Finding A Way Forward: Putting the College in Context

(Ethan Corey) This week I wrote an article for The Student discussing the aftermath of Angie Epifano’s op-ed and the College’s plans for improving its policies and practices on sexual respect and misconduct. While the article was fairly comprehensive and quite long, I still felt a bit dissatisfied after writing it; I had spoken to many different people about the issue and learned a lot, and I was unable to include everybody’s voice in the article. Moreover, I felt somewhat constrained by the need to include as much information as possible while still capturing the full range of reactions to all the various issues surrounding the debate. I think, while all of that is important, people need to understand the greater context of this discussion. The College has come a long way from 1975 – and it still has a long way to go – but the current discussion has the opportunity to shape this school’s future.

The College’s problems with sexual assault are longstanding; dating back to the time Amherst first became co-ed. The College has long struggled with its history of racial and sexual discrimination, and it has been only gradually moving towards race and gender equality. The College first opened its doors to women in 1975, but did not abolish on-campus fraternities, bastions of Amherst’s sexist past, until 1984. Overt sexism plagued the campus for years (and to a lesser extent, still does), but the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect were not established until 1997. Students have pushed for representation on the Sexual Respect Task Force and the Title IX Committee for years, but only recently have students been allowed to serve on those important committees.

President Martin began pushing for reform of the College’s sexual respect policies and procedures as soon as she entered office, changing the sexual misconduct policy to include an affirmative definition of consent (i.e. both parties must give consent before a sexual encounter can occur; in other words, ‘yes’ means yes and silence means no) and a clearer description of what actually constitutes sexual assault. However, as Angie’s story illustrates, problems still linger from the College’s less respectful past.

In an email also published on The Student’s website, Marina Weiss ’08 described her perception of the College’s attitudes toward sexual respect during her time at the College as creating a ‘hostile environment’ for survivors of sexual assault.

“During my time as a PA at Amherst, I was told that some survivors were given the ‘opportunity’ to determine how long their perpetrator’s suspension was, while simultaneously being told, as Angie was, ‘I just don’t understand why you’ve been so angry throughout all of this. You have no reason to be angry about anything.’ Since the burden of proof is on survivors, they are seen as the aggressor if they try to push for punishment or protection for themselves (and/or others in their community),” said Weiss.

Problems with sexual violence are by no means unique to the College. Sexism and the ‘culture of silence’ exist everywhere, to greater and lesser extents. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports that only 46 percent of rapes are reported to the police, and only three percent lead to any jail time for the perpetrator. One in four women will face rape or attempted rape by the time of college graduation. Rape isn’t just an Amherst problem; it’s a global issue.

However, certain aspects of Amherst’s culture may contribute to rape and the silencing of victims. Maia Mareŝ ’14, one of the ten students who met with the Trustees last Friday and co-president of the Gender Justice Collective, cited the social dorms as one aspect of Amherst culture that might contribute to sexual violence.

“I think [sexual assault] is a huge problem on all campuses, but there are characteristics specific to Amherst that make it especially bad here. Take the socials for example. Even the architecture is a problem. It’s easy to get lost in a dark corner or get separated from your friends. Also, the fragmentation of the culture into different social groups can lead to there being fewer people looking out for you at parties. We all know each other, but we don’t really hold each other accountable,” Mareŝ said.

Mareŝ also emphasized the need moving forward to push for cultural changes both at the College and around the country.

“I think these discussions and meetings will generate a lot of policy changes ­­– and a lot of policy changes have already happened – and I hope they will continue to update policies and procedures to make sure we are doing the best job possible to deal with sexual misconduct. Beyond that, it’s not just going to be fixed by policy changes,” said Mareŝ. “I think it’s an overall culture thing, tied into the broader American culture and international culture in some sense, and those are issues that we still need to address. Cultural change at Amherst needs to happen as well. I think we need to look at athletic culture and frats and also examine critically the ways in which social institutions create a culture where these kinds of things happen and where they’re being covered up.”

However, many members of fraternities and athletic teams dispute the claim that they bear sole responsibility for sexual assault on campus. I spoke with several members of an off-campus fraternity on a mostly off-the-record basis, so I can’t share any direct quotes, but they felt that the focus on fraternities was unfair, pointing out that sexual assaults have been perpetrated by students from all walks of life on campus. They also seemed fairly nonplussed by efforts to ban or regulate fraternities, saying that they expected little action from the administration in regards to fraternities. Indeed, although in the aftermath of the TD shirt scandal President Martin had announced plans to review the fraternity policy with the goal of either outright banning them or placing them under regulation by the College, the webpage detailing the administration’s sexual respect action plan makes no mention of fraternities.

Tania Dias ’13, student-body president and member of the group that met with the Trustees, also saw the focus on fraternities as somewhat misplaced.

“The TD ‘Bavaria’ t-shirt was misogynistic.  Period.  But, speaking for myself, I don’t regard fraternities as drivers of sexism at Amherst.  Like any exclusive social organization, fraternities can provide a climate that enables its members to display the ugliness of their characters.  The question is whether a critical mass of those members harbor misogyny and contempt or are too cowardly to stand up to those who do.  In my experience – and, to be clear, I cannot speak for anyone but myself – our off-campus fraternity members have treated me with respect, including at their events, throughout my time at Amherst.  In some cases, I have learned of members actually reprimanding one another and their pledges for sexual disrespect.  Of course, it’s impossible to make that a universal claim when a fraternity has recently sold a t-shirt depicting a battered woman on a spit, but it is likewise wrong to call that outrageous t-shirt, or the dismal character behind it, the norm,” said Dias.

Despite the progress being made on the issue, some students still feel that the administration is being less than transparent in its efforts to combat sexual violence. Although there have been many efforts by President Martin and others to communicate with the College community, students have criticized the administration for not making Gina Maisto Smith, a nationally-recognized expert on Title IX and sexual misconduct, available to students and many students (myself included) still aren’t clear about the role of the newly created Sexual Respect Oversight Committee versus the already existing Sexual Respect Task Force and the Title IX Committee.

Dias said that she was working with President Martin and the administration to help promote transparency and further public discussion of sexual violence and respect on campus.

“I am also personally working with Biddy on a daily basis to bring more transparency to the college’s response to the crisis, and I was proud to bring together a diverse group of students for our blunt but productive meeting with the trustees,” Dias said.

On  a national level, the administration has received praise for its fast and proactive response in the aftermath of Angie’s op-ed.

Colby Bruno, managing attorney for the National Victim Rights Law Center, told Inside Higher Ed, “Stories like this – they’re all over. Amherst is not unique. The one place, truthfully, I think Amherst is unique is this resounding response that Amherst is doing,” Bruno said. “Out of all the cases I’ve had, this is the one where the president has invited those survivors into her office. There’s a difference between an open invitation and a direct invitation, and that, to me, is certainly to be commended.”

There have been several meetings this week continuing the discussion about sexual respect on campus, and more are planned for the future, including the moratorium on Friday. I am covering these events for an article next week in The Student, so I won’t discuss them in detail here, but my takeaway so far is that President Martin and the administration are taking allegations of misconduct seriously and are committed at least to continuing the conversation.  I realize many people have written about sexual respect and violence in the past few weeks, and I understand some people are getting tired of the discussion. However, until the number of sexual assaults on campus reaches zero, there will still be more to talk about.