Guess What: Rape’s Not Funny When the Victim is a Man, Either

[Content note: sexual assault]

I know Jezebel is low-hanging fruit, but I can’t resist picking apart their new “Sexytime Dilemmas” column and its endorsement of sexual assault, which apparently is okay when the target is a man.

One of the letter-writers wants to know how to get a guy to try anal play. Jezebel’s “sexpert” responds (TW for sexual assault):

If you want this to work you’re going to have to be very delicate, and take things slowly. No one wants a dry finger shoved up their butt at random. In my experience, guys are generally more open to new concepts, and trying out new things, when you have their dick in your mouth. (This is because fellatio slows their brain down to a point of temporary retardation, which means their guard is down.)

…So, while you’re sucking, start playing with his balls and then slowly move moving your fingers back in the desired direction. Be conscious of how he’s responding to your touch. If he flinches as soon as you start poking around in that area, that’s not a good sign, but don’t give up hope just yet. Wait a minute or so, then do something fancy with your tongue to distract him and try again, rubbing lightly around the outside of the hole, as not to scare it….Basically, never give up and remember that with a little perseverance you can do anything you put your mind to, Susie!

I’ll say it several times since apparently people still don’t get it:

This is sexual assault.

This is sexual assault.

This is sexual assault.

I’ll let the much-more-talented Rebecca Watson explain this further, along with the many other ways in which that Jezebel post is horrible. For now, I want to address the assertion–which I’ve seen a few self-identified feminists make–that this piece is somehow “funny” because “humor” and “satire” and “lol rape against men.”

First of all, blindly regurgitating problematic crap is not satire, and it’s not any other kind of humor, either. Just as it wasn’t funny when Daniel Tosh said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?”, it’s not funny to be like, “LOLOL JUST STICK A FINGER UP HIS ASS WITHOUT CONSENT LOL.” And that’s basically what this piece is saying.

Now, if sexual assault of men were extremely rare, to the point of being unheard of, I can see how this might be funny. Sometimes, creating a satirical world–in which something that seems ludicrous in real life is commonplace–is humorous. That sort of role reversal inspired a play I saw recently, Venus Envy, which depicted a world in which men, not women, were the “weaker sex.” This type of satire points out problems in our society that are so entrenched that we take them for granted.

But this is not the case for sexual assault of men. Men are less likely than women to be raped, yes, but it’s not that rare. Men also face unique barriers in admitting and prosecuting sexual assault–from the perception that they “can’t” be raped to the victim-blamey belief that they ought to be able to defend themselves. Knowing that the hypothetical man in the article would receive very little support from others if he accused his female partner of violating him–knowing, in fact, that he may have internalized the “men can’t get raped” myth to the point that he wouldn’t even have the words to talk about what had happened–it’s just not funny to me.

As another (much better) Jezebel article once pointed out, it’s quite possible to joke about rape. Since the article was in response to the Tosh incident, it’s mostly talking about standup comedy, but it’s still relevant:

So, comics. This doesn’t mean that everyone is obligated to be the savior of mankind. You can be edgy and creepy and offensive and trivial and, yes, you can talk about rape. Doing comedy in front of a silent room is scary, and shocking people is a really easy way to get a reaction. But if you want people to not hate you (and wanting to not be hated is not the same thing as wanting to be liked), you should probably try and do it in a responsible, thoughtful way. Easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.

Do not make rape victims the butt of the joke.

It’s not funny when they’re female, and it’s equally not-funny when they’re male.

After I read the Sexytime Dilemmas article, I participated in a few online discussions about it and I found numerous (female) feminists who found it funny–and who openly admitted that they wouldn’t find it funny if the genders were flipped. And I felt sickened.

Yes, women are more likely than men to be sexually assaulted. But how on earth does that statistical fact make it any less tragic when a man is assaulted? Is the fact that it’s less likely supposed to make it more palatable somehow?

I don’t think so.

I am reminded of this wonderful post in which the author screams, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!”

My feminism will concern itself with all rape victims or it will be bullshit.

My feminism will care about the ways in which men are harmed by patriarchy or it will be bullshit.

My feminism may not devote equal time to men’s issues as it does to women’s issues, but it will show compassion for all genders, or it will be bullshit.

Oh, and for heaven’s sake: if you want to try something sexual with someone, communicate and get consent.

My Massive List of Social Justice Resources

Yo, remember that huge list of social justice resources I mentioned that I was working on?

Well, it’s up!

Feel free to use this for your own education, to refer newbies, and so on. Share it widely. Hopefully it’ll help people.

And, of course, it will be getting updated constantly and I’d love to get recommendations for articles, websites, books, and other stuff to add. Some of the sections are still woefully sparse, so if any of those are subjects that you particularly care about, please share your favorite resources.

Otherwise, there’s more explanation over on the linked post, so go read that if you’re interested.

Thanks!

On Men Who Think Street Harassment Would Be Awesome

Whenever women are discussing street harassment and what causes it and how to prevent it, a man inevitably comes along to inform us that, actually, our feelings about harassment are Wrong because he, personally, would just love it if women catcalled him on the street or came up and slapped his ass without consent.

There are lots of things wrong here.

1. This is male privilege.

It’s a perfect example of it, in fact. Having privilege isn’t a “bad” thing, and it doesn’t mean you should have to lose that privilege–rather, it means the rest of society should gain it. In this case, that privilege is being able to walk down the street without being subjected to sexualized attention, and that privilege is one men have and women do not, in our society. (Of course, men are more likely than women to face other kinds of unwanted attention on the streets, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

When you say that you would “love” it if women catcalled you, you are speaking from a place of privilege because catcalling isn’t something you ever have to deal with. The only reason you are even able to imagine enjoying it because you’ve never experienced it.

Some men do experience sexual harassment from women or other men. But these generally aren’t the men butting into our conversations and telling us that we should take harassment as a compliment, because they understand what it’s actually like.

2. Harassment means you don’t want it.

Why is this so hard to understand? If you want sexual attention, then it’s not harassment or assault. It’s flirting or sex. If you want to be catcalled, then it won’t feel like harassment to you. When you make a sexual comment towards someone without their consent, you are running a huge risk of harassing them, but if it turns out that they wanted to hear that comment, they’re probably not going to complain.

But of course, none of us are mindreaders, or else men who harass women on the street would probably realize that they don’t want it in the least.

3. And anyway, your penis is not the arbiter of everyone’s sexuality.

As in, I don’t really care what you like. Just because you may like getting catcalled without your consent doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like it too, and it definitely doesn’t mean you have the right to do it to others. It’s just like I wrote about people who prefer not to be asked for consent during sex–that’s totally cool. But you cannot assume that others feel the same way you do.

If being catcalled in public is your thing (which, as I’ll explain, I kind of doubt, anyway), you’ll need to find a way to arrange that without advocating that everyone should be okay with catcalling. Just like if you get off on emulating rape, you’ll need to find a consenting partner to do that with rather than suggesting that everyone should be okay with getting raped because that’s what your penis likes.

4. Harassment is never a one-time thing, and that changes everything.

If you’ve never gotten catcalled (and likely never will), it may indeed seem like it’ll be pleasant and flattering. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking something similar when I was a teenager–old enough to want sexual attention, but too young to really get it (not to mention living in a quiet suburb rather than a big city).

The first time a man ever made a comment to me on the street, it was a bit weird but also kind of cool. I still remember it–I had just graduated from high school and was taking a trip to Chicago alone for the first time. I was in the Loop and there was a group of guys. One of them said, “Hey! You look good.” That was it. Fairly harmless as catcalling goes.

The second or third time, which I don’t remember, probably went much the same way, and I didn’t mind it much. But it’s never just a few times. It’s dozens, hundreds of times over a lifetime. It’s when you wear a cute dress. It’s when you wear sweats. It’s when you’re excitedly on your way to a date. it’s when you’re dragging yourself home after an exhausting day at work. It’s when you’re taking a run. It’s when you’re carrying groceries. It’s all. The. Fucking. Time.

And that, as this blogger explains beautifully, makes all the difference.

5. It’s also different when you’ve been a victim of sexual violence.

My guess is that men who say these things have not, and this is another type of privilege at play. If you’ve never experienced sexual violence, unwanted come-ons will feel different to you than they will to someone who has. To survivors of sexual violence, street harassment can be anything from a mildly uncomfortable reminder of a past experience to an actual trigger for a panic attack, depressive episode, or flashback.

And here’s the thing–if you haven’t had that experience, you cannot know what it’s like to be triggered or reminded of it. You just can’t. But luckily, you don’t need to understand it to respect those who do know. You just have to shut up for a change, and listen.

6. Who, exactly, would you want to be catcalled by?

My guess is that when you imagine getting catcalled, you’re imagining a gorgeous woman doing it. What about an ugly woman? A fat woman? A gay man? In my experience, the men who go around whining that nobody ever catcalls them on the street are the same ones who get horrified when someone they don’t find desirable pays them any attention.

Also, men who are perceived as gay are often bullied or assaulted for even seeming like they’re coming on to straight men. Apparently it’s not such a “compliment” anymore when it’s coming from someone you’re prejudiced against.

And remember that the whole problem with non-consensual interaction is that you don’t get to choose who interacts with you.

7. Gender matters.

Although men are not immune to violence (sexual or otherwise, from women or from other men), the dynamics are demonstrably different because most men are stronger than most women. If you’re a man walking down the street and a woman starts harassing you, you generally don’t have to worry that she’ll brutally rape and attack you if you try to get her to stop (TW for that link).

For women, the awfulness of street harassment isn’t just what it actually is, but also in what it could become. It could just be an offhand comment, or it could lead to stalking, groping, assault, mugging, or murder. You may think that you’re a perfectly nice guy who’d never actually hurt anyone as you stand there and whistle at a woman, but she doesn’t know that, and therein lies the horror of it.

The humiliation makes it even worse. When a man catcalls me, I can feel the eyes of the passerby on me and I know what they’re thinking: She shouldn’t have dressed like a slut. She shouldn’t be here alone this late at night. I wonder what she did to get his attention. 

When women come on to men, on the other hand, this generally reflects well on the men because getting attention from women is seen as an accomplishment, not a failure to stay modest and unobtrusive enough.

On the other hand, though, this mindset also contributes to the huge problem of sexual assault not being taken seriously when men are the victims, which brings me right to my final point.

8. Comments like these erase male victims.

This is perhaps the most important point I’ll make in this entire piece: men who say things like this are effectively erasing the experiences of male victims of sexual harassment and assault. Believe it or not, many (if not most) men don’t actually enjoy it when women pay them unwanted sexual attention, “unwanted” being the key word.

A male friend of mine mentioned that whenever a guy points out that, no, he does not want to be harassed by women on the street, he gets ridiculed by other men. That, right there, is why it’s so difficult for men to admit being harassed or assaulted, and why male victims are marginalized. Male rape is still largely considered either impossible, “not a big deal,” or, as I’m discussing in an upcoming post, simply hilarious. I don’t know how else to say it: this is a fucking problem.

Anyway, I’m at 1,400 words now, so this seems as good a time as any to stop. Here’s the tl;dr version for people who minimize the problem of street harassment: check your privilege, put yourself into someone else’s shoes, and consider the fact that the world doesn’t fucking revolve around you.

Occasional Link Roundup

I’ve finally been reading again! So here you go.

1. My friend Michael on why evangelical Christianity fails to appeal to him: “I do not feel broken. I do not feel particularly sinful. I do not feel lost. Your savior is of no use to me, because I do not need to be saved. Your meditative “self-actualization” is of no use to me, because I know who I am.”

2. Clarissa explains why trying to psychoanalyze politicians is a waste of time. (Also, for all you armchair psychologists–it’s impossible to diagnose someone you haven’t met and spoken to.)

3. On the terminology of pro-life and pro-choice movements, and why both words are actually inaccurate.

4. People who clearly don’t understand disability are concerned that people fake needing a wheelchair to get through airport security faster. Best comment: “I’d seriously much rather have someone cut in line than have someone who’s in pain be denied a wheelchair, charged extra for it, or assumed to be cheating.”

5. Why you should vote no on Minnesota’s Same-Sex Marriage Amendment (if you live in Minnesota, that is). I’m proud to know the person who wrote this: “Vote no, because there’s no such thing as gay marriage. There is only a legal covenant of care between consenting adults, who may or may not be together forever, who may or may not have children (which may or may not be related to them), who may or may not be of the same gender, and who may or may not be of the same sex.”

6. Two fascinating recent pieces on Role/Reboot drew some very interesting analogies. One was between the narrative of men as “weak” and that of Muslims as “weak.” The other was between letting boys ignore girls’ boundaries when they’re little and letting men ignore women’s boundaries when they’re older. Of course, Analogies Are Imperfect™, but the articles are fascinating.

7. Lisa Wade on what’s wrong with hookup culture. Hint: it’s not the fact that women are having casual sex; it’s the fact that sexism permeates it (as it does everything else in our society, of course).

8. On boundaries in relationships, and how they can be emotional, not just physical.

9. Bridget Gaudette on how having sex and enjoying it led her to abandon religion. Fascinating.

10. Atheism that concerns itself with social justice is great. End of story.

11. And, finally, a beautiful piece on overcoming social anxiety.

[guest post] You Are Not Alone: A Shared Story of Depression

Seth returns again to talk about the response he received to his speech about depression and spirituality. (This is his third guest post. Hmm, maybe he should get a blog already!)

A few days back, I wrote a piece titled “The Dharma of Depression,” wherein I talked about the experience of depression and the way my spirituality has interacted with that. I must confess myself quite overwhelmed and flattered with the response that it’s gotten.

But I’m not here today to toot my own horn. There’s plenty of other times to talk about how awesome I am. No, the thing that’s stuck out to me about the response I’ve been getting is how many people have said that I spoke to a personal experience in their lives. By contrast, I’ve only had one person tell me that they’ve never experienced what I was talking about.

This is important.

It’s important because depression is an incredibly lonely disorder. One of the many thoughts that depressed people tend to get stuck in is the idea that they’re completely alone—maybe there are people who care, but there’s nobody out there who understands what they’re going through well enough to be able to help them. This has been my experience, and it’s also something I hear a lot from other people who talk about the experience of depression. What seemed to be happening in response to my piece, based on the comments I’ve been getting, is that having somebody describe an experience similar to the one they went through suddenly challenged this sense of isolation and opened up the possibility of somebody else being able to relate to how they felt.

What’s ironic is that even in the middle of this isolated feeling, there are many more people
than you’d expect going through a more or less similar experience. Certainly, for me, there were more people than I could’ve imagined even just among my immediate friends group who could relate to my pain. I expected two or three people in my audience to be familiar with the feelings I described; based on the number of people who have talked to me, I’d rate the actual number to be closer to fifteen or twenty, out of no more than fifty.

So. To those of you who are all too familiar with the feelings I described, I have something to say to you. And despite my usual tendency towards wordiness, I’m going to be as concise and blunt as I can, because it’s incredibly important for you to understand.

You are NOT alone.

You are NOT some kind of emotional freak.

Most importantly, you are NOT a hopeless case.

You have a problem, yes. But this problem is not unique to you. It’s not a problem that
everybody will understand, but neither is it a problem that nobody will understand. It is a problem that has been lived through. It is a problem that has been studied. It is a problem that, at this very moment, thousands of individuals are working to find a way to treat.

You can find support, and you can find help. I know there are bad breaks and well-meaning idiots out there, but if you just hold on and keep looking, you will eventually find somebody who understands what you’re going through. There are more of them out there than you think.

You can survive this.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

Faith is not a Mental Illness

I’ve been seeing a disturbing tendency among atheists to compare religious belief to mental illness. Sometimes this comparison is made explicit, as in this article. Other times, however, the comparison is more implicit–for instance, when words like “crazy” and “delusional” are used to describe religious people or their beliefs (hi Dawkins).

These comparisons are inaccurate and offensive to both religious people and people with mental illnesses.

First of all, being religious is a choice. Being mentally ill is not. While it’s a bit arguable whether or not faith itself is a choice–I certainly can’t make myself believe in god, but perhaps others can–the existence and success of religious proselytism proves that choice is at least part of the equation. Only a completely ignorant person, on the other hand, would attempt to proselytize mental health (although it obviously does happen).

Regardless of whether or not you can choose to believe in god, you definitely get to choose whether and to what extent you observe a religion (unless you’re a child, but that’s different). People with schizophrenia don’t get to choose which hallucinations they have and how often. People with OCD don’t get to choose their compulsions. People with phobias don’t get to choose which phobias they have or how they manifest themselves.

Second, suggesting that religious people are mentally ill is sanctimonious and offensive. It insinuates that they are incapable of consciously and purposefully choosing to be religious, and that their religious beliefs are just as meaningless as a symptom of mental illness. It reminds me of when I used to bring up concerns with friends who would respond, “Oh, that’s not such a big deal, you just feel that way ’cause you’re depressed.”

As I mentioned, being religious is a choice. For most people, it’s a choice made with one’s own best interests in mind. Comparing that to a schizophrenic delusion is a wee bit condescending.

(Of course, delusions that are religious in nature do exist. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are possessed by religious spirits of some kind, that they have spoken to god, or that they are the messiah. However, this is vastly different from the way most religious folks experience their faith, and is obviously a symptom of mental illness.)

Although I’m an atheist who kinda sorta wishes religion didn’t exist, the fact is that it does, and I refuse to believe that all of the billions of religious people in the world are just mentally ill. No, they’re onto something. It’s just not something that I’m interested in myself.

Finally, these comparisons trivialize the suffering that people with mental illnesses experience. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is not that mentally healthy people do not believe in supernatural things and mentally ill people do. The difference is that (most) mental illnesses interfere with the person’s functioning and make them feel, well, bad.

Religion, for all its flaws, often does the opposite–it provides people with community, teaches them to behave morally and charitably, and helps them cope with illness, death, and other challenges in life. (A caveat: I’m talking about religion at its best, not at its worst, and these same effects can be found elsewhere.)

So when you imply that the definition of mental illness is believing in things without evidence, you miss a lot about what it’s like to be mentally ill. Namely, you ignore the emotional pain, cognitive distortions, thwarted goals, ruined relationships, physical fatigue, and all the other things that are part of the experience of mental illness.

There are many interesting, intelligent, and non-offensive ways for atheists to argue against destructive religious ideas (for instance, here’s an example I read today). Calling religious people mentally ill is not one of those ways. Let’s put that kind of useless rhetoric back on the shelf where it belongs.

[guest post] The Dharma of Depression

My friend Seth, who has guest-posted here before (read it, it’s awesome), returns to talk about depression and Buddhism.

Note: The following is a transcript of a speech given at the weekly College Meeting for Worship at Earlham College.

Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming. It means a lot to me that people have come to hear me talk about this.

For my entire adult life, and most of my adolescence, I have struggled with depression.

Sorry to drop the heavy stuff on you right away, but this must be understood if anything is to come of the rest of my talk.

In many ways, I have been very lucky. I have never had to take medication; I know people who have. I know people who would not be with us today if they hadn’t had medication. I know people who are no longer with us. I have attended memorials for those people in this very meeting house.

Depression is a terrible, terrible disease.

Other diseases ravage your body; depression ravages your mind. It tears away at you will, your hope, at everything that makes you, you.

Let me be clear about this: depression is not sadness. 24/7 sadness would be incredibly obvious to everybody around you. But depression is much more insidious than that, and in my experience, it often takes your friends and loved ones by surprise when it crops up.

So what is depression, then?

Well, I obviously can’t speak for everybody, but here’s my experience:

Depression is being trapped in a slow, steady downward spiral of negative thoughts. Depression is thinking that the biggest mistake you made all day was getting out of bed. Depression is the feeling that you’re slowly falling to pieces, and the inability to pick yourself back up and put yourself back together. Depression is the irrational yet inescapable idea that your life means nothing to anybody, and that nothing would change if you just suddenly vanished from off the face of the earth.

The worst thing about depression, though, is that it devours the very resource that is necessary to fight it: your willpower. Sure, maybe you know that you should try talking about it to a friend you trust, or make an appointment to see a councilor, and that might help. But how in the world are you going to do that when you’re lucky just to have the ability to pry yourself out of bed in the morning?

All this is very important to understand. Partly for my story, because this is what I mean when I say that I was depressed. But also because you may well meet somebody suffering from depression in the future, or maybe you already know somebody who is. It will help both of you if you have at least some idea of what they’re going through.

But back to my question, because for far too many people, it isn’t rhetorical. How do you fight something that destroys your ability to fight?

Like the experience of depression, the key to overcoming it is different for each individual person. For me, the key was faith, which is why I’m here talking to you all today.

It may surprise some of those here that know me when I say that I consider myself a deeply religious person. Part of that is probably because I’m not extremely outspoken about my religious beliefs, and when I do talk about them I tend to frame them as a general philosophy about the world rather than a spiritual belief. Part of that is probably a cultural tendency to assume that “religious” means Christian, or at least Abrahamic, which I am neither. Nor is the religion I wound up devoting myself to the same one I was brought up with. Nevertheless, I consider myself religious because my personal philosophy and sense of morality are, if not directly taken from my religion’s teachings, very much in sync with them.

Allow me to explain.

[Read more...]

Evangelical Apathy

You might think that the people who annoy me the most are those who hold views I strongly disagree with. Actually, though, it’s the people who don’t really care one way or the other, and–this is the important part–who insist on inserting themselves into every single political debate to yell at us for having opinions.

I call these people evangelical apathists, because they feel the need to spread their apathy like evangelicals.

Typical mating calls of evangelical apathists include:

  • “I mean, I get that [politician/policy/status quo] really sucks, but why do you have to make such a big deal about it?”
  • “Complaining about it won’t change anything.”
  • “Things will just get better on their own, anyway.”
  • “Well, I’m a [insert group/identity here], and I’m not offended.”
  • “Honestly, both sides are equally bad.”
  • “Don’t you have more important things to worry about?”
  • “It’s just a joke, stop being so sensitive.”

I’ve found that in my personal life, I tend to have a much harder time getting along with these people than I do with conservatives. With the latter, while we disagree, we can have a good time debating each other or at least bond over our mutual concern for what’s going on in the world. But with evangelical apathists, the very fact that I care about stuff seems like a thorn in their side.

These are the people who whine about “too many” political posts on Facebook. These are the people who loudly proclaim that politics is “boring.” These are the people who don’t vote–and not out of protest against the two-party system, but because they just can’t be bothered.

For example, during the Markwell controversy at my school last spring, the loudest voices–aside, of course, from the moronic anti-religious trolls who made the rest of us atheists look bad–were the people shouting “But why do you guys care if they proselytize?” without bothering to listen to our answer. (The reason we care, by the way, is because proselytism is condescending, insensitive, and annoying, and because Campus Crusade for Christ is an offensive reference to an act of Christian barbarity.)

The same thing happens with controversies like Chick-Fil-A and Daniel Tosh. There are those who defend them, there are those who criticize them, and then there are those making apathetic noises in our general direction and proclaiming how above these petty arguments they apparently are.

Except, of course, it’s ironic–if you really don’t care, why bother commenting?

I’d blame evangelical apathy on several causes. First of all, the internet does lower substantially the barriers to expressing your opinions, however inane they might be. It takes all of five seconds to leave a comment saying “hurrr I don’t see what the big deal is why do you guys even care lol.” This is much easier to do online than in person, because thankfully, it’s still considered rude to interrupt two people having a conversation to tell them that you find their conversational topic to be uninteresting. Online, on the other hand, this is par for the course. (For what it’s worth, though, I still think the internet is absolutely awesome and a wonderful medium for expressing opinions.)

Second, apathy is our cultural default. Apathy is cool, mature, “appropriate.” Passion is uncool, immature, and “inappropriate.” This is why apathy is something that so many people are so desperate to show off. In proudly displaying yourself as someone “above” such petty issues as racial slurs, rape jokes, and LGBT rights, you are tapping into our cultural ideal.

Third–and this is the one I can somewhat sympathize with–our political climate is toxic. People attack each other rather than ideas, and facts (what are “facts” nowadays?) are basically unobtainable. It’s all too easy to get burned out, throw up your hands, and declare neutrality.

And that’s the part I don’t begrudge anyone. If you’ve had enough, you’ve had enough. Get out and keep your sanity.

But respect the choices of those of us who are staying in the ring. If our political debates annoy you, don’t read our blogs and Facebook statuses. Don’t make us defend our decision to give a fuck. Don’t evangelize your apathy.

Get out of our way.

What We Talk About When We Talk About College

It’s been rather quiet around here lately.

I’ve just started my senior year, and with that came a lot of reflection–what I want this last year to mean, how I can improve on the years that came before it, and, perhaps most importantly, why it is that my time at Northwestern has been so fucking painful?

I may never know the answer to that question, honestly. I have a few answers, but I don’t have the answer. The answers seem so banal when I list them, and they cannot do justice to my experience here: the depression, the social atmosphere, the pre-professional orientation, the year wasted in journalism school, the quarrels with the administration, the lack of adequate mental health services, and so on and so forth. None of these things, on their own or in any combination, can explain it.

I still remember the pervasive sense of loss I felt when I realized that I was never going to get what I came here for. That beautiful, glossy image of college that I’d been sold would never be my experience. Some days I love this school, but I will never be able to look at it with that fondness with which most older adults talk about their alma maters.

But the truth is that it’s not just me. This time is not universally wonderful. It is not the best time of everyone’s lives. For some people, it is a sad or boring or lackluster time. For some it isn’t really a big deal either way. For others, as we were reminded so horribly last week, it is a tragic time.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters. While I don’t think we should be unduly negative, we should not be unduly positive, either. Painting college as an unequivocally wonderful time–implying, therefore, that if you aren’t having a wonderful time, you are to blame–doesn’t do anybody any good, except perhaps for those who stand to gain from increased tuition revenues.

When we make college out to be the best four years of our lives and push all the unpleasant stuff under the rug, we let down students who are suffering. We let down those for whom the stress and loneliness triggered a mental illness. We let down those who suffer from substance abuse problems, and those who have been robbed, harassed, stalked, and assaulted. We let down those who can’t keep their grades up, who see their friends post Facebook statuses about their 4.0’s at the end of every quarter and think they are the only ones. We let down those who can barely afford to be here. We let down those who miss their families every day. We let down those who have been bullied or taunted because of their appearance or identity–because, yes, that happens, even on a “liberal” campus like ours.

Does this stuff suck? Yeah. Is it unpleasant to talk and read about? Yup. I don’t care.

Here are some things I went through while I’ve been at Northwestern. I’ve been depressed. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve cut myself. I’ve taken antidepressants. I’ve been so tired I couldn’t sit up. I’ve broken down crying in the garden by Tech. I’ve been harassed and assaulted. I’ve been bullied. I’ve been robbed. I’ve lost close friends. I’ve failed tests. I’ve had panic attacks. I’ve tried to starve. I’ve hated myself and the world and wanted to quit.

And then I got lucky, and I found a second family and figured out what to do with my life and got good at the things I love to do. I found feminism and atheism and activism. I got lucky. But I will not shut up about what college was really like for me, because to do so would be to abandon those who haven’t found what they need here yet, or won’t find it ever.

A few weeks ago, a writer for xoJane wrote a piece called “When College Isn’t Awesome.” She discussed her own decidedly not-awesome experience and then published the stories of others. When I read it, I found myself wishing that it had been written years ago, when I was a freshman. The author wrote:

While reflecting on my less-than-picture-perfect college adventure, I asked other folks to share their own stories of college-era emotional and psychological struggles. My hope is that some suffering student will see this post and feel less alone. Maybe she or he will even be more inclined to reach out to the student counseling center, friends, or other resources for help. Or maybe she or he will just feel less like a freak for wanting to stay in bed and cry while seemingly everyone else excitedly skips off to the football game.

That is exactly why I keep talking about how difficult these past three years have been for me. It’s not just because it’s a relief for me to share my own story rather than trying to keep it to myself. It’s also because I want others to know they’re not alone.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters.