Warning: The following content contains sensitive material about sexual assault. Students discussed in this article have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities.
A week ago, I found out, during a devastatingly casual conversation, that a charming, personable man I know and liked on campus had assaulted a dear friend of mine when we were freshmen. The details of their encounter are not necessary for this article, but suffice to say the story was every bit as horrible and heartbreaking as that of Chanel Miller’s, as Erica Kinsman’s, as every story of rape or sexual assault that I’m sure you’ve read of or heard about.
This man was well-known as a “good guy” — sure, maybe a little insensitive, maybe casually arrogant with the privilege that comes from being a tall, handsome white dude, but inherently a good person. I’d heard about his “creepy” behavior from girls he’d ghosted and one-night-stood over the years, and always assumed that their words were reflections of his immaturity. But the details of this particular incident brought me clarity. I realized that his charismatic appearance was a front for something insidious and rotten, something that should have gotten him thrown out of our school.
Horrified, I FaceTimed my close friend, Thomas, who also happened to be good friends with this man. Tearfully, I told Thomas the story, expressing revulsion at what this man had done, how completely he had evaded repercussions. I knew I was putting Thomas in an uncomfortable position, but there’s no good way to reveal to someone that their friend is a monster.
There was a shocked silence and then Thomas spoke. “Oh, man, that’s terrible. Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. It all adds up.”
“Damn …Well, she never reported, I guess.”
The issue was that this man was a predator, and there was a chance he would do it again (I knew from the grapevine he had made dates with other women in the coming weeks). I told Thomas I felt that this man should be ostracized for his behavior, and that he didn’t deserve a social circle or sphere of influence on this campus.
Thomas looked at me for a few seconds. Finally, he replied, “I don’t know what you want me to say. I think it’s time for me to get to bed.”
I hung up the phone. A week later, I bumped into Thomas. He had fun plans over the weekend, going bowling with the same man who had assaulted my friend.
Thomas had heard the entire story, with all of its awful details, and then continued his friendship with this man, just as he had done before. Maybe he didn’t believe me, maybe he thought there were “extenuating circumstances” or maybe he simply wasn’t willing to wreck his friendship for something that didn’t, after all, affect him.
Approximately one in four women will be sexually assaulted in college. Let’s think for a second. My baby sister, my two brilliant roommates, the girl who asked me if I was okay when I fell on my run earlier this week; one of them. For you, maybe that’s your sister, or your cousin, or your best friend, or me.
When something so terrible and blatant happens that the conversation can’t be ignored anymore, many people I know, dominantly men, question the severity of assault. They say that sometimes people lie; if she wasn’t lying, she would have reported it. To that I ask: Why would she file a report? Why would anyone want to relive the trauma of the time that someone took away their autonomy, their privacy, their self-worth? For the incredible, courageous women who are willing to relive their trauma in public to find justice, there awaits an uphill, disappointing battle through which they are stripped bare just to lose their case or, at best, claim the mildest of wrist slaps as a consequence. So, there is no incentive to report. When a woman confides her story of sexual assault to others, it is at least in part to make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else.
Men on this campus love to be Woke Kings, to be the good guys, to keep that special, good-kid-who-goes-to-an-Ivy-League reputation alive. Don’t get me wrong; many of them are helpful and supportive. They will not speak over us in class, they will be conscious of what it means to be walking behind a girl on an isolated, ill-lit street in the middle of the night, they will be respectful.
But will these men confront their male friends, and the harsh realities they represent? When a woman tells them her story, will they believe her over the men they think they know? Or will the reality be too ugly for them to confront? Even if they do believe her, will they have the courage to do or say anything about it? I don’t mean posting on social media or watching a march, although those things are nice. I mean quiet, meaningful private actions like ending friendships with predators, expelling offenders from social groups and campus events and making it clear that there are some men who will actively believe and support their women friends.
I know it is difficult to confront one’s friends. Yet, doing so would send a powerful message of outrage. Many of the men I know are leaders on campus and will be leaders on a bigger stage soon. They will have the ability to enact real, meaningful change and the seeds should be planted here on campus. So far, in my experience, these men are simply not willing to help, listen or believe. Though change might be coming, it’s coming awfully slowly and my baby sister starts her freshman year of college in seven months.
It’s the last day of Women’s History Month, so, happy Women’s History Month. We’ve all come so far, and I am proud and thankful for our progress. Still, I don’t think many men on this campus, like my good friend Thomas, understand what it is to truly be an ally. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong. I really hope they will.
Though this is a true story, the specifics of the events described in this article are an amalgamation of all the stories of sexual assault that have been confided to me during my (almost) four years at Cornell.
Members of the Cornell Community may consult with the Victim Advocate by calling 607-255-1212, and with Cornell Health by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. The Tompkins County-based Advocacy Center is available at 607.277.5000. For additional resources, visit health.cornell.edu/services/victim-advocacy.
Pallavi Kenkare is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Jabberwocky runs every other Wednesday this semester.