Wednesday, January 11, 2012

At the University of Vermont: A Brother With a Problem

Roger A. Canaff 

It’s really not a secret: I have a pretty strong 'anima' or feminine side. 

I don’t resent it. I think it’s made me a much more effective special victims prosecutor over the years. And in any event it’s who I am. My closest circle of male friends will readily confirm that I navigate those friendships more as if I were a spouse or partner than any sort of a “guy’s guy.” That can be frustrating for everyone involved. And of course, I have my professionally inspired inferences, which should and do make me more sensitive to things like rape culture, male privilege, and other issues faced by women and girls in ways that most men really can’t imagine. So yeah- I’m something of a woman trapped in man's body if you’re going to buy into a lot of generalizations about how women think and react, and what it means to be emotionally “feminine.”

So be it. Nevertheless, I’m a straight guy and generally typical where sexual fantasizing is concerned. So shameful or not, tasteless or not, over the years and at every social stage of my life, I'll readily admit that I’ve taken some part in the game of “Hey man, who would you sleep with in [insert environment here]?”

And believe me, it can be any environment. And it is every environment, at least where members of the opposite sex are even remotely observable. A high school Spanish class. A summer camp. A basic training unit, an introductory psychology course, the 5th floor of a dorm, an office mail room, the accounting department, the DNA lab, etc, etc, etc. 

Yes, it’s tawdry. And utterly pointless. Regardless, it’s what men do. Gay men do it as well, and sometimes in mixed groups we’ll all play the game, with the gay guys making their own considered judgments about men, and often commenting with high degrees of validity on women as well.

For most of us, this stupid tradition begins innocently, scattered across that late elementary to middle or junior high school period where girls become suddenly and then perpetually interesting (and of course, for homosexual boys it really can’t begin until they find themselves in much more progressive environments then the kind I came up in). So it might start in 5th grade or thereabouts with “who would you want to see without her clothes on?” But it quickly progresses to more imaginative and specific scenarios, and it never really stops. It’s far from angelic, often inaccurate, and always objectifying. It’s wrong and I won’t make excuses for it. 

I’ll also note that, regardless of what I do and who I am or profess to be, I’ve played the game in places that are hardly feminist enclaves. I’ve played it in warehouses, on airport tarmacs and construction sites where I worked for years before entering professional life. I’ve played it in countless police cars, detective squad rooms, bars, diners and alleyways, passing the time for various reasons and waiting for something to happen. I’ve played it with men educated and not, supposedly enlightened and not, gentle and not.

What I’ve never, ever heard in roughly 35 years is any man, anywhere, ask “so if you could rape someone, who would it be?” 

It’s true: That cyber-blessed term “WTF” was honestly coined for such an abomination.

There are variations of this game I will remove myself from or avoid if I detect cruelty or a line I just don’t feel comfortable crossing. But no guy in my experience has ever even approached the idea of rape. Ever. If I could rape someone, who would it be? Even writing that out makes me cringe.

So “WTF” the fraternity brother at the University of Vermont was thinking when he added that to the lets-get-know-each-other ‘new brother questionnaire’ is worth exploring. And I mean between him and a good mental health provider. Because it’s more than just tasteless; it’s downright scary. Perhaps the guy who wrote this and anyone else at this chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon who deemed it acceptable is just remarkably awkward and clumsy with word choice. But I’ll vote for disordered. The word “rape” is one of the ugliest in our language. It’s mono-syllabic, blunt, and shocking. It’s supposed to be. While it usually doesn’t involve these things, it conjures in most minds gratuitous violence, torn clothing, screaming, and injury. It at least evokes- as it should- terror and a life-altering, shattering experience of trauma on the part of the victim. So how it could be in any way confused with the desire to engage with someone sexually is beyond me. There are psychological and legal terms for men who only or primarily respond to non-consensual sexual situations. If that’s the case with the questionnaire author or authors, then those who share their environment should know about it.

I'm glad that (at least) there's been a tremendous backlash at UVM and an appropriate student response to the leaked document. I hope this gratifying response lingers after the dust settles, and that male and female students in this well-loved college environment continue to reject the idea of anything like this in their midst. Because it’s more than just disgusting. It’s dangerous. 

A widely known child protection and anti-violence against women advocate, legal expert, author and public speaker, Roger Canaff has devoted his legal career to the eradication of violence against women and children.

Roger Canaff: Anti-Violence Advocate, Child Protection Specialist, Legal Expert Blog: WCSV (Women, Children, Sex, Violence: Outcry, Analysis, Discussion)

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