Features, Guest Spot

Social Culture: Yes, it happens. It starts here.

By Rachel Talamo
Guest Spot

The scariest part about what happened to me in Upper School was that no one who knew thought it mattered. 

The morning after, my friends told me not to gossip about the student whom I was too drunk to push away, who threw his face against mine, who tore off my clothes while my useless arms failed to stop him, who would have kept going if it weren’t for a clumsy couple that stumbled into our dark room. The friends I confided in told me I probably reciprocated and just didn’t remember correctly. They told me we were talking about a “good guy.” They told me to keep quiet. 

So I did. I did keep quiet because the only two people I told thought it was easier to call this a misunderstanding than to implicate a friend. I kept quiet because I had never heard anyone talk about sexual assault at school. I kept quiet because I had no reason to believe anyone would think this was out of the ordinary. 

Ask those who knew me in high school, and they’ll tell you I’m anything but quiet. Yet I kept quiet for three years. 

A few months ago, at a sexual assault-specific training for my peer-counseling group at Harvard, our two facilitators spoke of how many women hide their experiences because they’ve been convinced what happened wasn’t a big deal. Our following group discussion noted the weight that comes with being someone’s first confidant. I burst into tears and left the room.

I told three people about my incident that night, and for the first time, I heard what I needed to hear in high school: this mattered. This was not okay. The alcohol I blamed myself for consuming did not excuse what happened. There is no excuse for sexual assault. 

Not long after, a campus climate survey found that 31 percent of Harvard College women are sexually assaulted by graduation. The survey’s most commonly cited reason for not reporting was the survivor’s belief that the assault was not serious enough to report. Weeks later, I wrote an article in The Crimson about what happened to me and about how what can only be called convenient responses to experiences like mine create barriers to reporting. 

People talk about The Red Zone­—the name given to the first few months of freshman year when women are most likely to be raped in college­—as if it just materializes once students step foot on campus for orientation. But this period and these horrid statistics don’t materialize from nothing. They spawn in high schools like ours, develop in silence, and feed off the awkwardness that accompanies discussion of consent amid confusing and anxiety-producing social dynamics. 

When male students feel the crippling need to prove their masculinity with tales of sexual conquest, freshman girls are rumored to trade blowjobs for invites to parties with older guys, and everyone craves social approval but fears approaching potential partners while sober, sex becomes commoditized. 

Whether or not you hear about sexual assault at BB&N, it is happening. At the very least, it’s incubating. High fives for third base and secluded library-table debates about which bros could “get with” which girls turn sex into something that is taken or achieved, rather than something that is experienced by two people willing, at every step, to continue. This culture—for students and graduates alike—is dangerous.

We need to talk about sex. More than the act itself, we need to talk about how we think of the players involved and how their identities affect what we perceive their roles to be. We need to talk about the term “gray area” and how too often it’s used to subvert a tough conversation. We need to talk about how things go wrong and when things go wrong and the importance of acknowledging that they go wrong if they do. 

Students learn the behaviors that lead to sexual assault during high school, and those at Gerry’s Landing are no exception. It’s up to us—all of us—to teach each other better. 

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