One Woman's Account of How Abuse, Corruption and Silence at Penn State Perpetuate a Poisonous Culture
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Not surprisingly, State College, the town, can feel oppressive in a visceral and suffocating way (quite literally, given the poor air quality). Though it is not nearly as well-documented as the race problem in the community, members of the LGBT campus community reported death threats as recently as 2010. LGBT students and graduate instructors had to consider whether being “out” in their classrooms might jeopardize their safety, and many of my own friends and acquaintances -- particularly those perceived as “gender non-conforming” -- were targets of harassment and ridicule.
In my experience, many people associated with the university who do not belong to minority groups often look the other way when incidents like these occur. When a majority of students in my 2009 class suggested that racism is no longer a problem for the US because of Obama’s election, I received no support from faculty in trying to organize anti-racism training or education for my class. Many of my white students, despite the open hate group presence in the town they lived in, insisted without irony that “racism is really just a Southern problem.”
“It’s just a tough egg to crack here,” one professor told me, resigned to the state of things and unwilling to take action to change them.
The University: Rape Culture
Just as racism and, to some extent, homophobia, are omnipresent in State College in ways that seep into everyday life, the university culture itself is also particularly dismissive of sexual harassment, assault and rape allegations.
For decades universities across the country have been plagued by what many have termed a “ rape epidemic,” in which about one in five college women is raped. (A 2009 study suggests that the real incident rate actually far exceeds this ratio, because so many survivors fail to report.) As someone who has had more than a bit of experience on different college campuses -- I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002, completed my first master’s degree at American University in 2006 and then spent a year in Montréal, Québec at McGill University -- I can tell you that I saw plenty of rape culture at all three. At UNC, in fact, I once opted to leave a class when faced with an ongoing sexual harassment problem.
I was, in other words, no stranger to these problems when I entered Penn State. But neither had I ever seen a university close ranks with such precision against students who decided to go public about assault or rape. At PSU, it soon became clear, you simply cannot take any abuse public without suffering severe consequences. Maybe that’s what makes Penn State culture so unusual.
When I first arrived on campus in fall 2007, I was required, along with all new instructors, to take what I thought was a routine training seminar on sexual harassment. Looking back, I clearly should have seen what transpired as a red flag. At this particular seminar, we were taught that it’s perfectly fine for instructors to have sex with their own students. It was considered “unwise” to engage in these sexual relationships during the course of the semester, but it wasn’t exactly prohibited. We’d simply need to alert the proper administrative authorities, and make certain the sex didn’t affect our grading.
It didn’t end there. About half an hour of this training was spent fielding one participant’s complaint that provocatively dressed women were in fact sexually harassing him. This was treated by the seminar facilitator as a legitimate concern. Never did the facilitator mention that the “problem” of revealing dress is frequently (and erroneously) used as a justification for sexual assault and rape.