Abby Fisher ‘19
“You’re dealing with people’s lives,” an eleventh grade student exclaimed during a recent social studies current events discussion about sexual assault. He wasn’t referring to the devastating impact rape has on its victims, but rather to the personal harm an accusation can cause for the accused. “Lives” in this case meant livelihood, financial stability, and reputation, as opposed to its typical definition as a person’s psychological and physical wellbeing.
Other highlights of the conversation include multiple statements that began, “Rape is bad, but…” and “you can overcome abuse, but you can’t overcome having your reputation squashed.” Now, before you jump to conclusions about the boys who made the aforementioned comments – before you call them insensitive or sexist – let me say something in their defense.
Our culture fosters a world in which women are afraid to come forward when attacked, and men are afraid to believe the few who do. The unfortunate reality is that we can’t expect all boys and men to empathize with victims of sexual assault because they aren’t taught from the get-go that women are their equals. We can’t expect young people to view rape as an offense worth prosecuting if our justice system favors leniency towards sexual aggressors. This is not to say that boys and men who understand this don’t exist, but they are a rarity. Although the comments the boys in my class made are flawed, they don’t reveal as much about the moral character of the boys themselves as they do about the culture surrounding sexual assault and harassment at Heschel and throughout the country.
I noticed that because most people in my history class, and at Heschel, are highly privileged and tend to be wealthy, Heschel boys could more easily identify with the people who have similar life experiences: successful (accused) white men. While this might be natural, it’s dangerous. I worry that because my male classmates could more easily imagine being falsely accused of rape, they were more empathetic towards the perpetrators than towards the victims. They were thus unreceptive to the female voices in the room who spoke strongly, though some on the verge of tears, about their feelings and fears surrounding the unstoppable wave of sexual assault allegations.
To combat the anticipated defensiveness of the boys about this topic, my teacher, Shmuel Afek, began the conversation allowing only girls to speak. This decision earned a number of eye-rolls, but the boys nonetheless abided by the guidelines. Later, once the male members of the class were allowed to contribute, one boy persisted in interrupting a female student. Shmuel paused to point out the troublesome pattern in the classroom and in society of men thinking it’s okay to interrupt women while they’re speaking. Many boys erupted in disbelieving laughter and disregarded Shmuel’s comment. By the end, the discussion had devolved into the boys denying the most basic and commonly accepted markers of gender discrimination, such as the low number of female CEOs and the wage gap.
After the bell rang, students rushed into the halls for lunch as I and a female classmate began to cry. How could they invalidate our feelings? How could they look around and not care about what will happen to us? We asked ourselves these and other questions, without saying them directly. We talked for a while about how futile we felt the discussion was. “They’ll never believe us and they’ll never understand,” we resolved. After discussing our disappointment and frustration, I walked, dejected, to my locker, hearing along the way how “ridiculous” Shmuel’s current events discussion was. “Yes,” I thought. “Ridiculous.” “Ridiculous” that in 2017 in a New York City private school, “feminist” is still a dirty word and that my male friends would rather believe a man who’s accused of rape than the victim.
Although the heat of the moment has passed, I still believe those words. We can write until our hands are bloody, speak until our voices are hoarse, but unless our school, our community, and our country decide to believe women who come forward, my friends and I might have to say “me too.”