A White Male's Perspective on Sexual Assault at Amherst

Last week Professor Thomas L. Dumm wrote an article for The Amherst Student entitled “The Elephant in the Room,” concerning the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct at Amherst and their questionable exclusion of the intersection between athletics and sexual respect issues on campus in their official report on sexual respect released recently. As per usual, the comment board on The Student website quickly overflowed with spewed vitriol and poorly thought out, overly simplistic criticisms. Another day, another superficial and ultimately meaningless dialogue about an important issue.

Responses on the board include statements such as, “This guy is the professor who would stereotype athletes in his class as not good students when almost 40 percent of the school body is on a varsity sports team,” a claim the author has no grounds for. “I would also tell you that a disproportionate number of investment bankers, management consultants, corporate executives and probably doctors were also athletes in college,” which implies that somehow being in a position of power and having social capital somehow equates to having superior morals and therefore being less likely to commit sexual assaults. “Girls tend to be more relaxed and friendly with athletes because they’re more attractive and personable,” which blames females for venturing into athletes’ dorm rooms and finding athletes attractive, rather than looking at the systems of privilege that put men, and often athletes as well, in a position of power and allow them greater opportunity to engage in sexual assault. This all isn’t even to mention the numerous statements which essentially argue that Amherst students are too intelligent and morally superior to rape. Apparently, I did not know that performing well on the SAT makes someone a better person. Great job, Amherst.

Students at this college continue to act out of personal defense more than anything else; as soon as Professor Dumm even opens up the idea that maybe we should even consider looking into how athletics relates to sexual respect, students feel personally attacked and retort, ignorantly, by over-simplifying the contrarian position and claiming that Professor Dumm was generalizing about student athletes. This is despite the fact that he at no point makes any statement judging the actions of athletes on this campus at all. He may imply that there is an increased likelihood of an athlete committing sexual assault, but never argues that a majority of athletes have been involved in sexual assault cases or that there is necessarily any guaranteed evidence of a relationship at all.

Maleness and masculinity, not simply deviance, are systems of privilege that lead to discrimination and rape, and by extension, athletics plays a role in masculinity and thus discrimination. Blaming only those who commit sexual assault and labeling them deviant is highly individualist and de-values the role of societal systems of cultural privilege; it favors the “I” and the “me” and not the “we.” Groups are meaningful social structures, and as members of a group, this is something athletes, and in particular male athletes, need to take own-ness for. Athletes are historically privileged in the US, and that carries with it implications that athletes need to be aware of, regardless of what they personally have or have not done, or whether there is even any statistical connection between sexual assault and athletics at all.

The typical response to this claim is that students who stereotype athletes, or males, are victimizing them and essentially reverse discriminating, thereby committing the same sin as misogyny. However, again, this operates under the idea that stigmatization is always the same. Stereotyping males, or male athletes, as misogynists is wrong and amounts to oversimplification, but it is not, and it cannot, be the same thing as calling a woman a “slut.” Maleness is a privilege as a rule. The same is true for athletics, which is privileged on most, if not all, college campuses and in society as a whole.
When people complain about black comedians making fun of white people in an attempt to show a sort of double standard with respect to racial jokes, they fail to see that there is no system of humor that has served for hundreds of years to oppress whites. They are not the same; blacks can then be racist, but it is not the same thing as white racism. Likewise, claims about reverse discrimination with respect to affirmative action are red herrings; reverse discrimination it may be, but reverse discrimination acts to lift people up to an equal status, not to push already oppressed people down. Thus, stereotyping athletes as rapists is horrible, but it is not the same thing as blaming women, for instance, for wearing revealing clothing, and this is something athletes who feel attacked by Professor Dumm’s statements need to understand.

Therefore, when I hear a male complain that they are being oppressed by the student protestors, a claim I have heard a good few times by multiple people, I do not, as a male, feel comfortable. It reflects a lack of understanding of privilege. It reflects a belief in the “me” and concern only on the actions of specific individuals rather than what those actions represent and the larger cultural, social systems which allow those actions in the first place. A student protestor held up a sign last semester that referenced an attack, followed by one of the attacker’s teammates saying, “Why are you such a slut?” to the victim. I hear people criticizing this statement often, but not the system of privilege that allows for it. This individual was not alone in his statement; he did not just say it because he was insensitive or deviant, but because he is a member of cultures which encourage these factors. So too am I, so even if I did not make that comment, I still have a responsibility to acknowledge the role our shared “maleness” played in this comment. This is not to de-emphasize those who actually do commit more specific sexual disrespect violations, but every male needs to acknowledge that their maleness places them in a group that is statistically more likely to commit rape, and they need to understand the implications of this statement. So to do athletes, even if most athletes have never sexually disrespected anyone, or at least think they have not.

There are statistics that suggest some relationship between athletic participation and sexual assault, and maleness is certainly linked. This does not mean athletes are worse people than non-athletes or that athletes are innately less understanding. If students, whether athletes or not, feel the discussion is heading in this direction, they should step up and present their perspective. However, their perspective should not be a desire to see this discussion dropped entirely; wanting to hush discussion on this issue only confirms the very need to discuss it in the first place. What students can and should do is talk about the role of athletics and sexual assault in an attempt to understand all sides of the issue. After all, if you are an athlete and you feel students are stereotyping you, you are not going to convince them they are wrong by trying to stop them from talking about sexual assault. What you can do is get to know the other side, form a working relationship with a wide variety of students and come to understand why any student who generalizes about athletes does so and hope to change their mind. Let them know that many athletes can and do understand issues of sexual assault, but part of this understanding is letting those protesting the campus and its reaction to sexual assault have a voice that needs to be heard an can teach us something that we all need to learn. Part of understanding and respecting this issue is understanding the other viewpoint, and we cannot and will never be able to do so without listening to complaints like Professor Dumm’s about athletics and sexual respect and taking action on them.

Which brings me back to the comment about dividing the community at Amherst. Yes, dividing Amherst is not good; this is a time for us to come together. However, if the discussion continues as is, most students will not really know why they are coming together. Sometimes a finger needs to be pointed at a system of privilege in order to inform those who subscribe to it, knowingly or unknowingly, the problems with that privilege. If students were to come together without really knowing what the victims of sexual assault are feeling, the togetherness they would advocate would be false and would accomplish little, which is more or less what has been happening over the past few months.