I was talking about the recent federal complaint filed against the college with an Emerson student who confessed that she had trouble believing the claims were true. She shifted uncomfortably and told me that someone she knew had been accused of rape and she could not imagine him doing something like that. Her statement was like a sucker-punch to the stomach and indicative of the worst thing about rape culture: It doesn’t always look like a criminal enjoying the violation of his victim. Sometimes, it looks like your peers who don’t understand that rape simply means lack of consent and lines that aren’t as “blurred” as people like to contend.
I have been studying sexual assault policies for the past year, and through my own experiences with the student body and administrators, I feel that this complaint is a step in the right direction for the future of the college. My research began last fall, when I was working with the non-profit Becky’s Fund in Washington D.C. to research Emerson’s response to sexual assault and dating violence. As I interviewed Dean of Students Ronald Ludman and Police Chief Robert Smith, I thought the policies seemed thorough, but when I talked to an alumna who claimed she had been sexually assaulted, her experience with our campus police read like a how-to guide for not dealing with survivors.
In the spring, I worked closely with Dylan Manderlink and Sarah Tedesco, urging Tedesco not to continue her case internally, but take legal action outside of the school because it was made clear by her treatment that she was not their priority.
As rape survivors began to post personal accounts on the Facebook page Emerson Confessional, I posted a status decrying the often ignorant response to these stories. Despite the fact that only two to eight percent of reported rapes are false according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, online friends claimed that most rapes are falsely reported and that men are victimized in rape cases.
Based on the complaint filed against the school and the backlash to the accounts shared on Emerson Confessional, there is a gap between what fellow students and administrators believe to be rape and what Massachusetts and federal law clearly state. It’s commendable that administrators have stepped up and recognized that perhaps their “good on paper” policies were not serving survivors. Still, the recent push of “culture of consent” policies have shown a desire to protect sexual assault survivors.
When the complaint went public, the feedback was split among supportive reinforcement and skeptical accusations that the complaint was done for money or attention, or that there were doubts about the validity of the claims. Policies that surpass legal requirements are ineffective if the campus culture is one of victim-blaming. We, as a part of a greater culture, need to learn to step back and examine our perspective, the privileges that come with our perspective, and the societal biases that are intrinsic in our views. I have had peers disclose their experiences to me in alarming numbers because of my activism in these issues.
Many peers with stories like mine —who knew that the community we belonged to would claim we were lying—blame us for being drunk or dressed a particular way, and gossip that we were reporting for attention or as an attack on Emerson. In many ways, this is the exact response I have seen students posting on social media about the Title IX complaint.
Advocating for better policies and asking the college to comply with legal standards is not an attack on the community. This case is not about the young women who filed it, and it is not about one rape. This is about making sure future students never have to deal with the institutional barriers that the multiple students filing the case met when trying to find justice.
As a proud Emerson student and a feminist advocate, I am in awe of the bravery it takes to file a case like this, and discouraged by the members of this community who are so overly defensive they can’t even see they are using rape culture stereotypes to try to silence a group of victims. It is even more difficult to see the students struggling internally to allow a victim to name her experience because it causes them cognitive dissonance with what society has taught them.
From where I stand, rape culture is alive and well at Emerson, and it is about time we started talking about it. You may not recognize it because it looks like your friend making a rape joke or confessing that she is not sure she believes a victim’s story, but it is there and until we acknowledge it, these policies will never work.