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Personal experiences in an impersonal system: A call to amend Bowdoin’s response to sexual assault

May 13, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

I leapt into life at Bowdoin with force and vigor. I joined an a cappella group, auditioned for a musical, became a tour guide, went to parties and religiously attended office hours. My story is not unusual—nor is my experience with sexual assault at Bowdoin.

I first engaged with Bowdoin’s institutional response to sexual assault this year, two weeks prior to Spring Break. I have spent the last several weeks noticing some pieces of my identity as a hard working, (somewhat) anal-retentive student unravel and other pieces of myself emerge as more resilient than I could have imagined. I have attempted to reflect on my experience in bite-size pieces, in manageable frames of understanding that allow me to process selectively. While this experience has at times felt debilitating and emotional, it has come most naturally to process my experience by attempting to unpack the systems in which I operate, with which I am complicit, the systems which I represent as an employee of the admissions office here at the College. This is cathartic and part of my journey to sanity. This is also my attempt to promote and provoke a dialogue by attaching my name to an experience that is not at all unique but is nonetheless often hard to pin down as affecting people we know.

In Bowdoin’s 2016 survey on “experiences and attitudes about relationships and sex,” 14.5 percent of women reported sexual assault involving sex under “physical force, threats of physical force, or the inability to consent because of being passed out, asleep, or incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs.” In each class of 500 carefully selected students, around 36 women will be sexually assaulted, under Bowdoin’s definition, during their time here. This is not to say that these roughly 36 female students in each class are the only students who have experienced sexual assault during their time here, because, according to Bowdoin’s survey, the vast majority will not report the assault or seek resources on campus in the aftermath.

Bowdoin, like any institution, must necessarily respond to the insidious and systematic problems built into the framework of our patriarchal society and historically all-male college. Bowdoin faces the institutional problem of sexual assault and has attempted to craft a response. A response is necessary as a claim to legitimacy. It is also necessary as a practical, financially incentivized matter; the College couldn’t afford to lose 36 women in each class to disillusionment, mental health difficulties and to places that might place higher value on their bodies and experiences—that would be one very expensive and unsustainable institutional problem.

Bowdoin, like many institutions, has created hard and fixed rules which diffuse authority and responsibility across many administrators, effectively absolving any one individual of blame. Bowdoin has policies that state zero tolerance for violence, hazing, and academic dishonesty. These policies are imposed regardless of the popularity of the decision or whether they disproportionately impact certain demographics. These policies allow the College to blame cheating on students instead of departments that are systematically unclear about their expectations of academic honesty. They allow the College to blame violence on individuals instead of the racist slurs prompting the violence. The fixed rules create an abstract authority that is difficult to pinpoint and hold accountable, allowing the College to claim legitimacy as an honest and safe place. However, our policies are asymmetrical: while we mandate that athletic teams and College House officers attend serious meetings on hazing, and while each incoming first year must complete an online course on academic honesty, our programs on sexual assault are embarrassingly lax and often come in the form of one-time lectures (or plays).

Oh, but the resources! We are happy to connect you with Counseling Services, Health Services, the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs, the Title IX Coordinator, the Women’s Resource Center, or the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. If these won’t do, we can connect you with peers in our student groups who will kindly point you to the aforementioned resources. Bowdoin diffuses the blame of sexual assault throughout a labyrinth of resources, which is not a reflection of the College’s concern for individual students but a claim to legitimacy, a compensatory program that appeases and sends the message that we are doing the best we can. It is worth noting that it falls on those who have been assaulted to seek out these resources. In my experience, after a lot of meetings with a lot of people, who all individually care for the students here immensely and for whom I am deeply grateful, I was left unsatisfied. I was asked, and left asking myself, “if this isn’t enough, what do I want?”

I want the asymmetrical policies amended. I want all incoming students to sign a social code with sexual assault explicitly mentioned. I want administrators who will not pass me off to the next “resource,” ticking boxes and checking watches. I want deans who show up on time to meetings, who do not coo bizarre and patronizing phrases like, “I can tell you still have a spark left in you.” I want a counseling center that is equipped to meet demand, that can see me more often than biweekly, that can match me with the counselor I request. Most of all, I want the College to engage in serious conversations about sexual assault and lay to rest the current discourse of awareness. No more analogies. No more talking about sex in terms of cupcakes, pizza or tea. No more “denim days”—I fail to see how wearing denim in support of sexual assault survivors constitutes anything other than cheap symbolism. Finally, I want my college to apologize for letting him in. I want my college to apologize for continuing to let people like him in.

I represent Bowdoin College by giving weekly campus tours, information sessions and working the admissions office front desk. I justify representing Bowdoin, whole-heartedly and honestly, by thinking about the fantastic individuals who choose to study, work or devote their professional lives to the students at this school and by reminding myself that it’s not better anywhere else. Ultimately, though, I represent an institution that, in my time of need, was unable to offer effective, meaningful support.

In recent weeks, I have sought to reassert my strength and power, which have been noticeably absent. How I chose to handle this reassertion felt representative of how I view myself. My problem didn’t feel like one appropriate for Bowdoin’s system of institutional redress, nor did it feel like a problem that Bowdoin would be willing to properly remedy for me. My problem feels too personal and too pressing for an institution whose circular policies disempower. Ultimately, I chose to speak to him myself, on my own terms. While this satisfied my own quest for control, I am deeply anxious knowing that this option is not available to the majority of women on campus who have faced similar experiences.

Isabel Udell is a member of the Class of 2019

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3 comments:

  1. Nate '20 says:

    I really liked this op-ed. It felt honest and vulnerable while also coming as a much needed reality check for Bowdoin. I appreciate it, and these are the two lines that really stuck with me:
    “They allow the College to blame violence on individuals instead of the racist slurs prompting the violence. ”
    “No more talking about sex in terms of cupcakes, pizza or tea.
    No more ‘denim days’—I fail to see how wearing denim in support of sexual assault survivors constitutes anything other than cheap symbolism.”

  2. fellowpolarbear says:

    Thank you! This is so important!

  3. Class of 2019 says:

    Udell writes, “I want all incoming students to sign a social code with sexual assault explicitly mentioned.”

    Did Udell sign the same social code that I did? The ninth stipulation of the Social Code prohibits “Failure to comply with any Bowdoin College policy including, but not limited to, the following specific ones:

    Bowdoin College Fraternity Membership Policy
    Bowdoin College Illegal Drugs Policy
    Bowdoin College Alcohol Policy
    Bowdoin College Noise Ordinance
    Bowdoin College Information Technology Use Policy and Copyright Policy
    Bowdoin College Residential Life Policies
    Bowdoin College Student Sexual Assault and Misconduct Policy
    Bowdoin College Sexual Harassment Policy
    Bowdoin College Hazing Policy
    Bowdoin College Policy on Discrimination
    Bowdoin College Facilities Management Policies”

    The “Bowdoin College Student Sexual Assault and Misconduct Policy” is 7,907 words long and, let me assure you, explicitly mentions sexual assault, and other types of gender-based and sexual violence. Why does Udell believe the social code she signed, as all other Bowdoin students do, did not include this policy?


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