Imagining Responsible Victim Responsibility
Issue   |   Wed, 10/30/2013 - 00:22

Residential counselors received an email last week with information that they could then pass on to their residents regarding the upcoming Homecoming weekend. The following portion of this email, which was posted on the Facebook group Fixing Amherst College’s Sexual Violence Problem and then later quoted in a Newsweek article, sparked much controversy and discussion.

“Keep an eye out for unwanted sexual advances. A lot of alums come back for Homecoming pretty jaded with the bar scene and blind dating of the real world and are eager to take advantage of what they now perceive to be an ’easy’ hook up scene back at Amherst. Also, many alums tend to be pretty drunk all weekend long. Alert your residents to this unfortunate combination and keep an eye on your friends, your residents and yourself.”

One of the lines along which this issue was debated was the assertion that this email was never meant to be seen by the general student body and was intended solely for the RC’s. This might be the case, (although friends have received this portion of the email from their RC’s in the years past), but is irrelevant to a discussion about whether or not the thought behind such an email was concerning. It is troubling enough that if all that was required to fix this email was a “translation” into appropriate language, the burden of doing this was to fall on RC’s, who although extensively trained, are still also students. However, it is the implication that all that was needed was a rendition in the right words without a change in intention and this was all merely an issue of semantics is what disquieted me the most, because this is simply not the case. Such an impulse to change words without changing meaning is the problem with politically correct and euphemistic speech, which not only doesn’t fix the problem, but also delegitimizes people’s right to point out there is a problem.

So, what was exactly the problem with this email? First, there was the trivialization of rape as something “jaded alums do”. Such a notion is roundly insulting to both survivors who hear a violent crime reduced to a mere outcome of a few bad dates and alums who are characterized as having no agency over their actions. People do not become sexual offenders by virtue of graduation and having entered the “real world”, and though some alumni might be rapists, this has nothing to do with their being alumni. It would have been more honest and accurate to say that sexual offenders among the alumni were more likely to act here at the College because of a decreased likelihood of facing serious consequences as compared to the “real world”. It is this which makes the hookup scene “easy”, rather than the willingness of students to participate. Second is the reiteration of the tired cliché of drunkenness of the perpetrator causing (and therefore excusing) sexual violence. It is people who act, not substances.

Neither of the above points appear to be particularly contentious and should on their own be sufficient grounds for saying that this email was inappropriate. However, most of the debate I encountered was centered on a third point that claimed the issue was placing the burden of not being raped on students. It was argued that this basically amounted to victim blaming, and though critics of this view were sympathetic, they countered that as long as we lived in a world where rape still was a problem, we were obligated to keep our women safe by informing them of potential danger. Growing up resenting warnings about not leaving the house after a certain point, but nevertheless heeding those warnings because of the very real danger they pertained to, I am not unfamiliar with either point.

However, the choice need not be between sending an email that tells women to watch out and not sending an email at all. Placing the burden of safety on potential victims is problematic, but the truth is that we live in a society where it happens all the time, explicitly or otherwise. What makes this brand of victim responsibility particularly chilling is that does not allow for any real action by the individual. Instead, RCs could be advised to remind residents that they could call Campus Police at any time should they feel uncomfortable, reiterate to students what the procedure is to report an assault and stress that the college would be supportive whatever the “value” of the alum in question might be (already students are afraid to report misconduct by classmates, so the perceived power dynamic between a student and an alum must be even more paralyzing). All of these solutions place the burden of action on the potential victim, but the burden of action is easier to bear than that of helplessness. Further, the College is itself accountable to act in some manner in each of the steps suggested above that might encourage moving towards an institutional rather than individual push against sexual violence.

However, even if we put these in place, we must not grow complacent. Victim blaming, however well intentioned, is still victim blaming and this cannot be our only plan. These are temporary fixes and must only be seen as scaffolding in the process of building a community where the impulse to tell women to “watch out” no longer has a place.the administration’s, to define, clarify, communicate and, most of all, make a conscious effort to live out those values.

1 year out (not verified) says:
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 11:11

The email sounds like damn good advice. Simply spreading awareness of dangerous circumstances isn't supporting or excusing them, and it's certainly not putting the onus on the student to avoid them. Obviously prevention (targeting sexual offenders) would be best, nobody disputes that. But for a college area coordinator, that's not always an option (i.e. even if they should, there is no way the board of trustees is going to tell the administration to email all the alumni "plz don't rape students, k thx bi" right before homecoming). Yes, prevention is the best goal, but awareness is still useful and encouraging awareness doesn't preclude efforts for prevention. For a staff member trying to help protect students, warnings to the RC's are much better than nothing at all.

Although I support your message, ultimately you seem to be making a lot of assumptions, and while a few points in your article had substance, most of it was so horribly reductionist that I seem to have negative pixels on my monitor.

Shruthi (not verified) says:
Thu, 11/14/2013 - 21:41

Thank you for your response. I'm afraid if what you got from this article was that the college should email the alumni saying 'plz don't rape students, k thx bi', I'm afraid you have done the very thing you accuse me of and been reductionist.

Of course I understand why staff would want to warn RCs. In fact, that is precisely the sentiment this article acknowledges as legitimate and tries to marry with the perspective of those who we upset by the email. I say in the article 'However, the choice need not be between sending an email that tells women to watch out and not sending an email at all' and this is what I was talking about.

We seem to be in agreement.

Anon (not verified) says:
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 15:30

Shruthi, I don't think that you've really taken into account the context in which this email was sent out. You say: "What makes this brand of victim responsibility particularly chilling is that does not allow for any real action by the individual." If I understand, it seems as though your critique is the lack of action that is implied in the email's phrasing. Now let's consider the wording of the contentious email itself: "Alert YOUR RESIDENTS to this unfortunate combination and KEEP AN EYE ON your friends, your residents and yourself."

There are some verbal cues (highlighted via caps lock) that I'd like to draw your attention to. The language of the email makes its context clear: it was sent to RCs, and meant to serve as internal communication between residential life and the RCs. I assume that it was implied that Residential Counselors would "pass this message on to their residents" WITH information on what to do if they found themselves in an uncomfortable situation (information that the RCs probably know backwards and forwards, given how much training they get). Could that have been more explicit? Yes. No disagreement there. But regardless of this fact, I believe that this email WAS, fundamentally, a call to that reminded RCs to be vigilant bystanders as they carried on throughout their homecoming weekends.

We live in a community that is both conscious of and critical of its sexual respect and sexual assault policies, and this is rightfully so. I say this not only because of Amherst's recent history with these issues, but also because these issues should be of primary consideration at ANY college campus. But to have meaningful and constructive dialogue about these policies, it is worth taking into account the circumstances that inform emails like the one we are discussing here. To vilify Residential Life seems counterproductive. Instead, it's worth picking apart the when, why and how of their decision making process so that we can come up with concrete methods by which they -- and any analogous body within the college -- can eliminate problematic language like this from their communications with the students.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 17:36

Shruti, I don't think the administration claimed the hook-up scene was "easy" here for alums because they faced no repercussions. It's because in the real world, there generally aren't massive parties with hundreds of people who are roughly your age and large amounts of alcohol. The Socials/party scene just doesn't exist at the same level after graduation, so alums are coming back to a different world.
Furthermore, the email warned about sexual assault and keeping an eye out for oneself--it was not meant to serve as a guide of what to do if you were assaulted. In emails regarding theft warnings, for example, one might write "keep an eye on your valuables" or "watch for any suspicious behavior." It wouldn't necessarily say "If you've had items stolen, please go to the police station, fill out a lost item form..."
This email has been broken down word by word, when really, it was just a reminder for everyone to be on their toes.

Shruthi (not verified) says:
Thu, 11/14/2013 - 21:33

I think the problem with the stolen things analogy is that people normally know what to do in case they have been robbed, but this is not the case with rape. You can ask for advise from the people around you if your stuff is stolen in a way it is more difficult to do with rape, since there is such a stigma attached. Also the 'be on your toes' advice works with theft, because all I have to do is lock my room. How does one stay on their toes with regards to potentially being assaulted? Lock their bodies? Buy Anti Rape Wear?


JS (not verified) says:
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 22:03

please. just stop. this email was not victim blaming. as the above commenter said, "This email has been broken down word by word, when really, it was just a reminder for everyone to be on their toes." Besides, I'm not sure how what you claim to be appropriate advice is actually any different than the advice that was given. You say it is because it puts the burden of action on the victim, which is better than the burden of helplessness. But how is "Keep an eye out for unwanted sexual advances" and "Alert your residents to this unfortunate combination and keep an eye on your friends, your residents and yourself" not actionable advice? The only difference between the email's advice and what you recommend is that the college gets involved in the latter. So is that the qualification for what advice is victim blaming and whats not? Because if so, that's just plain silly.

Shruthi (not verified) says:
Thu, 11/14/2013 - 21:46

Thank you for your comment.

I do not believe the difference between the administration's involvement and lack thereof is as trivial as you might think it is. Having the administration insert itself into the situation in a responsible manner acknowledges that we live in a world where this is a problem while making clear that the school will do everything in it's power to help survivors/potential victims. It is not as blatantly victim responsibility because it is also institutional responsibility.

Alana Sennett (not verified) says:
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 12:24

I think it was very well said! The fact that some people don't understand it just demonstrates their lack of an emotional IQ

SD '13 (not verified) says:
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 13:51

I'm sick of all this derailing. Shruthi, thank you so much for this.