by Audrey Pollnow
In 2008, 18 forcible sex offenses were reported on Princeton’s main campus. Given that 17 of those sex offenses occurred in a residential facility, the majority were almost certainly instances of date rape. Given how large a problem this is, Princeton demonstrates an appropriate attitude of concern in choosing to address the matter. However, Princeton’s actual strategies are problematic – namely, its decision to provide most date-rape communications through SHARE, or Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education. Although SHARE puts on a number of events throughout the year, the most prominent is almost certainly Sex on a Saturday Night. (hereafter referred to as SoSN). According to SHARE’s website, SoSN is “an educational play performed by students…after which RCAs and SHARE Peers facilitate discussions with RCA groups in the residential colleges.” Although it’s not enforced, all freshmen are officially required to attend SoSN.
Most Princeton students are familiar with the accusations that have been made against SoSN, but they bear repeating. For instance, in a 2007 Wall Street Journal article, Princeton graduate Christian Sahner argued that SoSN “spends much of its time glorifying the hook-up culture”, and that it “gives freshmen the false sense that virtually all of their peers are sexually active, with the resulting message that, ‘Maybe you should be too.’” These are valid complaints: if there is indeed pressure to have sex at Princeton, the University should be countering that pressure by supporting students who choose to remain abstinent. This, however, is only one of SoSN’s major problems. In his article, Sahner suggests that, “SoSN carries a lot of one-sided messages that already overpower the supposedly central lesson on rape.” While this is certainly true, it is important to note that this message itself is problematic and unclear.
In the section of the play which addresses date rape, two Princeton students, one male and one female, return to the male student’s dorm room after a night of partying. Both inebriated, they lie down on the couch, and he has sex with her. Throughout this scene, she offers no form of consent, merely repeating his name. The next morning, both students independently come to the realization that he has raped her, and she considers reporting this crime.
To the audience, it is clear that rape occurred in this scene. The male student initiated sex, and the female student didn’t provide any form of consent. She was, in fact, so drunk that she was unable to consent (which the SHARE peer counselors underscore in the follow-up discussion). SHARE peer counselors also emphasize the fact that the male student’s drunkenness does not excuse him from his act of rape, just as it would not excuse him from an act of theft or murder. In the situation portrayed in SoSN, SHARE is correct in saying that the male student raped the female student, but many freshmen misinterpret this, taking it to mean that if a male student and a female student have drunken sex, it is by definition an act of rape by the male student. Of course, this is not in fact the case: in SoSN, the male student is guilty of rape because he initiated sex and did not obtain consent. Had the female student done the same thing, she would be equally guilty of rape. SHARE, however, does not do an effective job of conveying this message. SoSN’s ineffective nature can easily be seen. (Iulia Neagu’s recent Prince article “The Real ‘Sex on a Saturday Night,’” along with its 442 comments, provides excellent evidence that SHARE has failed to convey what date rate consists of to the student body.
Of course, the obvious problem with SoSN is that, in real life, it’s rarely that easy to know what occurred. For instance, if both students were intoxicated, it’s entirely possible that they could have sex without either of them remembering it the next morning. At that level of intoxication, both students would likely be too drunk to provide consent. If this is the case, it is possible that both students might wake up feeling regretful and violated, but it is simply not possible to know which student violated the other, or if the sex was mutually initiated. Unfortunately, SHARE peer counselors do not address this issue in an appropriate fashion, instead taking the stance that “if you feel like something is wrong, something is wrong.” Another way to put that would be, “if you wake up, feel gross, and don’t remember what happened, we will support you as you accuse the person you slept with of rape.” This attitude is gravely unjust, and amounts to support for unfounded accusations of rape.
If SHARE’s aim is to help rape victims achieve justice, the best way to do this would be to encourage only accurate allegations of rape. After all, every false allegation makes it more difficult for real victims to be believed and for actual rapists to be convicted. The lower the conviction rate, the less likely actual victims are to step forward. By thus failing to promote an accurate understanding of what actually constitutes rape, SoSN thus makes it harder for rape victims to achieve justice, and increases the chances that people will be falsely convicted of rape.
SoSN’s failures to support justice can be explained by examining SHARE’s purpose. SHARE is designed to serve “students, faculty, and staff experiencing verbal and physical sexual harassment, relationship violence, sexual assault, or harassment based on sexual orientation.” As an organization primarily concerned with counseling victims, SHARE is more concerned with being supportive than with encouraging students to take actions that avoid date rape. However, in attempting to fulfill both roles, SHARE creates for itself a conflict of interest. Were they to emphasize the situations in which students should not allege rape (because they are unsure that it occurred,) actual victims might become more hesitant to report their rapes. Likewise, SHARE’s desire to avoid blaming victims or victim-blaming prevents SoSN from being able to successfully discourage behaviors that increase the chance of date rape. Were SHARE to strongly recommend that students don’t drink excessively – a good measure to discourage date rape – SHARE would compromise its ability to provide counseling to a victim of date rape who had been intoxicated at the time the rape occurred.
The most appropriate way for Princeton to address the issue of date rape would be to create an independent organization with the sole purpose of date rape prevention. This organization could organize anti-date-rape programming for the freshman class, as well as various other events throughout the year. Given that it wouldn’t provide counseling to rape victims, this organization could provide a stronger message about how to avoid date rape, and could present a clearer message about what constitutes rape, thus serving Princeton in a way that SHARE is simply not equipped to do.
Audrey Pollnow is an undeclared sophomore from Seattle, Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.