Anna Mitchell ’19 shares her account of the Stanford NSO experience as a freshman.
On the first day of New Student Orientation (NSO), a giant banner on the Stanford campus proclaimed “RAPE HAPPENS HERE.” At dinner that night, our resident fellow told us about a sexual assault prevention seminar he had attended earlier that day. The message was clear – Stanford was no exception to the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. Nor is it free from the related issue of alcohol. Last year, six people were transported during the fall quarter from my dorm complex, Wilbur Hall. Students gossiped about a freshman being transported the weekend after NSO. One night, I wandered into a room down the hall to find a few guy friends clutching about four bottles of liquor each to their chests. Official NSO events may have grazed over the controversies of sexual assault and alcohol, but events on campus told a different story.
As a freshman, I’ve noticed a disconnect between the university’s sunny and oversimplified rhetoric about issues like these and reality. Stanford often seems to take alcohol, drugs, and sexual assault lightly, an unfortunate afterthought on the sunny Farm. “The Real World,” a required NSO skit event on alcohol, drugs, and sex, was intended to be funny but came across more as inappropriately jocular, marked by awkward and ineffective shifts of tone from “Use a, use a condom” sung to the tune of “We Will Rock You” to a cringe-inducing examples of consent. “Faces of Community,” likewise, seemed oversimplified. While its goal – to depict the varied backgrounds of Stanford students and encourage us to consider how our dorm-mates might be privately struggling – was worthy, the program seemed to be designed to provoke emotional reaction from a few students’ stories rather than grapple with the facts on mental illness or body image.
After “Faces” and “The Real World,” dorms gathered to discuss the presentation. If the official university events had seemed oversimplified, I hoped that the discussions would be a little more nuanced. Instead, we traded generalities on the awfulness of rape and the epidemic of assault on campus. Our RAs told us to confine our discussion to our feelings. Everything should come from our personal perspectives; we weren’t to judge others’ opinions. When we were asked to each share one word describing our feelings about the discussion, I chose “frustrated.” Several students and I discussed afterwards that we felt that if we issued opinions conflicting with the views Stanford had pushed that night, we’d be viewed as insensitive jerks. When I mentioned the link between alcohol and sexual assault, arguing that it was irresponsible for both parties to become so drunk that they couldn’t think straight, I worried that someone would jump on me for “blaming the victim.” The discussion was couched in such serious, personal terms that I feared seriously offending someone.
The result was a shallow discussion lacking in nuance. Though sexual assault is a deeply traumatic crime, students shouldn’t feel afraid to muse on issues like false accusation or wonder about the fairness of legal procedures for the investigation of rape. General, sanitized discussions won’t end rape on campus. Furthermore, in discussions about rape, emotion is often used as argument. A traumatic, personal anecdote restricts discussion, because you cannot dismiss someone’s pain, nor reason around it But a particularly tragic story cannot and should not determine ethics and policy. And when the university does not encourage free and potentially controversial discussion, students miss the insight of their classmates. An April Stanford Review survey showed that students have diverse views on sexual assault policy; there is not a consensus. Most are also surprisingly uninformed on assault policy, perhaps because they tune out of discussions they feel they can’t engage with. During one of the “Real World” skits, many were (understandably) snickering at the man fakely and stiltedly asking the woman “Is this all right?” after draping his arm around her shoulders during a stargazing session. It seemed unrealistic and “cheesy,” as my dorm-mates put it afterwards. The university should also encourage more open conversation, and perhaps judgement, on the effects of excessive drinking. Just a week after our post-”Real World” discussion, inebriated students were whooping and stumbling from frat parties back to Wilbur and Stern. Alcohol is directly related to sexual assault, but students don’t seem to realize this, engaging in mutually incompatible behaviors.
I’ve only been here for two weeks, but I already love this university: its entrepreneurial spirit, its maverick attitude, its beautiful campus, and its original scholarship. The residents and staff in my dorm are kind and curious, and the financial aid is incredibly generous. Stanford does so much so well. So I wish it wouldn’t set an example of trivializing and simplifying issues like assault and alcohol during NSO when reality is so different. It seems that the university is creating a culture in which people cannot seriously discuss problems for fear of offending someone. I wish it would encourage students to ask difficult questions. Should the university take no stance on guys and girls getting trashed on the weekends? Is it wrong to call someone out for drinking beyond their limits? Is encouraging female friends not to put themselves at risk ‘blaming the victim’? Should alcohol abuse be addressed in orientation just as much as sexual abuse? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I hope that at future NSOs, the university will cultivate an environment in which freshmen will find answers to their own difficult questions by speaking their minds freely.