I went home for a weekend recently and my parents, who I think of as fairly progressive thinkers, were having a dinner party with like-minded friends. The conversation drifted to the recent acquittal in Hanover of a Dartmouth student, who was on trial for allegedly sexually assaulting a fellow student. Both students had been drinking that night. There may have been a question about how clearly the female student said no, but she most certainly did not say yes to the sexual contact.
I was dismayed by how closely the attitudes of the middle-aged women (and men) at my parents’ party tracked the thinking of Susan Patton ’77. At a recent panel held in the Whig Clio Senate Chabmer, Patton claimed that women are responsible for being raped if they dress provocatively and drink too much. As columnist Cameron Langford noted last week, I agree with the sentiment that we limit the sexual assault cases reported and simply exacerbate the problem when we choose to blame the victim. Patton and others are mistaken about how sexual assault often occurs on campus. While Patton rambled in a feeble attempt to defend herself against a room of angry students, I realized that she just didn’t understand what is happening. Patton seemed to see only two scenarios where women claim rape. One, they said no and they were assaulted anyhow. Like just about every rational person, she acknowledged this was rape. The only other scenario she discussed was when a female agreed to have sex (i.e. consented by saying yes) and then regretted it in the morning and alleged rape. Patton called this “regrettable sex,” and so long as the woman truly was in a state to consent, Patton is at least correct in saying that this isn’t rape.
Unfortunately, Patton and others don’t acknowledge that there are shades between what is obviously consensual sex and what everyone agrees is obviously rape. But those shades do exist, and they are considered rape under the law. If the woman is too incapacitated to consent, not saying anything must be considered “no” under all state law.
If someone is taking advantage of another person’s inebriated state and coerces consent, this too must be considered assault. And while these shades of gradation might be difficult to prove in a courtroom, jurors must approach the case with the understanding that the lack of explicit consent is considered sexual assault under most US state laws.
When Patton doesn’t even acknowledge that it would be the man’s fault if he has sex with a woman too inebriated to consent, she highlights the problem that society does not understand what consent really entails and what most laws uphold. Instead, she wrongly blames the victim for getting drunk and lets the aggressor off scot-free.
This scenario is common, and it is rape. It is occurring on college campuses across the country, and our parents, our school administrators and often our college policies don’t recognize this issue. With any luck, policymakers who have followed the recent Dartmouth case are appalled at the acquittal and will begin to realize that this situation is real and must be acknowledged as rape in order for this behavior to stop.
SHARE is right that increased bystander intervention will help. But we need a shift in thinking and policy or even fewer cases of sexual assault will be reported and the problem will only be exacerbated. The case at Dartmouth, as well as at Harvard, Columbia and so many other colleges, where reported sexual assaults go unpunished, demonstrate that we have an epidemic of rape on college campuses that requires policy changes by administrators.
Policies and laws, and the people or juries judging these rules, must acknowledge that only a “yes” is consent. It is no longer adequate to espouse that “no means no” — rather, yes means yes. With such policies, juries would understand that what happened at Dartmouth has to be considered as rape, as no explicit consent was given. Then justice would be met and more victims would be encouraged to report these sexual assaults. These assaults are not just some drunken mistake. Given that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, now is a great time to have this discussion with your parents, grandparents and siblings to help them differentiate between true consent and sexual assault.
Marni Morse is a freshman from Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.