Letter to a rising first-year regarding women’s safety on campus

My dear Catherine,

I’m sure you have heard about what happened at Penn State, at Vanderbilt and at countless other schools. And if it’s happening at one, I’m sure some version of it is happening at all of them. My friends and I have been talking about it a lot lately: How could over 100 students at Penn State join a site devoted to taking pictures of naked, unconscious women without even one saying, “Hey, what we are all doing here is terribly, horribly wrong”? How could four boys rape someone without one of them, just one, saying, “That’s enough”? My friends and I look at our little girls and worry. And it occurred to me that I have one other girl, who will be headed to college in September. A girl that I love to pieces. You.

College will be one of the best experiences of your life — clichéd, but true. You will work hard, you will sometimes ace things, you will sometimes not. You will do better next time, or you won’t. You will meet people who will be your friends for life, people who in 20 years will still be there when you need them, to celebrate your successes or to help you weather the harder times. This is what I wish for you: That you have a great time, both in class and out of it.

What I don’t want is for there to be some event that colors the experience with a gray-black wash and takes away from what college should be. I want to protect you from that, and your own parents feel the same but multiplied by infinity.

I want to believe that my Catherine won’t get into a situation where some yahoo is taking pictures, taking advantage. A situation where she isn’t in control, where she might have had too much to drink. And yet, things happen. You and your friends will be at a party, laughing and dancing, and you will all lose track of how much you’ve had to drink. Next thing you know, one of you goes from having fun to being a hot mess. I speak from experience. You or someone you know will drink to the point that they throw up or don’t know what they’re doing.

At the risk of shocking you, things like that happened to me and all my girlfriends in college. And we puzzle over what has changed. I don’t think I am being naïve when I say that I don’t recall scandals like this when I was at Tufts 15-plus years ago. There were no naked pictures circulating. No one I know was raped by one person, let alone two or more. I think a lot of things have changed, some small and some seismic. Why were there no naked pictures?  Because in 1999, in order to get naked pictures to circulate, you had to have the film physically developed, meaning someone at Rite Aid who is often a complete stranger, would have had to SEE them. That was a deterrent, unless you wanted to be arrested at a drug store. I think there has a been a subtle shift in how boys feel about women — frankly, there is an undercurrent of misogyny in this new behavior that has to do with the fact that girls are more and more successful, and this threatens them. They react with an unconscious desire to humiliate the women who best them in the classroom or elsewhere.

My fortune cookie last night told me that “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” In frat houses or football teams, this group mentality allows every boy to feel like they are not really doing whatever it is they shouldn’t be. Really, in their minds, it was someone else. They were just holding the camera. They were too drunk to have sex, anyway. My friend’s grandfather had a saying: “One boy is one man, two boys are half a man, three boys are no man at all.” So, these small changes have had an effect.

But the big thing that has changed is social media. A friend of mine said that social media has upped the ante, and I concur. Everything is public, everything is documentable and every single thing can fly around a campus or the world in a heartbeat.    

What hasn’t changed is the power of a good group of girlfriends. I was in a sorority, and so the kind of thinking I will describe was drilled into all of us, but by no means is this kind of group solidarity limited to sororities or sports teams. We wrote it into our DNA that if one of us was too drunk, too high, out of control or could be a target for someone with nefarious intentions, someone took that person home. I distinctly remember saying, “I’ll take her,” and I vaguely recall (or was told) that I was on the receiving end plenty. Even when that person resisted, we persevered. If it took the whole group going to get the one to leave, that’s what we did. We didn’t let anyone go unaccounted for — there was no moment at a party when no one knew where one person was, and if so, we found them. It wasn’t like we did roll call, but we kept tabs. If someone wanted to wander off with a boy, someone in the group had to know. This could be as subtle as a wave to indicate that you were headed off and not to worry, but at least one person had to know that you were choosing to go, and you were capable of making that choice. And in that way, the group knew where you were and who you were with.

And this applied to any girl. Some girl that was so drunk that she looked like she might wind up crumpled in a corner, at best, or hauled off to some boy’s room for who knows what, at worst? We took a deep breath and dealt with it. We believed that leaving someone like that was dangerous, because it was, and to do so was to be complicit in the outcome. Most times, nothing would have happened — but what if? Better to prevent the worst-case “what if?” than to live with the guilt of, “We saw her, and we did nothing.”

So, dear Catherine, what I want for you and ask of you is this: Find your tribe. It need not be only girls — we had a number of boys who did the above for us many times — but there should be girls, and more than one. Discuss what you will do to protect each other, say it out loud and have an explicit understanding. You can’t change what the boys might do, but what you can control is your pack of girls and what the rules are for being a part of it. When you find this group, and you promise that all of you will do everything you can to prevent something bad from happening, then college will be what it should be: A place where you can enjoy yourself and have a blast, and know that you are safe and free to do so.

With Love,