The Amherst College Drinking Fetish

[Trigger warning: sexual assault]

In an interview with the Office of Public Affairs, Patricia O’Hara (Dean of New Students) was asked what effect the SMOC report and “last year’s dialogues surrounding sexual misconduct” had on this year’s orientation:

As the SMOC Report highlighted, Orientation is a really critical time for us to communicate with students about standards, responsibilities, resources, expectations. So we have done a lot of work surrounding the discussion having to do with students’ rights and responsibilities. Those discussions are Tuesday and Wednesday of Orientation. We’ve recruited a national expert in dialoguing about diversity and inclusion, which is an aspect of our Honor Code… He has been at the Amherst College campus, speaking to the LEADS program, and they recommended him highly, so we brought him on board. [emphasis mine]

Here’s the description for “Community Values and Inclusion,” the event Dean O’Hara is referring to:

Values are important for understanding who you are and how you relate to yourself, others and your environment. A significant part of your time at Amherst College will be figuring out which values you wish to keep and which values you will have to develop as you begin to experience new life situations and demands… Our goal for this session is to begin a discussion about how you will take part in building a diverse and inclusive campus community.

Dean O’Hara, on behalf of the administration, suggests that an hour and a half-long talk about values and inclusion is the best way to incorporate the knowledge gained from last year into Orientation, and consequently that it reflects the College’s present attitude toward sexual assault. The latter is remarkably true – the absence of any single event dedicated to examining sexual assault on the Orientation ’13 schedule is less bewildering when viewed beside the College’s mistaken beliefs about sexual assault, its slow rate of response, and our shared desire to choose comfortable ignorance over painful reality.

There was no room for sexual assault in the Orientation ’13 agenda because of the College’s fetishistic fantasy about alcohol and student experience. A fetish is the most powerful kind of fantasy: the desire to escape from an impregnable and traumatic loss causes a fracturing of perception and an introversion (literally “to turn inward”) of consciousness away from external experience. In this case, the site of trauma is last fall: the struggle to respond to primary and secondary experiences of sexual assault was eventually lost to ambivalence, and we got tired of arguing. This comforting denial creates gaps in perception, which are then replaced by the fantasy of mastery – reality gains imaginary control over the formerly uncontrollable. The very existence of a fetish object implies the paradoxical recognition that we are powerless to master what hurts us (“je sais bien, mais quand-même“). From this paradox comes the process of fetishistic denial, where the truths in conflict with fantasy are either refused completely and repressed, or are incorporated into the fetish object itself.

A student’s first-year orientation is one of the most dangerous times in her or his college career; it’s the first time that many students decide with impunity to do things like drink or have sex (both of which, by the way, are totally normal behaviors that should not be shamed). This is a fact that Amherst recognizes, and the staff in charge of Orientation goes to great lengths to ensure that nothing bad happens during this period of self-exploration and discovery. However, freshmen women are traditionally viewed as predatory targets by older male students – the younger women are presumed to be naïve and sexually inexperienced, and thus easy conquests. This is a trope as old as the marriage between college and drinking, and while it isn’t exclusive to Amherst, it is alarmingly present here (my friend has a story about his former teammate shouting “SEND US YOUR DAUGHTERS!” at a group of parents and prospective students touring the campus). Given the College’s effort to protect its students, this year’s Orientation programming did an injustice to the new members of our community.

Fetishes are audibly acts of desperation; they echo the scapegoating that followed from the publication of Angie’s narrative. When confronted by abhorrent reality, we impulsively move to identify the pathogen responsible for trauma and highlight it through opinion – athletes, fraternities, Title IX staff, drunk women, Crossett Basement, football, the counseling center, etc. This turns a communal or spiritual problem into an intellectual dilemma. What’s great about intellectual dilemmas is that they’re dispossessed of any pathos; their consequences are felt less because the stakes are hypothetical. Further, intellectual dilemmas are resolved through cogent arguments, which are reached faster, require less effort, and are more persuasive than palpable changes within culture. Amherst is a place that more likely to side with rhetorical might over moral right. But this creates a circle of pedantic opinions repeatedly voiced until the weary nihilism sets in. When that happens, we want to escape; if anyone last year had asked me why I was drinking, “debate-induced spiritual fatigue” would have been the reason.

The planning for Orientation ’13 was plagued by miscommunications about the College’s desire for a dry campus. The end result was a clause in the contract signed by student Orientation Leaders, promising to “refrain from the use of alcohol and drugs during the orientation period.” It was an impotent and unenforceable request, but the logic makes sense – by modeling abstinence, older students could help the College “move to a safer Orientation”; it would also theoretically decrease the availability of alcohol to new students.

The fetish’s most identifiable administrative protuberance is eCHUG, that profoundly stupid piece of teetotaler propaganda prescribed by Amherst for the Class of 2017, which only becomes more offensive in the intellectual vacuum of Orientation programming. eCHUG serves one purpose: to shame each participant who confesses to drinking alcohol. It accomplishes this goal through a variety of unimaginative tactics, most of which are stolen from Regan’s echelon of “scared straight” failures. eCHUG works by exploiting the inherent guilt felt by the adolescent citizens of a culture that presumes (if not expects) they drink while simultaneously highlighting its illegality. If that’s not enough to get you running to The Rooms, eCHUG makes sure you know exactly how many calories alcohol has added (it literally says “How many CHEESEBURGERS did you DRINK last month?”)  to the prescribed monthly intake. eCHUG previously shamed people for having “unwanted sexual experiences” while drunk, but has since removed this language from the program.

The link that eCHUG works to establish (despite the token revision that was made to its language after Ethan’s article) is the link generated by the administration’s fetish object – since the resolution of sexual assault would require a restructuring of Amherst’s entire psychical landscape, it is easier for it to be subsumed by a fetish umbrella. The result is the mythic and inimical belief, frequently expressed by members of the administration (and by society at large), in a causal relationship between alcohol and rape. This is the pure fantasy of the fetish, to be able to metonymically control sexual assault by controlling alcohol; by getting rid of one, we will take care of the other.

The problem, of course, is that all of this is total and absolute bullshit. Alcohol doesn’t cause rape; survivors who were raped while drunk are no more responsible for what was done to them than a pedestrian who happened to be drinking before getting run over by a drunk driver. Amherst’s decision to prioritize alcohol over sexual assault is ethically negligent at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. To suggest that sexual assault can be combatted through discussions of personal values is an insult to the intelligence of the students of Amherst College; it’s the path toward moral relativism. It means there are no higher principles governing how we should or shouldn’t treat each other, which is a dangerously ignorant way to live. Not all opinions are equally valid; some things are wrong unequivocally, and are legitimate positions for debate.

President Martin, in the Convocation address she gave on Monday evening (which marked the end of Orientation ’13), spoke at length about the place of ignorance in our culture. In order to contest ignorance, we must be guided by principles and be willing to subject our own beliefs to the same scrutiny we use to evaluate the beliefs of others. “The undoing of ignorance,” said Biddy, “requires awareness and guts.” I share President Martin’s enormous gratitude for being here, which is why I will conclude by repeating her words back to her:

Ignorance is not the absence of information. It is not a simple emptiness waiting to be filled… Ignorance is active, even willful, though often unconsciously so; it is structured by configurations of power and distribution of resources; it works through us by virtue of the ways we are enfolded in those configurations. It is cemented by bonds of love—by the attachments and loyalties that shape us, and sometimes lead us around by the nose.  The undoing of ignorance requires awareness and guts, which depend on the fellowship, the guidance, and support of others who are committed to rigorous analysis… It is possible to make of it [diversity] a kind of fetish when it is not connected the work of the institution and the vision for our relations with one another. It becomes a fetish when the responsibility for it is left to those who seem to represent it, rather than being assumed by every one of us.

Amherst College must renew its commitment to this “rigorous analysis.” The gulf between the reality of student life and the administration’s perception is startling, but it has not yet become impassible. We must subject each other and ourselves to our analyses; our fetish is not simply “diversity” or “drinking culture,” but all of the easy answers. A fetish is, after all, the  fantasy of ignorance. We must stop entertaining ignorance, no matter how cogent its formulation. My dreams for this year fill my heart with hope, love, and possibility, and with conviction I look through my fears toward the difficult questions that are waiting for us.