Friday, May 2, 2014

Thinking Two Steps Ahead on College Sexual Assaults


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

May 2, 2014


                It is a blessing that the extent to which women who are sexually assaulted and even raped on college campuses, and simultaneously in the armed forces is becoming recognized.  It is destructive for the US vice president to proclaim zero tolerance for sexual assailants, and mandatory reporting.

                My most emotionally draining was when I met with mothers whose apparently predatory fathers and grandparents were trying to take custody of children away from them.  It was common for them to have accumulated six-figure lawyers’ bills, in my opinion, doing next to nothing for their clients.  And I saw the devastation caused to a 14-year-old whom a judge in chambers had said he didn’t believe her, and a downward spiral that followed.

It was a blessing that I several times qualified as an expert on “peacemaking, making it safe for children to grow up loving both their parents,” including a mother who was at one point locally jailed for trying to take her children to another state, and grandmother, who for several years volunteered to team teach my senior seminar on “feminist justice: children’s rights and safety.”  It was my co-teachers who introduced me to Jeanette Westbrook, a clinical social worker in Louisville who was born into intergenerational satanic ritual abuse.

                Another memory comes to mind.  There was a student who had been raped and was afraid of being stalked by her assailant.  She was holed up in her apartment for fear of going out.  After an email exchange, I tried calling her, and got no answer.  I worried that she might be suicidal.  I went to the sheriff’s department, and asked them to check on her.  The male deputies brought her into the station where I sat, to get her to press charges.  My memory is of the look of anger and disappointment I saw in her eyes as the deputies escorted her past me.

                I was for several years on the local board for Prevent Child Abuse.  There and when I received my primary mediation training, I was reminded that in Indiana where I taught, every person is a mandatory child abuse reporter.  I openly equivocated, saying that I would leave the child with options, and if I didn’t think the child would be protected by law enforcers, I would not report.

                In sum, in my experience, for children as for co-eds and women in the military, it is odds-on to be thoroughly retraumatized and burdened to advise any victim to go to the police.  It is magical thinking to believe, as my vice president claims, that we can stop sexual violence against women and children by bringing sexual predators to justice.

                Once again, I have heard an npr interviewer ask whether sexual assaults were really increasing, or was there more reporting.  And I have heard an expert equivocate.  I have had long ago to come to terms with my own assaults, both emotionally and physically, that hurt women.  How common the rhetoric was among us college men about how women “really wanted it.”  How oblivious we were, and certainly I was, to the pain and trauma we caused.

                I grew up in the sixties in the era of sexual liberation, when the pill had become available.  For all the openness about sexuality today, I doubt that the culture of young manhood and obliviousness to women’s pain and suffering is much different in colleges today.  I learned decades ago of a survey at the Air Force Academy that got reports of having been sexually assaulted from every female cadet.  And yet here we go again, talking about an epidemic because crime reports are up, as news media continue to do with other crime figures.

                To me, the fundamental cultural barrier to changing this culture is to allow safe spaces for boys and girls to get introduced to sexuality in open conversation with each other as well as from an instructor.  On one hand, there are many of us parents who are quite open to their children’s curiosity about sex and sexuality; on the other, the Puritan streak in U.S. culture makes talking about sex and sexuality, notably in public schools, taboo, on grounds that it is parents’ prerogative to make the discussion taboo at home as well, almost as though the topic is a matter of parents’ free expression of religion for themselves and for their children.

                I have high hopes for my own young grandchildren.  They know how their parents made them, and big sister and younger brother play well together and with both parents.  This is the kind of transition that can take place in two generations.  The rhetoric of further suppressing sexual assault may dominate the airwaves.  It is a rule of peacemaking that the force of change in political culture grows across generations from not being heard at all to overt coming together of politically divided groups.  I have often thought to myself how much of a difference it would have made in my young adulthood if I had known and recognized what women really wanted, and to know sexuality as mutual pleasure rather than “scoring” as it was for me and my male friends.  We are making great strides in recognizing, even celebrating, sexual diversity among adults and teens.  It is one step further to helping men and women to speak a common language of love, and recognition of personal hurt and violence.  Love and peace, hal

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