I met a man at a fund raising event. When I first walked in the door I realized with some dread, that I couldn’t see a single person I knew, so when the stranger introduced himself, it was a welcome relief. We fell into easy conversation. He was in his sixties. He was a pleasant, lively and intelligent conversationalist. I learned that he was a professor at a liberal arts college. I remember he was passionate about the environment, and that he was divorced, with a daughter in her twenties. We were getting along like a house on fire, until the moment he asked me what I was writing about, and I answered that I was writing about sexual assaults on campus.
My fellow guest chose to interrupt me at that point. He informed me stiffly that his college had been one of those investigated by the New York Times for its inadequate and improper handling of a sexual assault case. I remembered the story. The administration had treated the distressed victim unfairly, and despite compelling evidence, the rapist had gone unpunished.
I gave him a sympathetic smile. I assumed the professor’s sudden tension resulted from his embarrassment at the way his college had mishandled the case. Hell, I would have been embarrassed. But he wasn’t embarrassed, he was angry about the negative publicity. Nor did he appear interested in what I had found in my research into campus rapes. He already had the answer to the problem: he said, college girls just had “to stop drinking and dressing like sluts.”It astonished me that this man who had been in college in the late 1960s, when the Women’s Liberation movement was flourishing on campuses, blamed victims of rape for “bad choices” and didn’t have a word of blame for the rapists. His underlying attitude was that boys will be boys, and they can’t be expected to control their urges. Odd to reflect that I actually have a higher opinion of men than he does. Because I don’t believe most men will automatically take advantage of inebriated girls in sexy dresses. I believe predatory men do that, and in many cases they have spiked the drink that got their victim inebriated.
It surprised me that an intelligent, liberal and educated man of his age was so comfortable trotting out these sexist clichés, but there it was. On the issue of global warming, he was well informed, and he was certainly concerned about the planet, but when it came to violence against women he was neither well informed nor concerned. He may as well have been born a Martian because we didn’t seem to inhabit the same world. Had I time traveled to the 1950s? Or were we now living in Iran? The professor’s attitude that it was the responsibility of women not to dress in a way that inflamed male lust didn’t seem much different to attitudes in patriarchal countries like Saudi Arabia where the morality police have the right to arrest a woman for improper dress, such as not wearing her veil.
The flipside of the attitude that it’s the woman’s responsibility not to get raped is of course that it’s a woman’s fault if she does. In that argument, sexual violence is not the responsibility of the rapist. And that’s the attitude behind every college administration which has absolved young men of rape on the grounds their victim was dressed sexily or had one drink too many.
I am not saying my companion is typical of a 65-year-old white male in this country, but I do think he’s probably representative of the older male politician who historically has shown zero interest in the issue of violence against women. There are many such men in Congress and the Senate who are more interested in protecting corporations from higher taxes than protecting university students from being raped.
However, there is a new generation coming up behind them, and I have high hopes. A couple of months ago, I was heartened to read in the New York Times that Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced at a press conference that he had instructed “the State University of New York to overhaul its approach to investigating and prosecuting sexual assault, including making affirmative consent the rule on all 64 of its campuses.” Declaring campus sexual assault to be a national epidemic, Cuomo said that these changes would lead to a statewide law “regulating sexual assault at all New York colleges and universities.”
My interlocutor from the prestigious New York college must be bristling at the injustice of it all.