Sexual Respect: Let’s Be Better Than Decent

“On Behalf of the Amherst Men’s Soccer Team” has been shared hundreds of times on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you’re a member of the Amherst community, you couldn’t have missed it because the President of the College kindly placed it in your inbox. Despite all the attention, this article hardly deserves such enthusiastic praise. A claim like, “we have found success by valuing the ideal of doing the right thing even when no one is watching” puts on a façade that misrepresents how much work we still need to do to combat sexual misconduct on this campus.

At the outset, it’s important that I acknowledge what it means for me to write this as a man. At every level of this society, men speak on behalf of women and pretend to understand what women go through. I write these words intending them to represent my own experience as an Amherst College community member and student athlete. I write these words because I have watched as members of marginalized communities on campus are ignored time and time again while the members of other privileged groups are put on a pedestal. Since I recognize that the author of this article and reactions to it continue to downplay the experiences and existence of these communities, I feel compelled to help create a space for the voices of these marginalized groups to be amplified.

According to the Title IX Office, there were 58 incidents of sexual misconduct on our campus in 2014, and undoubtedly more that went unreported. The Huffington Post article asserts that Donald Trump’s conception of locker room behavior isn’t representative of the Amherst men’s soccer team’s locker room. However, in our celebration of this article, we risk becoming complacent in combating the incidents of sexual disrespect and assault that still occur. The publication and spread of the article have the intended result of depicting Amherst in a positive light. It is the President’s job to present the College in the best light to the general public, which she has done. However, we must recognize the unintended consequence of minimizing just how rampant sexual assault is, the ways in which people occupy space on campus and how much further we must go to address these issues.

The article provides such an idealistic view of sexual respect on our campus that it leaves our shortcomings as an afterthought. The author waits until the second to last paragraph to simply say that sexual assault must be taken seriously and commits just half of a sentence to acknowledge the imperfections. Our celebration of this article is excessive because the article does not sufficiently address the fact that sexual assault is a deep-seated problem not only on our campus, but on many others across the country.

I was surprised when I opened my email on Oct. 16 to see the subject line: “Student promotes decency in Huff Post.” Our Admission Office puts out materials each year meant to give prospective students insight into life at Amherst. Will our future Admission literature be emblazoned “Amherst: We Are Decent”? It is comical that we’d congratulate ourselves, so enthusiastically and publicly, on being so decent at treating victims of sexual assault respectfully. Is this standard of mediocrity one we really want to set and hold ourselves to?

Even as we claim mediocrity, the article distracts us from the fact that vicious language like Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” actually exists. Three weeks ago, you could have asked any citizen of this country: “Do you think a presidential candidate would say that he’d grab a woman by the pussy?” Their immediate response would have been: “I can’t imagine that’s possible.” You might have followed up: “Do you think that more than half this country might condone a statement like that enough to still vote for said candidate?” They would have said: “I can’t imagine that’s possible.” Of course we can’t imagine it’s possible, especially at a place like Amherst. I didn’t imagine it would be possible to hear a fellow student athlete use the word “nigger” in a joke or compare black men to mud, but problematic and ignorant language seeps into our culture here, and it is not confined to locker rooms. It is about time we wake up and realize that it is irresponsible for anyone in our community, especially those in positions of power, to pretend like these issues aren’t present on our campus and in our locker rooms.

An email sent out to everyone affiliated with the college, students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents, is a true indication of what’s considered important to this community. Elevating the voice of a privileged white male athlete perpetuates the silencing of continually marginalized groups. In this case, it especially silences the women who speak out eloquently and persistently on these topics. Amherst claims to be a place where every community member is valued and heard inside and outside of the classroom. The all-school email places higher value on the Huffington Post article because of the author’s social position.

The article was featured prominently on the Amherst website homepage to ensure the audience would include the most readers possible, including prospective students and other curious outsiders. Initially shared with the Huffington Post, a response to the men’s soccer article also appeared this week on the Amherst homepage. Focusing on just two perspectives on this issue sweeps it under the rug, stifling a deeper examination, conversation and opportunity for action throughout the community while further marginalizing other voices. It’s crucial that we overcome our inaction in ways that reach every corner of our campus. The onus falls on the administration to lead this charge.

So thank you, men’s soccer, for pointing out that this issue needs our attention. And thank you, President Martin, for proclaiming that sexual disrespect doesn’t have any place at Amherst. Pockets of conversation have begun to address the lingering shortcomings that our school continues to face. Instead of just patting ourselves on the back, let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard of accountability and create spaces where all voices can be elevated, heard and respected.