Sexual Assault at Dartmouth

During the 2012 election cycle, U.S. Representative Todd Akin infamously proclaimed, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” While he rightfully received heavy criticism for this confusing, disturbing, and false statement, many people rushed to his defense. This statement may have been egregiously stupid, but it did shed light on the widespread misinformation about and ignorance of the subject of sexual assault and rape culture.

Conservatives are often criticized for their questionable track record on defining and punishing sexual violence. When it comes to sexual harassment, many accuse “conservative” men especially of belittling the experience of being targeted by unwarranted sexually charged comments. In instances of sexual violence, “conservatives” are (often rightfully) criticized for making statements like the ones by Todd Akin in 2012 and by President Trump in the infamous Access Hollywood “Grab her by the p—y” video, or for making the all-too-common marginalizing rationalizations, “She was asking for it” and “Did you see what she was wearing?”

Conservatives are indicted for blaming victims, perpetuating “rape culture,” and too often doubting the validity of sexual assault reports. However, I would challenge the validity of these assertions. Anyone who is guilty of any of the above offenses, regardless of their other political views, the R next to their name, or the politician they vote for or donate to, is not a conservative. Those wrongdoings are incompatible with conservativism. You do not get to tell a rape victim that he or she was asking for it because of what they were wearing, what they drank, or the bar they went to, and then a few minutes later talk about why we need a return of “law and order” in our cities and on our streets and still call yourself a conservative. You do not get to justify rape culture with “locker room talk,” only to turn around and call for “family values” and still call yourself a conservative. You do not get to say “well, he has his whole life ahead of him” when you argue for a young rapist from a “good family” to be let off easy, and then call, as Governor Paul Lepage did, for drug dealers to be guillotined and still call yourself a conservative. You are not a conservative.

One of the sustaining tenets of conservativism is the preservation of laws and the punishment of crimes. From Edmund Burke’s skepticism of revolution, to President Nixon’s call for “law and order,” and, more recently, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ declaration that “prosecutors will seek the most serious charges and stricter sentences,” conservatives have demanded that the laws of the land be enforced and those who break them be held accountable. Because those who break the law are in effect undermining it, any infraction affects the entire community who lives under those same laws. This logic is why conservatives demand harsher punishments, fewer prisoner benefits, and a greater police presence. But at some point, between universal “law and order” and misogynistic defenses of male misconducts, that same logic becomes twisted and absented when it is applied to the nuances of sexual assault.  It ought to not be so. A sexual attack—whether it be unwanted kissing or groping, sex that begins consensually, is no longer wanted, and is involuntarily continued, or forced penetration—is a crime against both the victim and the laws that govern our community. Sexual violence is a crime against all of us. Sexual assault is not a women’s issue; it is not a college issue, a gay issue, and certainly not a new issue. Sexual assault, in all of its many forms, is violence, and violence is society’s issue—all of society’s. One’s political ideology or personal history with sexual assault does not matter. The only reason that need be sufficient enough to join together to fight sexual assault in all of its forms is our membership in our community—whether it be our college, city, state, nation, or humanity.

While it is important for conservatives to prioritize sexual assault prevention and response, it is as important for everyone else, regardless of political stance, to do the same. The same principle applies to Dartmouth: sexual assault is an issue for everyone within our community. While there should be consideration of recent events, it is important to make it clear that sexual assault has been, is, and unfortunately will continue to be an issue on Dartmouth’s campus. We must straddle the line between respecting the ultimate victimhood of those most affected—whether it be those who live in Kappa Delta Epsilon who were threatened with sexual violence or the many students on this campus who have been sexually assaulted—and realizing that an attack on them is an attack on all of us. In just the past week, many on campus—men and women alike—were paralyzed with fear when a disturbing note was found in KDE’s house threatening sexual violence against the women who live there. Within a few hours, Safety & Security and Hanover Police Department increased their patrols around campus, and students were encouraged to stay vigilant and lock their doors in a slew of e-mail warnings by Dean Rebecca Biron, Provost Carolyn Dever, and Student Assembly President and Vice-President Ian Sullivan and Matthew Ferguson. While wild rumors and stories circulated, students found themselves afraid to walk around their own campus, suspecting everyone they saw outside of being a predator. Despite the trespassing and the threat being targeted specifically at KDE, fear and insecurity gripped Dartmouth’s entire community. The response to any other threat or act of sexual violence should not be any different from how the Dartmouth community responded to this event. We should feel every sexual assault as a community. Every transgression against an individual in our community must be felt as a transgression against all of our community.

Baker and Rauner Libraries (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

Baker and Rauner Libraries (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

In many ways, Dartmouth College has taken actions to make the prevention and handling of sexual assaults a priority; however, many of these actions are half-measures that do not fully address or recognize the issue. The efforts that the College has put forth to ensure that incoming students are educated on what consent means are a step in the right direction, and the program that the College uses does in fact capture some of the nuances of consent. While Dartmouth’s Title IX Coordinator and deputy coordinators are all well-trained and readily willing to respond seriously and effectively to any degree of report of sexual violence, the policies that govern the proceedings after incidents are reported to Judicial Affairs are not as robust as they ought to be.

The student handbook outlines the procedures of the College when dealing with many different types of student violations of conduct, ranging from academic dishonesty to alcohol possession to sexual assault. The common argument for strict rules and severe punishments for violations of academic honor is that any violation threatens the academic integrity of every student at the College. While this claim is absolutely justifiable, and it adequately explains why the punishments for academic dishonesty are tougher than the punishments for many other offenses, the same logic used to rationalize it applies to the issue of sexual assault as much as or more than it does to academic honor. Just as any academic violation threatens the academic integrity of all, it follows that any instance of sexual violence threatens the safety of all.

The language in the student handbook is much clearer and harsher for those guilty of academic dishonesty than for those found responsible for sexual assault. While for cases involving academic violations the student handbook reads, “Given the fundamental nature of the Academic Honor Principle in an academic community, students should expect to be suspended if they engage in acts of academic dishonesty,” the language used for sexual assaults is rather weak in comparison, “Students who engage in Sexual Assault; Aiding, Abetting, or Inciting Sexual Assault; or Retaliation (as defined below) are subject to disciplinary action up to and including permanent separation (i.e., expulsion).” The former proclaims an expectation of nothing less than suspension, while the latter creates no such floor for punishment. Sure, the language used to discuss the punishment for sexual assault introduces the ultimate punishment of expulsion, but it offers no assurance of a minimum punishment. Even the policy on providing hard alcohol to others on campus outlines an expected minimum punishment: “1st Incident: 1 term suspension.” The student handbook does decree a minimum punishment of suspension for those found responsible for sexual assault involving penetration, but there is no minimum penalty at all for those found responsible for other forms of sexual assault. When paired with the clear expectations of suspension as a minimum punishment for other offenses such as cheating on an exam or giving someone a glass of whiskey, Dartmouth College’s prioritization of preventing and handling sexual violence is called into question. This lack of seriousness about the less heinous forms of sexual assault on the part of the College is damaging, as it reinforces the disturbing but commonly held ignorance that “real” sexual assault is defined only as forced penetration. If the College is at all intent at dispelling this profoundly harmful belief, and if the College believes that sexual violence ought to be viewed as a worse offense against the Dartmouth community than giving a friend a gin and tonic, then the College must change both the language in the handbook and the implementation of its policies that handle sexual assault. There must be clear minimum punishments for all students found responsible for sexually assaulting another member of the Dartmouth Community to any degree.

Since there is no minimum penalty—implemented or expected—a student can be found responsible for a sexual assault that does not involve penetration and receive as light a punishment as a warning or reprimand. Even if the student—who has been found responsible—receives the more serious but still relatively light punishment of probation, no notation about the sexual assault appears on the student’s transcript. Students who are put on probation are limited in some of the activities they can participate in, such as being a UGA, but they are not barred from serving in a role like first-year trip leader. A student found guilty of a sexual assault—and who receives a warning or reprimand—could very well be giving tours to new students, acting in a positive of power and authority over new and current students as a UGA, or leading a first-year trip through the Dartmouth Outing Club. In fact, even if the victim, out of concern for the Dartmouth community, shared the information with relevant offices like Residential Life or clubs such as the DOC, Judicial Affairs warns that the actions could be construed as a violation of the so-called responding student’s privacy. Positions like undergraduate advisor and trip leader inherently create power dynamics that can be twisted in a disturbing way when the authority figure has a confirmed history of committing sexual violence. It is unacceptable that the College even allows the possibility for these instances to occur.

The Dartmouth community—our community—has been tainted by sexual assault throughout its long history. Regardless of the gender of the student assaulted, regardless of the circumstances, and regardless of the degree of the assault, sexual violence is violence. It is not a question of “legitimate rape” or of “forced rape” or of “violent rape;” it is a question of whether or not someone was coerced, drugged, or physically forced to engage or receive sexual acts against their will. If there is no consent, then the act is violent. The damages done by these violent acts can be seen in the hollowed eyes of our peers here at Dartmouth: a young woman who was forced to have sex with her boyfriend despite her protests; a young man whose polite offer of a drink to a new friend is construed as an invitation for unwanted sexual advances; or a person who begins a hook up and decides to stop part way through but is forced to continue against their will. Anyone can commit sexual assault, and anyone can be assaulted. If we are truly a community, then an attack on any individual within our community should be considered an attack on all of us. Until it is viewed as an issue that applies to all of us, sexual assault will continue to be stigmatized, trivialized, and ignored, even—if not especially—here at Dartmouth College.