Illustration by Xaviera López
Written by Alexandra Pauly.
Don’t get it twisted — a school can be full of left-wingers, radical feminists, and septum-pierced art kids and still foster a profoundly violent rape culture.
I went to the smallest of small, liberal-est of liberal arts schools. Located in Vermont, my alma mater totaled 700 students during my first year and doesn’t do grades, majors or minors. There are no frats. The biggest sport on campus is ultimate frisbee and students live in colonial-style houses of around 35 people. No college is too liberal, too small or too alternative for sexual violence to be perpetrated there, though. It’s dangerous to take on a “that doesn’t happen here” mindset when it comes to harassment and assault at frat-free, liberal arts colleges. The systemic and institutional support that allows perpetrators to get away with abuse exists in every environment, even ones that pride themselves on rejecting hyper-masculinity.
No college is too liberal, too small, or too alternative for sexual violence to be perpetrated there.
The power dynamics that facilitate sexual violence at big, traditional universities simply manifest in different forms at small liberal arts schools. In 2017, amidst an explosion of conversations about sexism, privilege and assault, the “sports-loving frat boy” became synonymous with rape culture. I’m sure you’re familiar with the stereotypical chest-thumping, beer-chugging frat boys who view women as potential notches on their belts. But have you encountered the skinny jean-clad soft boy who attempts, unsuccessfully, to conceal his misogyny under a mop of dirty hair and professed love of alt-rock? Spoiler alert, he doesn’t use condoms.
At smaller liberal arts schools like mine (in the tradition of Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and Jay McInerney, I’ll call it Camden College), male-dominated dorms can take on characteristics of fraternities, and faculty members in each department tend to revere their brightest young protégés just as coaches protect their quarterbacks. And, of course, the administration favors students whose parents donate large sums of money.
The person who sexually assaulted me during my freshman year was widely regarded on campus as something of a legend. He was a flashy, charming and wealthy dude who drove his sports car in loud donuts outside the dining hall. He and his friends — whom someone once described to me as the “big dogs on campus” — ruled over the accommodation they lived in, known for essentially these same attributes: rich boys wearing leather boots who threw Jack Daniels-themed parties set to blaring music that echoed across campus. The faculty and student body embraced his behavior despite the fact that a year before, he had been asked to leave for a semester. He was allowed to return because his parents donated generously and were friends with a former Camden President.
Have you encountered the skinny jean-clad soft boy who attempts, unsuccessfully, to conceal his misogyny under a mop of dirty hair and professed love of alt-rock? Spoiler alert, he doesn’t use condoms.
Does this introduction ring any bells? As a wealthy asset to the school and a friend to other financially powerful men on campus, he was protected—and allowed to return to Camden despite prior misconduct—for many of the same reasons that star sports players and legacy frat members yield so much clout on their respective campuses.
The statistics concerning sexual assault on college campuses speak for themselves:
A study conducted by the Association of American Universities found that 23% of undergraduate women were sexually assaulted on campus in 2015. According to two studies (here and here) , frat members are three times as likely to commit sexual assault than other college men. But is this proclivity really a product of the Greek system itself, or just the natural output of a culture that celebrates hyper masculine violence? (This study reveals that daily reports of rape by 17 to 24-year-old women increase on weeks with Saturday football games compared to those without.)
Eventually, the person who assaulted me was kicked out of school due to the overwhelming number of reports filed against him by a group of women including myself. Still, I’m profoundly angry that Camden didn’t make efforts to provide psychological support for me and the other women who were assaulted over the course of a single night. I’m angry that the reporting process took months, rendering my freshman spring semester a blur of lengthy meetings with administration and campus safety. I’m angry that, over the course of my four years at Camden, I witnessed numerous other women go through similar experiences after me.
You don’t need me to explain the problematic nature of hyper-masculine spaces, but we do need to talk more about an alternative culture that exists beyond them. In addition to the stats regarding frats and sports teams, let’s also talk about the subtler parts of rape culture—the less overt aspects that still sustain predatory practices. It’s up to all of us — but mostly men — to approach every space, even ones that seem progressive and special snowflake-friendly, with an awareness of the ways in which misogyny permeates our world and the courage to hold predators accountable.
Alexandra Pauly is a New York City-based culture and fashion journalist. Her work has been published by StyleCaster, Galore, WestwoodWestwood, The Untitled Magazine and of course, Salty. When she’s not writing, you can find her unearthing hidden gems at Goodwill, papering her apartment with magazine tear sheets and debating the most iconic moments of RuPaul’s Drag Race. You can find her on Instagram at @paulybyalexforalexandrapauly.