Why we can’t have nice things

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Nov. 8, 2015, 11:59 p.m.

Once in a while I find myself wondering just what “sex” means at Stanford. There’s the Sexual Health Peer Resource Center (SHPRC) and three dollars of free sex toys and condoms every quarter; there’s Kardinal Kink, a student group centered around education and outreach and the butt of unoriginal orgy jokes on Yik Yak. Then, of course, party and hookup culture: drinking and Friday nights and one night stands, Full Moon On The Quad, Sex Week. Then sexual assault, the shadow looming over everything.

Over the last few years, issues of sexual assault and consent culture have taken prominence on this campus. Student activism has heavily critiqued and challenged Stanford University’s mishandling of sexual assault and is supported by a federal investigation by the Office for Civil Rights. In response, the University doubled down on the sexual assault education offered to incoming freshmen, created a sexual assault task force and just recently released the controversial results of its “Campus Climate Survey” on sexual assault and other issues.  

Sexual assault activism on college campuses is by no means a new phenomenon, but in recent years – perhaps empowered by the “Yes Means Yes” bill passed by the California legislature in late 2014 – the language of consent culture and safety has ingrained itself into our campus culture. Now we have consent talks, consent workshops and consent stickers; frats have been suspended, new student groups formed. Slowly but surely, activism is striving towards a safer campus.

But we’ve all heard the grumblings. Offhand comments about how hookup culture isn’t as fun anymore, or how Full Moon On The Quad has become more and more sanitized, or how people are fed up with the endless warnings from Stanford not to rape, over and over again.

Our campus is in a profound state of limbo. We know rape is wrong but aren’t given meaningful models for the healthy intimacy we’re supposed to be having. We acknowledge the epidemic of sexual assault on campus but obscure the data with manipulative statistics. We’re committed to change but not to changing ourselves.

As an op-ed columnist, of course I have dreams of a better campus. I imagine a place where sexual liberation is realized and widespread, where all students have the ability to choose the intimacy they want (or don’t) the way they want it with the people they choose, where going out and staying in are regarded equally highly. I imagine a campus with sex parties, play parties, orgies, movie screenings, pick-up sports and board games all on the same night – a healthy culture that celebrates all forms of consensual intimacy, all individual decisions concerning our own bodies.

That’s the dream, at least.

The reality is that there is a minimum bar to meet if we want nice things, and we just aren’t there, Stanford. There are too many of us who still don’t understand the basic idea that people different from us are deserving of respect. There are too many of us swimming in Stanford’s entitled “I-get-what-I-want” mentality: a great tool for networking in some cases and a horrifying tool for rape in others.

Calls to action around sexual assault and consent culture are always difficult. The people who most need reaching are the people who are swaddled in the heaviest blankets of denial. They are the nameless “accused” who have their identities protected while survivors shout their trauma into the void of campus and hope for a response. According to Stanford’s own survey, 43.3 percent of cisgender undergraduate women experience at least one instance of sexual assault or misconduct during their times at Stanford. So how many people responsible for those acts are walking around campus each day? Fifty? A hundred? How many of these people come to our events and parties, live in our dorms and houses, sit with us in the same lecture halls?

But even setting this part of the problem aside, we’re not doing enough on this campus. How many spaces exist for queer people, trans people, disabled people, people of color or other marginalized groups to experience intimacy on their own terms? No amount of sexual liberation or self-love can save me from the fact that nearly one-fifth of trans and gender-nonconforming students experience sexual assault or misconduct on college campuses. Sexual assault activism concerns more than cisgender white women.

This campus is changing, slow as it might be. Changes in campus culture, administrative response and tradition are far from an attack on fun – they represent efforts to curb the nonconsent we’ve normalized, the sexual assault plaguing our campus landscape. We can’t have nice things because we are drowning in rape, dehumanization, disrespect and discrimination. If you can’t tell the two apart, then perhaps you’re part of the problem.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!

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