against sexual violence.

However, even if we put these in place, we must not grow complacent. Victim blaming, however well intentioned, is still victim blaming and this cannot be our only plan. These are temporary fixes and must only be seen as scaffolding in the process of building a community where the impulse to tell women to “watch out” no longer has a place.the administration’s, to define, clarify, communicate and, most of all, make a conscious effort to live out those values.