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Cultural Examination: The Confessions Unearthing Bennington’s Rape Culture

The Bennington College sexual harassment and misconduct page, as well as the documents displaying their procedures for handling such cases, display a no-tolerance mission statement condemning any and all forms of sexual harassment: “Sexual harassment and misconduct subverts the educational mission of Bennington College and threatens the wellbeing of students, faculty, and staff. Conduct, whether intentional or unintentional, that results in sexual harassment or misconduct is prohibited and will not be tolerated. Bennington College is committed to offering and providing support to individuals who have experienced, or know of someone who has experienced, an incident of sexual harassment or sexual assault.” Despite the seemingly thorough attention to providing support systems the college presents, there has been a profound amount of inaction in relation to the situations that do not have a “complainant” as the procedural documents discuss in detail. Bennington College fosters the illusion of support and justice; regardless of the administration’s efforts to execute this mission statement, the fact remains that the culture surrounding hookups and sexual behavior on campus needs reevaluation. 

The rape culture in America can be traced back to its colonization. Joan Didion, for instance, notes the English and American trend of, out of respect and confidentiality, assigning anonymity to victims of sexual assault in the media. The reasoning is genuine, however, the other conventions surrounding this practice are less geared towards supporting victims. It acts as a “special-protection” that alienates and separates rape from other violent crimes, that rape is “best-kept secret,” that the victim has “been in an unspecified way, party to her own assault,” that she is “permanently marked,” different, and deviant from society. 

Didion is, however, basing this argument on the media’s coverage of the Central Park Five, a case in which the accused Five and the victim, Trisha Meili, were exploited by New York City’s police, politicians, and news outlets to maintain a false narrative of upper-class utopianism. Yet, she exposes a deeper truth surrounding American culture. The idea of a victim being “party to their own assault,” of being alienated, othered, “permanently marked” because of a forceful act of violence is paradoxical. It displays repressive Christain regimes (geared towards controlling women’s bodies through anti-abortion and anti-contraceptive sentiment, abstinence-based sexual education, and the overall construct of virginity) as repressive sexual agendas that, while acting as a moral barrier inhibiting the will and desires of the individual, are themselves forms of control. 

However, as Didion makes known, these efforts are not, in any way, designed to inhibit men from their sexual activities; it is not men who were examined, before marriage, to see if they had lost their virginity, it is not the men who are denied access to healthy contraceptive options or safe abortions. It is important, however, to note that men and non-binary individuals can be and are victims of sexual assault. However, the violence of this kind is centered around practices—the very same Didion describes—that benefits men specifically; the systemically violent desire of Western institutions of religion, government, and economics dehumanize and harm women and non-binary individuals. Rape culture is institutionally ingrained within Western normalities surrounding sexual behavior, normalities that ultimately fuel the patriarchy along a male/female binary, creating an atmosphere of male privilege that harms women, transgender people, and non-binary individuals, even as men are likewise victims of sexual violence. We must give visibility to all who have suffered sexual violence, however, we cannot ignore the fact that the history behind this violence is rooted in controlling women to serve patriarchal powers. 

The silence surrounding sexual assault has, in recent light, been somewhat subverted The #MeToo movement has amassed a wide audience, setting a chain reaction geared towards alleviating the toxic, misogynistic culture on which America—and its various institutions—is built. From the workplace to education, victims have risen up to make their experiences known, seen, heard, an act of transparency that becomes transhumance as we begin to change the culture as we know it. Over the last few years, we have seen considerable change; influential figures of power such as Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar, doctor of the U.S. Women’s gymnastics team, have been exposed for their violence. And yet, it still has not been enough., New York Governor Cuomo responded to allegations made against him by several women with his keynote aggression and anger: The New York Times wrote that he said we would “not resign or bow to cancel culture,” as though he were a YouTuber responding to an uproar of negative tweets or comments that arose as a result of a controversial video.

The rape culture in America is visible, yet in need of complete upheaval; #MeToo was first used in 2006, yet only produced widespread, global change eleven years later. Likewise, Laura Mulvey, a film theorist, has told us that since film’s surge in popularity in the mid-20th century, an image repertoire has been employed to silence women on the screen and psychologically reinforce the male ego by behaving as a psychological projection of normalized, hetero-centric male desire that satisfies men by rendering women to visually sexualized objects. Quentin Tarantino is a modern exhibitor of this repertoire to this day, as the women in most of the films are rendered to scopophilic voyeurs of his own fantasies, between disturbing images focusing specifically on feet (embodying his alleged foot fetish) and the worship of traditional hyper-masculine control and bravado one might see in a Hemingway biography. His most recent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, features Margot Robbie bopping down California streets laughing silently, dancing silently, watching films by herself silently, and the highly sexualized Pussycat, played by Margaret Qualley; the only two women with constructive roles in the film reduced to objects of Tarantino’s own fragile, wounded ego in a culture where men (such as his friend and producer of most of his films, Harvey Weinstein) have held disproportionate amounts of power. In short, there is work to be done, in the country, at the school, and in arts and culture. We have made great progress in giving justice to violence against women while transforming this culture, but the work is far from over.

On the Confessions at Bennington Instagram page, one can find an array of various comments and quirks that, although absurd, are largely entertaining and wholesome. Between the hilarity of comments such, as “At 3 a.m., On Sundays, I walk naked through my house. I don’t know why I do it. I can’t stop. Help,” there are splurges of compliments directed at students for their talent/fashion/intellect/vibes, a positive reinforcement that runs counter to a disturbing trend that can be seen if one were to dedicate even the smallest window of time to scrolling through its pages. The Confessions page is likewise a space where, under the guarantee of anonymity, students have reached to make their experiences visible; in various degrees, lengths, and details, students describe the sexual violence they have endured while on campus. 

When students have to turn towards Instagram anonymity to make their experiences visible, when students leave the College because “people think my abuser is too cool”—as one post said—to be reprimanded, or get blocked from the Experiences at Bennington Instagram account (similar to the Confessions page, this account is an anonymous platform, although Experiences is designed specifically to give space to any and all students or former students who have endured violence, racist, sexist, or queer-phobic conduct, tagging the College’s Instagram account in an attempt to generate accountability) after “just tryna talk about the abuse I endured,” when one student admits, albeit with a pang of guilt, that they are “scared of men,” then there is a clear failure in the institution and culture to handle these cases. 

When one feels as though they must enshrine themself behind social media in order to give visibility to their experiences, there is a profound fear surrounding the situation itself. The opaque transparency of the internet is itself a force of anonymous justice; right now, for instance, the New York Times and other media sources are under fire for the way in which they are covering the deaths of eight Asian-Americans in an Atlanta spa, due to the fact that the majority of the writing ignores the fact that the killings are hate crimes. But virality relies on engagement, something the Confessions page unfortunately lacks. With 251 followers, less than half of the student body is wholly aware of what the account is communicating (assuming that each follower is a student at Bennington.) Furthermore, each post only receives between 30 and 80 likes (in comparison, the Experiences page has over 700 followers, but at most 200 likes per post.) Both accounts promote transparency and student-generated visibility for the sake of justice and succeed in promoting a dialogue surrounding the college’s toxic sex culture. And yet, there has been little change in that actual culture; the veil has been pulled, the curtain risen, and the bare engines working within the community are naked before our eyes. But the posts continue, seen but unseen, and have not been acknowledged on a large enough scale to reflect the community they represent.

The efforts students undertake and have undertaken have been noble, brilliant, and loaded with the desire to create constructive change, from gathering in solidarity for Belarus to the communal desire to uproot systemic racism as it manifests on campus, an effort that led to the condemnation of former campus safety officer Skau. But there has been a terse silence over the college’s hookup culture; it is acknowledged, yet there has been little change policy-wise to respond to the acknowledgment. One does not need to attend Laura Walker’s office hours and say, to her face, that the College is failing to address sexual assault; all one needs to do is look on Instagram. The students have confessed, their experiences, although nameless, are present. The veil is pulled, and we as a community sit over the edge of a knife poised in waiting for something to happen. When will it happen? What form will it take? How can we, as students, and as human beings, utilize our empathy to allow for the confessors and those who have not—for whatever reason—done so to acquire justice? 

The illusionary “hippie wonderland” that dominates the College’s narrative is in dire need of subversion; we must, as Audre Lorde says, acknowledge empathy, treat it as an integral, human force of joy and love that works within our souls to uproot internal panoptic systems and push that empathy outwards for social change. The voices are present, their stories are known, their experience and confessions heard and felt, perhaps, by others, seen by many more, and the stagnant policy and culture of the school can be changed from this inward position. Yet this is simply the theory, the philosophy that drives one to the point of action; it is, itself, not action. Visibility leads to empathy, empathy to resistance, resistance to action, action to change; in the fight to change the rape culture of Bennington college, and the festering traumas of sexual assault, we have barely touched that first step with what is seen on Instagram. Real support systems, real justice must be undertaken, for it is essential not only for fostering an inclusive, safe environment on campus but also for the broader fight for justice, as it is only one cog in the systemic engine governing and cultivating the patriarchal environment holding America together.

Dylan Walawender is a first-year student studying literature and creative writing, with a little bit of philosophy and psychology worked in there. He enjoys reading, writing, and nature stuff like hiking, finding plants, things of that alignment. 

Book Reviewer, Cultural Examination Columnist, Website Team Member, Journalistic Education Team Member

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