Rape and the Alma Mater: How Is Cornell Protecting Its Students?

The response to a string of sexual assaults this weekend at Cornell University has been underwhelming, with some students suggesting that rape is an inevitable expression of socialized masculinity. Unfortunately, I can't say I'm all that surprised.
Publish date:
September 7, 2012
rape, college, sexual assault, ivy league, cornell, dumb things college-age dudes say

This post discusses rape, assault, and sexual violence and may be triggering for some people.

When I was a freshman at Cornell, I called the cops at 4 in the morning on a Wednesday.

“Some -- guy -- chased -- me,” I wheezed. “Carrying a stake? A stake.”

The policeman that showed up at my door was sweet and young, round-faced and thin-limbed. He clearly didn’t know what to do with the panicked, sobbing 17-year-old who’d summoned him to her dorm room in the early hours of the morning.

I’d been walking home from the library, I told him, and I’d gotten a bad feeling from the hooded guy I saw coming across the North Campus green toward me. When I’d started walking faster, he’d taken off after me, brandishing what looked like a sharpened stick. I’d sprinted to my dorm and slammed my ID on the reader, lurching inside and up to my fifth-floor room without looking back.

It’d been inexplicable and terrifying, and the knot in my stomach twisted as the cop looked at me helplessly.

“It was probably a fraternity prank,” he said, trying to smile. “You know. Just one of those things.

“And you probably shouldn’t be walking home from the library that late,” he added, half-smiling. “Which you know.”

I tried to smile back, hiccupping. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, just one of those things. Sorry. Thanks.”

The cop got my information and left. I didn’t hear anything more about it.

Cornell is a school comfortingly enveloped by nature -- Ithacans refer to the town as “10 miles surrounded by reality.” It’s hard to imagine any real violence taking place amidst that dreamy green haze.

The campus is draped in romantic lore: a two-minute walk from North Campus is the suspension bridge, connecting to the main campus, where it’s said that a couple who kisses at the center will be destined to be together forever.

It’s a secluded spot, not well lit, and if you stand at the middle in winter you can see all the way down the creek to the city, twinkling coldly at you from the valley. I can see the appeal of choosing that way to walk home from the library or a party, exhausted in that bone-deep way that comes from staring at books all night.

This past Sunday, a female student was raped on the stairs there.

The rape was just one of a string of assaults that took place early Sunday morning. At 2 in the morning, a man attempted to grab a woman across campus from the bridge. An hour later, a man forced his way into an apartment in Collegetown, a popular place for upperclassmen to live, and put his hand up the dress of a female occupant before he was shoved out. Then, at 3:30, the raped female student called to report her attack.

I’m not on campus anymore, but I can imagine what happened next. When I was a senior, the University began sending out “forcible touching” emails, usually in response to assaults like the one at the party. These were bizarre, dispassionate emails: one incident involved a student, naked save for a baseball cap, scaring women on a well-trafficked street as they walked home from parties. Another detailed a man who jumped out of the underbrush on the main campus to grope a woman before running off.

Students rarely considered them to be assaults; instead, most started regarding them as jokes. “Don’t get forcibly touched!” I often heard dudebros scoffing at each other as they left the library.

Apparently, the response of the campus this time around has been similar: shrugging, helpless and reactionary. Local news station WBNG quotes one freshman as saying, “People just kind of read [the email] and moved on.” Another junior told WENY that she would have never walked in the woods that way at night.

And in this op-ed from the Cornell Daily Sun, the paper that I wrote for, junior Tom Moore suggests that these rapes were just symptoms of the society’s “rape culture,” the same one that drives men to eat meat and drink beer. The author admits that he, too, tends to view forcible touching emails with humor and resignation, and suggests that the next time an assault takes place on campus, Cornellians take some serious time to reflect on how they contribute to rape culture merely by existing.

“Men are taught from Day One that to be male means to be assertive, powerful and virile,” he writes. “This is part of why breaking the silence on sexual violence can be so hard. On some level, we realize that rape is the ultimate enactment of qualities that we, as a society, have been extolling all along as male ideals. We are left with a massive cognitive dissonance between our horror at rape and our tacit endorsement of dominant gender roles. Our favorite way of dealing with that dissonance is silence.

It is important to note that rape culture is a two-sided coin. Just as the dominant gender roles of society force women into roles of submission, passivity and objectification, they simultaneously force men into roles of domination, aggression and predation…Most of our conversations about gender tend to focus on the former and minimize the importance of the latter.”

I get what the author is trying to say. I really do. At Cornell, where 30% of the students are involved in Greek life, the sex-driven hyper-masculinization of many fraternities is not a secret. It’s easy, even morally satisfying, to point to that bro-ness as the easy villain in the story of on-campus violence, defeated only by some good old-fashioned navel-gazing. “Of course!” I imagine Moore picturing some dude in a polo shirt thinking as he reads the paper in the dining hall over breakfast. “When I call girls ‘sorostitutes,’ it’s just contributing to a culture of sexual violence! Thanks for clearing that up for me, brave op-ed writer.”

It’s a tempting conceit, but it’s also a glaringly incomplete one. According to the Ithaca Journal, only one other rape has been reported at Cornell since 2007. That may be true for the “scary” rapes: assaults that Todd Akin would call “legitimate,” where the attacker was a stranger, looming out of the woods at night to grab innocent students.

If and when the police catch Sunday’s attackers, their trials will most likely be straightforward. Moore is correct when he writes that these cases have a “bad guy.” And, to be sure, these attackers are bad guys. 

Cornell itself, however, is not without fault. I'm not referring to the shadowy, “rape culture” aspect of it that Moore points to as the underlying cause of the attacks, but rather Cornell’s administration. Only one other rape may have been officially reported since 2007, but the personal anecdotes traded by my peers suggest a much higher rate of assault. I admit that these accounts are unverified and unofficial, but as someone inclined to trust women when they say they've been assaulted, I find it impossible to ignore the policy.

And when the current policy requires victims to reveal their identities and detail their attacks to their peers in order to receive justice, it’s no wonder that many victims of assault and rape choose not to report their attacks.

We know that most rape victims know their attackers: At a place like Cornell, a tightly knit community of 13,000 undergrads, who’s to say that a jury of one’s peers will support the accuser over the accused?

The problem doesn’t lie merely with the judicial system, either. There’s also a startling lack of preventive measures taken against violence on campus. When I was a student there, I spent a lot of my time working with other students and staff to try to enact real changes for women’s on-campus safety. The “blue light system,” so often lauded by tour guides and campus police as a major facet of on-campus security, was outdated and flawed -- and apparently many students still feel that's the case. The one time I used a blue light phone to call for a campus escort home from the library at 3 in the morning, the cop that showed up 30 minutes later was surly and uncommunicative. I was wasting his time, his whole demeanor said, and my mile-walk home through the Ithaca streets should not have been his concern.

The campus was perfectly happy to provide the Women's Resource Center with plenty of delegated funds to host speakers (including, memorably, Marianne Kirby) and perform the Vagina Monologues. But when it came to implementing cohesive, long-term improvements -- even something as simple as providing late-night shuttles to and from campus housing during finals week -- we continually met logistical opposition from higher-ups. It was too difficult, we were told. Too ambitious. Too cumbersome. From my perspective, it seemed like the administration had too many short-term fixes to put long-term solutions in place.

My own rape didn’t happen when I was at Cornell. It took place half a world away, when I was studying abroad. It certainly wasn’t what Republicans would call “forcible:" I was drunk enough to be pliable, and my housemate even had the courtesy to shut the door behind him before returning to his room down the hall. But it was assault, and it was of the same murky nature that many of my friends faced while at Cornell.

And, like the thousands of students who click past the “forcible touching” emails, we all shrugged it off. It wasn’t worth the trouble. We thought we probably wouldn’t be supported. In an environment where it took several years to even begin to implement a mandatory student-run sexual assault awareness workshop for new fraternity members, it’s hard to imagine concerns like “He went too far,” or “I don’t really remember, but I know something went wrong” being taken seriously. There were consent workshops available for freshmen during orientation week, but I don't believe they were mandatory -- and if they were, they only happened once in all four years of undergrad.

This is the first time, for example, that I’ve referred to my own attack as “rape” rather than “assault." Like every good Cornell student, I’ve learned to couch things in ambiguity for the sake of comfort.

Maybe my friends and I should have made more of a fuss. But forgive me for feeling like we shouldn’t have had to.

I’d like to believe that if I were at Cornell today, I’d be up in arms about these recent assaults. Cornell's administration has, in recent years, begun to make improvements in the way it handles sexual assaults on campus. I'm heartened a little, for example, by University law enforcement's sentiment that "students shouldn't have to be looking over their shoulders." I’d be taking to the streets to make sure that real changes happened. I’d like to think I'd be enraged.

Knowing the rest of the campus was busy moving on, though -- that they were writing the attacks off as flukes, or bad luck, or for God’s sake, “exemplars of dominant male ‘ideals,’” -- I just don’t know how long I could keep up the fight.