I don’t remember the first time I learned about the idea of rape. I’m sure it wasn’t part of “the talk” that my eternally cheery mother sat me down for in elementary school. I thought that nothing about sex could ever upset me more than the diagrams in the old medical school anatomy textbook that Dr. Mom used as a teaching tool that day.
I remember fighting my mother a few years later when I wasn’t allowed to read The Lovely Bones, in which a young girl is kidnapped and raped by her neighbor. At twelve, we all knew that rape was sex in the absence of consent. We also knew that rape only happened to young women, and that rapists were always older men, most often strangers who jumped you in dark alleyways.
In college, I learned what rape can really be. I learned what a rapist can really look like. One month into my freshman year, I sat with the roommate of a girl I’d been friends with for years as we waited anxiously for her to return home. Texts eventually rolled in. She was in a taxi on her way back. My mind started racing.
Taxi? Where could she have possibly been that would have required her to take a taxi back to the Quad?
I watched as someone I loved entered her room in a haze, still drunk but able to recount saying the word “no” repeatedly, despite feeling too disoriented to physically fight back. I struggled to breathe as my entire body tensed up, trying not to cry in front of my friend as she attempted to vocalize what had happened. I hadn’t had anything to drink that night, but I vomited up my entire dinner before falling asleep.
The real kicker to this story is that I know who my friend’s rapist was. I know because we hunted him down via Facebook. Although he lived far enough off campus to toss my friend in the backseat of a cab when his night was over, I pass him on the way to class sometimes. And it has always felt wrong to not acknowledge this rapist among us, who walks on Locust next to people who are my friends and people who are total strangers. Every day that fall, I thought about writing this boy an anonymous letter. In the end, I had to honor my friend’s desire to move on in her own way. Her strength blows my mind.
Now, I’ve been relieved of all desire to write that letter, because all the way on the opposite coast, an amazing woman has written that letter for me. Unlike the letter I would have written, these words from the West Coast are not directly addressed to the boy who raped my friend before she’d even taken her first college midterm. The brutal truth is that it does not even matter. Because in another world, my friend’s rapist could have been named Brock Turner. They may go by thousands and millions of other names, but there are a lot of Brock Turners out there. I’ve since come to know of a total of four: three men and one woman, right here on our campus. And if you’re reading this, it hurts me to say that you probably know a Brock Turner or two at Penn. Heck, you might even be one.
If there was only one Brock Turner in the world, we would not ignore him. We would not walk by him quietly on Locust. We take note of a unique case in the news because we are heartbroken knowing that it is not unique at all. In my time at Penn, I’ve been immeasurably lucky that the men I’ve had sex with are people I’ve cared for and respected deeply, and who have extended the same respect and care to me. But let’s all stop for a minute and think about that sentence. Isn’t it mind-boggling that I had to use the word “lucky”? Doesn’t it seem insane that we live in a world where my entirely consensual sex life isn’t the standard?
Before I started college, my father bought me a can of pepper spray. I’m five foot two and 110 pounds. With my frame, twelve-year-old me would be seriously worried about older men being able to jump me in dark alleyways. She would tell me that I should carry the can every time I walk by myself off campus. But twelve-year-old me didn’t know about the relative likelihoods about being attacked by a stranger versus a friend, or about buying Plan B for your best friend the morning after she’s been raped. So twenty-year-old me isn’t so afraid of walking down the street alone. Because I know that the biggest dangers on our campus are those I’m likely to encounter indoors.
The powerful testimony of Brock Turner’s victim must inspire us to confront the atmosphere of frustration and fear that a rape-riddled culture brings to an elite college campus. Penn and Stanford are only different on paper. We are all afraid. Say what you want about how scared you are of going past 43rd street late at night, but the most traumatic events I’ve heard about during my time at Penn have all happened east of that invisible boundary. And none of them happen where a blue light emergency button is within reach.
This atmosphere of fear is not limited to any group or demographic on campus – we are all affected. It is true that some people (mainly men) are fearful for the wrong reasons. These are people who do not acknowledge that there is a problem, who engage in flashy acts of respect that reek of condescension, all because they fear being falsely accused of assault. Do not assume, however, that all acts of respect are motivated by self-preservation. Many people (mainly men), simply fear, out of disgust and human morality, seeing in themselves any behaviors that could remind them of the Brocks they know. Kind people with good intentions surround us, but fear makes them harder to spot. Living in a world of Brocks, and handling it–or not handling it–the way that we do, harms each and every one of us. Every rape at Penn breaks something essential in the life of one person. So every rape at Penn poisons our entire campus more than the last.
In her widely publicized statement, the Stanford assault survivor writes, “Alcohol is not an excuse. Is it a factor? Yes.” Three-quarters of college sexual assault cases involve significant alcohol consumption by the perpetrator. Just as we cannot accept the suggestions that alcohol is an autonomy-erasing substance that turns a “good kid” into an assailant (the baffling suggestion of Brock Turner’s testimony and the character letters of his father and close friend, Leslie Rasmussen), we cannot ignore that the presence of alcohol fundamentally leads to a higher rate of sexual assault incidents on college campuses. Perhaps for every few perpetrators who would commit assault as easily drunk as they would sober, there are a handful of others for whom alcohol serves as the final enabler. Alcohol breaks down an already thin moral blockade that could otherwise prevent them from acting. The exact numbers of each of these two types of assailants is irrelevant; what is crucial to recognize in our culture is that this second group does exist. Fundamentally, neither group is more or less guilty than the other. In our justice system there are only two other types of people: those who have assaulted and those who have not. And at the end of the day, this distinction should be the only one that matters.
At the same time, we cannot deny a frustrating truth: in the complete absence of alcohol on college campuses, fewer sexual assaults would occur. To clarify this statement, I am in no way claiming that the actions of victims lead to rape. We all deserve to live in a world where we can knock back a few shots without worrying about being taken advantage of. The fear that we all live with, whether we are male, female, Greeks, athletes, artists, 4.0 students, all of these things, or none of these things, would simply diminish if alcohol were removed from the equation. I will rarely turn down a trip to Smokes, but I sometimes wonder if American undergrads have earned the self-given right to drink the way we do, or if it is a privilege we should forfeit. Maybe if we did, instead of knowing four Brock Turners at Penn, I would only know three, two, one, or zero.
I do not condemn partying – I condemn violations of humanity. Alcohol aside. Party culture aside. I am sick of being sat down by friends who reveal to me through tears that they’ve been assaulted. I am sick of watching my roster of Brock Turners grow, of having polite conversations at parties with people I know are rapists because walking away would require an explanation. I am sick of people having to write down how sick they are of all of this. And you must be sick of this, too.
And lastly: If you wonder why I offer few suggestions on how to fix this problem, it is because I believe that we all know exactly how it can be done.
Let’s give the assailants their turn to be the fearful ones.