I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that college sexual assault has reached epidemic levels in the US. The ridiculous bureaucracy with which it’s often dealt is no doubt a contributing factor. However, it’s also a complex tangle of patriarchal ideas, well-meaning but sometimes misguided advocates, survivor guilt, and lack of effective education.
On the one hand, you have girls who are exhausted from being told since birth how very careful they must be. That vigilance wears you down, especially combined with the knowledge that if a guy is really intent on raping you, no amount of tiptoeing through life is likely to stop him. To be honest, especially at high school and university age when girls are bursting with desire for experience and exploration and the fullness of life, it’s easy to reach a point where you just say “Screw this”. The point where you just want to put on some lipgloss and a dress that makes you feel sexy and go dance and drink or run through quiet streets late at night, stumbling and giggling, or swim naked in a stranger’s pool, dizzy with the idea of being caught, or or or. Anything! Just to feel the electric pulse and hum of your blood and your heart.
And on the other side, you have young men who are given such conflicting signals from society. A real man takes what he wants and doesn’t accept no for an answer. Girls secretly like you to wear down their defenses, it’s all a game. No means no, except for when it doesn’t. Nice guys finish last. Women lie, women cry rape, women try to trick you into fatherhood. And all around them, news stories of guys just like them who are convicted of rape yet serve no time because a sympathetic judge doesn’t want a poor boy’s life to be ruined by his crime. I mean, we’re living in a time where our President, the role model for the entire nation, was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women…and still managed to get elected. The message that comes through most clearly to boys is that they might be ostracized in their small college bubble, but the world at large simply doesn’t care.
Not to forget the third component, colleges which cower from bad publicity and often discourage girls from reporting their assault to law enforcement. These institutions may give a lot of lip service to protecting women and educating men, but in practice their efforts fall far short. Reputation is god and as long as you can keep students quietly placated and keep real assault statistics hidden, nothing else matters.
Wrecked by Maria Padian does an admirable job of addressing this thorny, knotted tangle of a subject. The topic is all too common- a drunken frat party, hazy recollection, he-said-she-said narratives. The steadfast equanimity with which Padian handles the recounting, however, is anything but common.
She uses the alternating voices of Richard and Haley, friends and reluctant advocates for the accused and the accuser, to draw a fair-handed portrait of the situation that points out flaws and inconsistencies in both sides without ever judging. The clear prose is as unflinching as a news report, but with more depth and nuance.
The human mind doesn’t enjoy paradoxes, which is strange considering how twistedly complex we are. But we like to choose a side, to think of truths as absolute and unwavering. One thing this book highlights so deftly is that there aren’t always hard and fast truths to be found. A girl can absolutely have been raped. A boy can absolutely believe he did not rape her. These two things can exist side by side and intertwined in the same universe.
It may not offer pat answers, but this is the sort of book that should be mandatory reading for high school students. What it does offer is a key to unlocking conversations about how we should go forward, how we build the language and understanding that stops assaults from happening. Yes it may be heart-wrenching and hard to read, but sometimes only through pain can enlightenment and change be found.