MERCER-GOLDEN: The right questions

Parenthetically

As I look at the recent headlines in national newspapers and in the News, two words come to mind: sex and responsibility. The two are, of course, profoundly connected, and each is devastating in its own way.

The revelations last week that Patrick Witt’s ’12 Rhodes candidacy may have been in question even as the media and Yalies were celebrating his heroic, self-sacrificing gesture to play against Harvard have been a stunning display of the way in which different narratives can be spun depending on one’s perspective. The fight over dates and emails between the New York Times and Witt’s representatives seems, particularly now that the dust has settled somewhat, less relevant than the challenging questions of integrity that are raised by these differing claims and by the situation as a whole: questions of sex and responsibility and what different institutions and individuals owe to each other. There are many young men and women who have felt alone on this campus because of experiences of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. We as a community are more comfortable not talking about these experiences, and we sometimes seem invested in protecting the reputation of the institution that we love deeply instead of sharing these stories and helping people to feel safe again.

As ever, Yale is afraid of publicity. Consider the tragic events we as a community have survived in only the last two and a half years, the deaths, the scandals. It is only right that we want to end our collective agonizing and public grieving for the people we have lost and the people we have failed. But we have, I hope, learned that the price of silence is often more pain and a greater sense of betrayal when the truth outs itself.

After the New York Times published a story about Witt last week, attention turned to him and the coverage of his story in the News and the Times. His victim has now been violated twice: once by sexual assault, and a second time by the media storm that has made her story — which I’m sure is confusing and painful — about questions of journalistic integrity and personal character.

The questions, of course, are valid. But Witt’s story is compelling for most people not because of the questions about journalistic integrity it raises, but because it is sexy: The story involves power, prestige and yes, sex — not to mention football.

Instead of feeling betrayed by the News or wondering whether the New York Times should have published a story based on a handful of anonymous sources, the questions we should be asking ourselves are why we, our college and our media can’t seem to handle the problems of sex and responsibility. We should be wondering why the conversation isn’t about why Witt felt entitled to pressure a woman in the first place, and why everyone — the New York Times included — seems bewildered by Yale’s complaint process.

Recent articles and statements have tried to put some of the guilt on the woman in question, saying that everything that passed between the woman and Witt was consensual and that their relationship was on and off, as so many are at Yale. I’ll speak for myself and for the many friends that have struggled in the wake of sexual encounters that occurred in environments of low personal responsibility: Sex can be an emotional minefield, hard to navigate and hard to recover from.

Witt’s behavior is consistent with the behavior of many men and women who participate in low-responsibility sexual encounters, which can be as damaging as they can be fun. This is not a problem just with Witt: This is a widespread problem deeply ingrained in the college landscape.

Yale owes it to its students to make its complaint processes easier to navigate and understand. Recent reports, emails and committees have made strides in the right direction. But I worry that the system still feels too hard to navigate and access. We shouldn’t feel betrayed because Witt appears to be less of a hero than he once seemed: We should feel betrayed because we live in a world in which we are afraid to talk about sex and responsibility and insist instead on making the conversation about other things — journalism, the Rhodes, football.

Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at zoe.mercer-golden@yale.edu.

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