As a woman in STEM, I’m pretty used to being in the minority. Even then, my college’s 7:3 ratio of males to females is a bit of a shock. And while I love my school for the amazing opportunities it offers to my peers and me, it doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to sexism. I grew up in a pretty liberal city, so I knew that in college I would be surrounded by people who would disagree with me. That thought was exciting and intimidating, but I really underestimated how true that statement would be.
Because I was an incoming freshman, I was pretty reluctant to speak up at first. I let the upperclassmen handle that – at least, until I was ready to throw in my two cents. There were a few people who I could already tell were outspoken. They would call people out on things they found offensive, especially sexist remarks, and I remember thinking, “That’s exactly what I would have said!”
Then the backlash came. And the criticism. And the rebuttals. It wasn’t even from just a few extremists or trolls. Most were people, especially guys, whom other people really respected. I was shocked and honestly a little afraid. If the upperclassmen living in my house (we have co-ed houses where undergrads from freshmen to seniors live together) were being made fun of and disrespected for calling out blatant sexism, then I would surely be shredded to pieces.
I remember one instance when a group of us were discussing the use of the word “rape” in everyday contexts (for example, “That exam raped me!”). I personally don’t ever use “rape” in a casual context, and I don’t think other people should either. Doing so makes rape seem like a joke, when it’s a serious issue that really shouldn’t be taken lightly.
However, a friend and I were the only two at the table who held this opinion. Some of the counter arguments cited freedom of speech; how jokes can segue into a real conversation about a serious topic; and general disregard for the feelings of others. When this last point was brought up, my friend and I realized that this argument would not be progressing anywhere, at least not that day. So we dropped it.
Another time, our Title IX coordinator came to our house and described to us what Title IX was and was not about. She was easy-going, frank, and much cooler than I imagined a school administrator could be. At the end of her presentation, she asked for questions. She got very few, and nearly all of them were from guys wondering the same thing: “What happens when someone accuses me of rape?” Our Title IX coordinator tried her best to come up with a good response. Every situation is different, she told us, so it’s difficult to have a concrete answer. They left the meeting unsatisfied with her response, still fearing that someone could ruin their life with a false accusation of rape.
I was pretty frustrated. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will be sexually abused in some way in their lifetime, and only about 2 to 8% of reports of rape are false. Here I was feeling proud that more people were finding the courage to report incidents of rape, and all other people could think about was protecting their own asses. I suppose self-preservation is human nature.
But since then, the house has started to talk about its issues with feminism in general, if not necessarily issues pertaining specifically to rape culture. Even though my first instinct is sometimes to yell about all the injustices of the patriarchy, I’ve learned to be patient. I understand that a lot of people don’t know the true definition of feminism, and most people don’t know the full extent of rape culture. There is still a lot for all of us to learn.
I hope that I’ve built the reputation of being open-minded and reasonable. I love being able to help people understand my point of view, and I also want to learn about what other people believe and why, no matter how much I disagree. I want to foster a house environment in which the people I live with feel safe, and more importantly, when they don’t feel safe, they know they can speak out.
Change will come, but it will come slowly. We can only change one mind at a time, and we can only do so by being open-minded and patient. There’s no easy way out. I definitely have my work cut out for me when I get back to school. But I think it will be well worth my efforts, and I’m looking forward to seeing how my school, my house, and my friends can be better together.