My best friend came to visit me when I was studying abroad in London. It was a few days after my 21st birthday and a few days before hers, so naturally we wanted to celebrate. We were both in relationships, so when we decided to go out to Soho, we had no intentions to do anything other than get dressed up and dance.
We chose a bar-turned-dance-party known for its student nights and waited in line for over an hour amongst hoards of 20-somethings looking for a similar night out. Once inside, we rejoiced at the perfect mix of ’90s pop, and, after heading to the bar, hit the dance floor. Most other individuals around us looked like college students enjoying the weekend with their friends or sports teams, but two older men kept eyeing us across the crowd. Although we tried to avoid eye contact, the men decided to come over and talk with us.
Of course, strangers approach one another in bars all the time; sometimes the strangers share mutual interest in one another, and sometimes one person has to let the other down tactfully. But this encounter was different. Not only were these men well above the average age of every other person in the club, but they also immediately asserted a desire for a physical connection. They tried to sip from our straws, caress our arms, and even after I asserted on multiple occasions that I had a boyfriend and was not interested, one man reached out and tried to start kissing my neck. My “no,” to him, simply meant, “try harder.” The other man had pulled my friend away so she could not see the sort of harassment I was experiencing, but I pushed the man away, grabbed her, and left the club fuming.
What I find most disturbing about the incident is not the sense of harassment and objectification I felt in this particular instance (although the image of two middle-aged drunk men preying on drunk 20-year-old girls will haunt me forever), but rather the fact that within the following year, I would experience a similar sense of fear and violation multiple times, twice from people I considered my friends, and both at times when I was completely sober. Furthermore, upon describing any of these scenarios to multiple girlfriends, every single one of them had a similar story. Sometimes the physical contact breached involves a more “sexual” body part, but sometimes it exists as a caress on the cheek from an unwelcome stranger. Regardless of the details of these scenarios, the fact remains that, from my personal experience and the conversations I’ve had with women across the country and the world, many women have had at least one experience like this in their lives.
Do not misunderstand me. I do not think every flirtation or hit-on attempt demands reproach, but the scenarios remain prevalent in which the consent of the woman remains largely out of the question and women are grabbed at or touched unwillingly as if they are an object in a toy store to be “picked up” and played with at a man’s will. This is not to suggest that men cannot be harassed, but this particular instance that I encountered, that I describe, and that my female friends understand all too well remains an issue absorbed in patriarchy, in the objectification of women, and in a society that believes that people actually deserve sex from one another.
This is not O.K. I know multiple men on this campus who will have their friends clear out of a house while a girl is in the bathroom just so that they can be alone with her when she emerges. He corners her and puts her in a position in which her resources and support systems do not exist should she feel uncomfortable and want help. I know men who define themselves as “nice guys” but exhibit extreme anger when women do not want to sleep with them because they feel that by being polite they have paid their dues and deserve sex.
This, in fact, is the root of sexual assault: the idea that people deserve sex. The term “deserve” implies an obligation on the part of the other individual, often a woman, and a lack of autonomy over her body and what she does with it. This notion that women do not hold a right over their bodies is only intensified when they have consumed alcohol. This is exactly the same discourse that characterizes the debates over abortion and contraception, and all of these dialogues involve men making choices about women’s bodies.
In the conversation about abortion, people argue that women should not have spread their legs in the first place, thus blaming them for needing abortions; in the discourse about sexual assault, they claim that women should not get blackout drunk or dance in an explicit manner. Why, then, can men do these things? If there is something inherently dirty or morally reprehensible about this behavior, why do the same men that throw the parties and pass out unconscious weekend after weekend assert that women should not have the right to do the same—or at least the right not to fear that their bodies will be violated?
Furthermore, not every instance of sexual harassment, assault, or objectification occurs when a woman is blackout drunk, or has even consumed any alcohol in the first place. In three of my most vivid experiences of sexual harassment, I was perfectly sober. Multiple times, the men that exhibited the behavior were blackout drunk. Two of the situations involved close friends.
If I am to properly “protect” myself from sexual harassment in these scenarios, what do I do? Do I choose not to enter any spaces with men or avoid trying to develop male friendships? Do I not only avoid drinking, but also stay home at night? My fears of sexual assault are not merely “feelings” or “emotions”—which, by the way, if they were, would be completely justified by virtue of the fact that someone is acting in a way that makes me uncomfortable—they are a part of my way of life, they are part of my experience, daily, as a woman.
And this, in my perspective as a girl who has experienced the consequences of the lack of sexual assault education way too many times—at home in Texas, at Wesleyan, and abroad—is the root of our debate. I do not argue that frats, by their nature, cause sexual assault. I do, however, argue that sexual assault is inherently a gendered issue and a power issue. Fraternities are inherently male-dominated spaces and, by nature and tradition, exclusively male societies. Instances of sexual assault, furthermore, do occur in many of them. Therefore, whether we disband frats, make them co-ed, implement bystander training, or try to offer an intervention, they are a good place to start creating change. Men and women can absolutely work together to effect that change, but the change we are looking for cannot simply be about public relations or appearances. It needs to be an aggressive change of attitude, a change in perceptions of entitlement to sex and the bodies of women, and a change that recognizes that this is not a few legal cases, or the “irrational emotions” of a few feminists, but the reality of women, period.