I’ll admit it: When I began reading Julia Fisher’s column in Thursday’s News, I was expecting to be offended. Her first sentence is bombastic, and her first paragraph is not only sarcastic, but misleading. She seemed to have entirely missed an essential point of the article to which she was responding: namely, that a culture of silence is a “rape culture,” insofar as rape is a violence which flees the light of public view, and thrives in the dark. Instead, she labels as a “farce” the idea that Yale has a culture conducive to rape based on the fact that it is not “routine to hear someone talking about raping or being raped by someone last weekend.”
I just can’t get behind this line of thinking, as the last thing many rape victims want to do is discuss it in the dining hall, but more importantly, because many rapes on campus are committed by people who in all likelihood do not realize the extent of their transgressions.
But Fisher raises a question worth exploring when she attempts to differentiate racism from racists, and sexism from sexists. While both are harmful, there is a difference between conscious and unconscious hostility. We must make clear the difference between identifying sexism wherever it is found, and insisting that unconscious, internalized sexism irrevocably brands its practitioners as sexists. There is a world of difference between someone who consciously endorses a system of oppression, and someone who unconsciously supports it; there are committed sexists at Yale, but they are vastly outnumbered by those who unthinkingly commit sexist acts.
This is not just arguing over semantics. Fisher writes: “People are afraid to express opinions because they might be called sexist or even, as we have seen recently, supportive of rape.” This is understandable, and, more importantly, makes the conversation our community needs impossible.
Fisher says that “it’s time to give words their meaning back,” but the word “rapist” means different things to different speakers. Its use has value, because those who perpetrate acts of rape have committed a rape, and do bear responsibility; choosing to use a different term can feel like absolving them of responsibility for these facts. Others hear “rapist” and think of a man with a knife in a dark alley, know that they or their friends will never be that, and use this disparity to dismiss the conversation about campus rape as ridiculous.
Fisher’s assertion that Yale does not have a “rape culture” rests on this latter understanding. It is true that there are more rapes than there are “rapists” at Yale, in the way the term is imagined. But this does not mean that Yale does not have a culture that condones rape; it means the opposite.
I do not want to be misunderstood. Each and every act of rape is an act of incredible violence. Every act of rape has a victim, and every act of rape has a perpetrator. These perpetrators do real damage to their victims, and are accountable for the scars they leave. Moreover, they need to face serious consequences. But, as painful as it is to acknowledge, not all of them are the malicious rapists of our mothers’ nightmares. If we insist otherwise, Yale’s rape culture will never disappear.
Imagine someone at a party. He is drunk, but functional, and has spent the night hooking up with a girl on the dance floor. At the end of the night, they stumble up to his room. She is too drunk to give consent; they have sex. She wakes up feeling like she has been raped, and if she feels like she has been, she has been. But her partner wakes up thinking only that he got drunk and got laid; he does not understand, although he should, that when someone is too drunk to give consent, sex cannot be consensual, and that is the definition of rape. He was never a conscious “supporter of rape,” but he has come to see those on campus actively fighting rape as his enemies. He becomes at best apathetic, and at worst hostile, toward their efforts.
This makes the “civil conversation” Fisher calls for, and which I believe we need, impossible. Much of the failure of this conversation is due to the way the conversation itself has been discussed, on these pages and generally across campus. I do not blame any particular group on campus for the failures in the conversation thus far. I am simply trying to change the terms of this discussion, and to help people better understand each other.
Fisher writes: “As far as sexism goes, we’re doing pretty well.” Yet how many serious incidents, from the DKE chanting to the “Freshman Scouting Report” of two years ago, have occurred even during our brief time here, and how many rapes have gone unreported, undiscussed and unpunished?
Fisher writes that the debate over sex week “has nothing to do with rape or sexism,” but those communities in which sex is least discussed, like my home state of Mississippi, are also those in which the oppressive structures of deeply ingrained sexism remain most unshaken, and where sexual violence is so commonplace that people become callused to them, and forget that marital rape can exist and that lesbians have as much of a right to go to prom as anyone.
I believe that Fisher is wrong, but I do not believe she is a “supporter of rape.” I imagine that she hates rape no less than I do, but sees the world differently from me, and I believe that some of those differences unintentionally lend support a dangerous culture on this campus. But if she is willing to refrain from dismissing my respectful but urgent disagreement as “political correctness,” I would be happy to buy her a cup of coffee and continue this conversation as allies.
Cecily Carlisle is a sophomore in Branford College.