On June 12, The Washington Post published a survey-based article about sexual assault on campuses nationwide. More than 1,000 people were polled for information and feelings about “the prevalence of sexual assault among college students and the factors that play a role in those assaults.” Several themes emerged in the article that also run throughout accounts of professor-on-student sexual assault.
One of those surfaces in survivor Alexandra Le Blanc’s narration of her experience. When she and her date both became “pretty intoxicated” and wound up at his house, they began kissing. What started as a consensual interlude went farther than Le Blanc wanted. “I had zero intentions of having sex that night,” she says. “It’s not what I wanted to happen.” But when it did, “I didn’t really know what to do,” she remembers. “I just kind of froze. I was visibly crying during the experience.” That someone wouldn’t object or fight to get away seems counter-intuitive. If sexual engagement is really unwanted, why would someone give in to paralysis and allow herself to be assaulted?
While no single answer to that question is clear, the behavior is very common. In most cases I’m familiar with, the victim’s passivity seems to trace to her confusion at the time, her disbelief that such a thing could be happening to her. The assault is so unwanted, so repugnant, that she tends to grit her teeth, close her eyes, and wait for it to be over. Such is especially the case if the aggressor is someone she admired and trusted.
Another recurring theme in the article is related to that of becoming “frozen” when under assault: the reluctance to report an incident because the victim worries that she shares responsibility for what happened. Over and again in cases of professorial sexual misconduct, student survivors express fear that they led on a professor or somehow signaled that they’d welcome an advance. One survivor has told me that she had a crush on the professor who molested her and, in retrospect, often worried that she had thus invited him to assault her.
But such is not the case. If, as is now being increasingly believed, intoxication (of either party or both) is no defense against sexual assault, and if a woman’s dress, no matter how provocative, is not a license to touch her, then a student’s crush on a professor is no excuse for sexual misconduct. The same can be said of a student who becomes deeply intellectually engaged with a professor. That student’s attentions neither constitute sexual consent nor justify sexual overtures from faculty. As difficult as that truth may be to embrace, embracing it is freeing to survivors who have been blaming themselves for what happened to them.