We’ve been subjected to the big news stories lately that focus not on how the US economy is doing in its painful recovery, or whether peace in the Middle East is finally being achieved, but instead, on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s scuzzy affair with a member of his domestic staff, and on the International Monetary Fund head’s attack on a hotel maid.
While these might make for just another week of “ho-hum” headlines in People Magazine and other celebrity and gossip publications, the revelations seem to have also resulted in more college students coming forward to say that, when they were raped or taken advantage of on college campuses, their concerns were met with disdain or just plain ignored. This is hardly a new situation.
When I was a college student at a women’s school in the early 1970′s, I found myself seduced by an attractive college professor. I was invited to go look at church pews with him in Bennington, Vermont, that he said he wanted for his house or for the college’s black box theater. Thrilled to be asked, I said yes. We went back to his house afterward, and — his wife away on business — he mixed me a drink that was full of frozen fruit and a lot of alcohol. Before I knew it, he was all over me, and I succumbed. I was young, inexperienced, eager, unsophisticated, and a lot more. I didn’t report the encounter, because I felt that I had been complicit in allowing it to happen and that nothing would be done.
Several months later, another professor, who periodically invited his students to dinner at his home, invited me to such a meal. I was thrilled and dressed up, thinking it was one of those dinner parties. He picked me up at my dorm, and I was surprised — and concerned — to find that no one else was at the house… a house far away from campus, out in the woods. Nervous, I chattered away, and we had dinner — a Mongolian Hot Pot, as I recall.
As he showed me around his house, I was somewhat relieved when we got to the bedroom and I saw the bed turned down, with a book on the bed. “Phew,” I thought to myself. “Your concerns were taking over. This guy is planning to go to bed, alone, and read. No problem.” Wrong. Before I knew it, as I turned around to leave the room, I was pushed down on the bed, and raped.
I didn’t report it. I felt as though I should have known better, should have realized what was going on, should have asked more questions, should have…. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It was a different time, and I was naive, and very young.
But still, I ask myself as I read about the situations college students continue to encounter, and the unsatisfactory response colleges make to their claims of harassment or rape: why has nothing much changed? Why do students still find that they are demeaned or ostracized if inappropriate behavior is encountered? And why do jokes about ‘rape’ get thrown around, even — in some social situations — by children in their early teens? What is it that makes a man — a man as powerful and well known as Dominique Strauss-Kahn — think that it’s OK to walk out of the shower, chase the hotel maid around, and force himself on her?
All of these situations — whether they involved a movie star and a housekeeper, a financial magnate and a hotel maid, or a college professor and his student — were, at some level, also about the use of power in situations where both players were not on a level field. People of influence and authority engaged with, and used their authority and power over, people in subordinate positions.
I was never a big part of the so-called ‘women’s liberation’ movement as it grew in this country. Nor was I a ‘stand by your man, no matter what’ kind of woman. I have always believed that individuals deserve to be treated with respect, whether they are hotel maids, housekeepers, college students, or kids on a playground. Why is that so hard to embrace? And why does it seem that we are doomed to continue to read headlines that show us, over and over again, that ‘respect and dignity’ is something we must wish for, rather than embrace as truth, in our lives?