Use Your Words

A New York Times Magazine article this week describes the shifting of admissions policies at some women’s colleges – Wellesley, Mills, and Mount Holyoke among them – to allow for the inclusion of students from different points along the gender spectrum, from female-to-male trans students, to students identifying as neither female nor male, to those questioning their identities, to male-bodied students who identify as female.

The story raises a number of issues, questions and concerns – things reasonable people could discuss, agree or disagree about. I want to note just one, one the piece raises inadvertently and apparently unconsciously.

Without comment, the article quotes three separate students – two women and one who identifies as a trans man – who voice hesitation about new policies but who do so anonymously, afraid to go on record with their opinions. In the case of the trans man, the Wellesley student is described as having posted an anonymous blog expressing the view that trans men did not belong at a women’s institution, to the consternation of other trans men on campus. According to one such student, a danger of this blog is that it may give other, female, students the sense that ‘it’s O.K. for me to think the same thing, too.’

In other words, it is not okay for young women at Wellesley to think whatever trans men who are their fellow students do not wish them to think. Maybe it’s just not okay for them to think. If the other two students’ anxious anonymity is any indication, it is not okay to speak- female students at Wellesley already get that. On this supposedly liberal arts campus devoted to women’s empowerment – where, ironically, the students started the year in T shirts proclaiming themselves “Free to Explore” – is anyone concerned about that?


Sexual violence against women on American college campuses is also in the news, finally gaining a measure of desperately needed attention both in the media and in Washington. In response to the heightened scrutiny, a number of schools, Harvard University among them, have introduced new guidelines intended to curb sexual assaults. This week several news outlets are reporting that some Harvard University law professors are expressing dismay that the new policies may be unfair to alleged rapists. These professors are concerned about the harm suffered by young men accused of rape.


Statements by the professors beg the question: do they actually believe that the problem with campus rape culture is not that too many young women are being assaulted, but that too many young men are being falsely accused?

Throughout all of history, women and girls have kept silent about violation, or suffered terrible consequences for their refusal to keep silent. The situation on American campuses is evidently no different, where it is widely believed that rape is significantly under-reported, and dealt with callously and casually – if at all – by college administrations. In college rape culture today, young women who are sexually assaulted risk the further abuse of social media blitzes in which young men proudly publicize their acts of violence. College women withdraw from school, their lives in ruins, while their assailants flourish and graduate, never called to account for their actions. It is this rape-fostering environment that these new procedures are meant to challenge.

Instead of supporting their women students, the law professors are asking them – all of us – to consider the damage to young men accused of rape. Their response is only the latest in the long and illustrious campaign to keep women silent. Now, as ever, those who seek to stifle women’s voices remain intransigent and powerful. Now, as ever, their message to victims of sexual violence is: You won’t be taken seriously, you won’t be believed. Internalize your suffering. Think about the repercussions of speaking. Keep your mouths shut.

What’s changed is that young women no longer have to listen. It is a testament to their strength and bravery that they are, in increasing numbers, refusing to be intimidated by attitudes such as these. They are telling their stories, in voices stronger than the efforts to silence them.


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3 responses to “Use Your Words

  1. I find myself baffled by the fact that it appears women raped in college report it to the college authorities in the US. Why is this? It would appear counter-intuitive as surely the college is likely to be motivated by a desire to cover up anything negative – just as the Catholic church was motivated to cover up paedophile priests.

    In the UK a woman would automatically go to the police, not the university.

    • It isn’t a rational choice in some ways, but understandable, I think. In that position, a young woman, perhaps away from home for the first time, is desperate to be taken care of, to feel secure after her attack. The university is supposed to care, to be a safe haven. That makes it all the more reprehensible when the institution turns out to be taking care only of itself – or worse, of the attacker.

      • In the UK, if the victim didn’t want the police involved she’d have to not inform the university authorities either, because as soon as she did they’d be legally obliged to call the police. While it’s entirely up to the victim whether she reports a rape, any organization which is notified of a rape *must* involve the police. A rape victim could access student counseling and other support services in confidence, and most such services are pretty good, I understand, but not the university itself, as they have no discretion about covering rapes up. They’d be prosecuted if they didn’t call the cops – it’s a big deal.

        No university here would ever investigate a rape themselves or act as judge and jury in a criminal case. That’s what I find impossible to understand: that a university or college is informed of a rape and isn’t compelled to call in the police. I can’t see how it could ever be appropriate *not* to involve them.

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