Frisky Rant: University President’s Outdated Views On Alcohol, Chastity & Rape Prevention Aren’t Representative Of Eckerd College

This past week, I’ve been both livid and mortified by the national news coverage of my beloved alma mater Eckerd College, thanks to the following letter from the university president, sent last Sunday to the entire student body:

Dear Eckerd College students,

As you know, the College has launched an educational and awareness campaign to attempt to minimize sexual harassment and assault in our community. The goal is to raise the awareness of all community members with respect to sexual harassment and assault and to help prevent those incidents by that increased awareness.

You also know that our College is not alone in its concern about such behavior, principally among its students. And you know that these incidents are almost always preceded by consumption, often heavy consumption, of alcohol, often by everyone involved in them.
You can do your part in helping this College and this culture address this nexus of problems by doing two relatively simple things:

  1. By limiting your own consumption of alcohol, and encouraging your friends to do the same. Socrates included wine at his Symposium, but he did not get drunk.
  2. You can be thoughtful about the dramatic and often negative psychological effects that sexual activity without commitment can have. Virtue in the area of sexuality is its own reward, and has been held in high esteem in Western Culture for millennia because those who are virtuous are happier as well as healthier. No one’s culture or character or understanding is improved by casual sex, and the physical and psychological risks to both genders are profound.

Every year at the end of the Eckerd College Commencement ceremony, I say to the graduating class, “I hope you feel not only well taught, but well loved. We will miss you.” I mean every word of that. This open letter is written in that spirit – not as preachment, but with great affection and true, deep and lasting concern.

As always, I am available for your responses or a visit to my office. I wish each of you good luck in your final weeks of the semester, and a happy, healthy, virtuous 2015.

Sincerely,

Donald R. Eastman III
President

While Eastman’s letter may come from a place of “affection” and “concern,” that doesn’t change the fact that the sentiments he expresses are a whole lot of victim-blaming, sex-shaming garbage. The implication that students can prevent rape by not drinking alcohol and not engaging in casual sex is a dangerous one that puts responsibility for rape on victims rather than, you know, rapists. As for Eastman’s personal opinions about the benefits, or lack thereof, of casual sex? They’re just that – personal opinions that he is presenting as fact. Not that the virtuosity of sex before marriage has anything to do with rape, mind you.

The Eckerd College I know is a very liberal, progressive and forward thinking community where I’ve met some brilliant feminists. We’ve hosted the likes of Jessica Valenti and Ariel Levy, there is a bust casting every semester for body image and breast cancer awareness, we have a wonderful and active Women’s Resource Center, professors from all disciplines who are socially aware and empathetic, and one of the highlights of the fall is Sex at Seven, a sex positive sex education speech. Eastman’s letter is not at all what the community I know stands for.

And the community made sure to let him know. A petition calling for Eastman to address criticisms of his letter was circulated and signed by nearly 900 people. The college newspaper, The Current, addressed the issue in their own open letter, while students, alumni, professors and staff wrote emails directly to the president expressing their concern that Eastman’s message blames alcohol and casual consensual sex for rape. There is also some confusion: Why is this message coming now when there was a message sent earlier in the school year outlining the measures Eckerd College was taking to prevent sexual assault, rape and harassment, as well as resources that it offers to victims/survivors?

Eastman says he was prompted to write the email because two sexual assaults occurred on campus this fall. But while these assaults are of course cause for concern, they are hardly an anomaly. There were incidents of sexual assault at Eckerd College in the years before I attended, occurred while I was a student and continued to happen after I graduated. Why are these sexual assaults special? Is it because these cases were considered more “valid,” thanks to an abundance of physical evidence and injury? Was it because the perpetrators were foreign students? Was it because the survivors were freshman? Something about Eastman’s response, that these incident in particular prompted his email, rubs me the wrong way.

I’ve spoken with a few of my professors and they’ve stated that while they’re embarrassed and outraged by his statements, his heart is in the right place. They were clear about not defending what Eastman wrote, but also emphasized that he is genuinely concerned about the issue of sexual assault, rape and harassment on campus and has expressed to the faculty that there needs to be a campus-wide discussion. But he has also expressed that these are issues he doesn’t know much about, hasn’t had to discuss before and is uncomfortable with. Now is the time for him to learn from those who are familiar with these issues, as his email makes it abundantly clear that he’s not prepared to lead those necessary discussions. Even his recent media appearances have highlighted how confused and wavering his convictions are, including when he’s asked to comment on his own words. Asked whether he actually believes that casual sex makes you less virtuous and happy, and comes with “profound” physical and psychological risks, his response was a mealy-mouthed “I think maybe that’s right. I think that could be right.”

Eastman is also fumbling when it comes to taking personal responsibility for his own words. He has claimed that he’s jus echoing the lessons students learned in orientation and from the Women’s Resource Center and Student Government. But aside from a totally separate and independent presentation about safe alcohol consumption, neither of these organizations, nor any administration-organized orientation I know has tried to conflate rape with drinking and casual sex. As for making that conflation, Eastman says that this is all a misunderstanding, as communication via e-mail misses the nuances and doesn’t allow for full understanding. If he believes that to be true, why send that email without running it by other faculty members? Hell, why send it at all if email is such a poor medium for discussing difficult and complicated issues?

I, like many students, former and current, see this as a necessary teaching moment for Eastman and the entire Eckerd community. (This Thursday, December 4, there will be a discussion about the issue on campus. If you’re local to the St. Petersburg or Tampa area, I encourage you to attend and express your concerns. ) There are brilliant students and professors at his disposal who are experts in this field and teach wonderful classes that he could sit in on. He has the knowledge at his fingertips, now he needs to use it. This has created an opportunity for discussion and I’m waiting for him to do something productive with that attention. But first, as a leader, Eastman needs to acknowledge he was wrong by way of an apology. Until then, you can count on the fact that Eckerd College will not receiving any further alumni donations from me.