The night started, as so many college nights do, with a red cup pressed into a hand. Ubiquitous at tail gates and parties, those bright plastic cups are a harbinger of carnival, of unleashing. The hand around the cup was mine.
So begins New York Times writer Susan Dominus’ chronicle of her own experience with an unwanted sexual interaction at a college party, the sort that is so pervasive in the news of late. Her essay, Getting to ‘No’, describes a night that falls into what she has called a “murky realm.” For her, it is a story about language, and how it failed her that night. Though she is quite clear that she used the words that we are supposed to use when we are experiencing unwanted sexual aggression, for Dominus, “no” did not have the desired effect that night. Despite its seemingly universal understanding, it did not rouse her slovenly date from atop her unwilling body.
But that night I said no, and still he lay there, massive, pleading, sloppy with beer, for what seemed to be hours (but surely was not), until I finally stopped holding him off. Too close to sleep to rouse myself to outrage, I settled for capitulation, then revulsion.
Her article is beautifully written. It is clearly crafted by a woman who values language and the power of words. An English major who seems to carry with her a sense of betrayal from that night that stems not from her date’s refusal to respect her will, but from a failure of language to save her, or a failure on her own part to find the right words to stave off the rape. In her frustration with this moment of paralysis, and a continued dissapointment with her inability to find the language to be able to speak about this night until now, Dominus grasps for a new language to try and fix the problem.
What I wish I had had that night was a linguistic rip cord, something without the mundane familiarity of “no” or the intensity demanded in “Get off or I’ll scream.” “No” and “stop” — of course, they should be said and respected. But several women who told me they felt their consent was ambiguous said that in the moment, they froze, and language eluded them altogether: They said nothing.
What if every kid on every college campus was given new language — a phrase whose meaning could not be mistaken, that signaled peril for both sides, that might be more easily uttered? One phrase that might work is “red zone” — as in, “Hey, we’re in a red zone,” or “This is starting to feel too red zone.” Descriptive and matter-of-fact, it would not implicitly assign aggressor and victim, but would flatly convey that danger — emotional, possibly legal — lay ahead. Such a phrase could serve as a linguistic proxy for confronting or demanding, both options that can seem impossible in the moment. “We’re in a red zone” — the person who utters that is not a supplicant (“Please stop”); or an accuser (“I told you to stop!”). Many young women are uncomfortable in either of those roles; I know I was.
I will not deride Dominus as many commentators did for continuing to put the onus on the victim, or for muddying the message that “no means no.” Although I agree that we must be clear, this was not a failure on her part in any way; it would be a slap in the face to her “confession” if we did not hear her message: that finding words in that moment is easier said than done. There were many comments from men encouraging women to say to their attackers, “this is rape,” in order to get through to them in the moment. People imagine they will do anything they must to stop an attack. (They tell me to gouge their eyeballs out with my thumbs!) But they are not speaking from that place and moment and with the fear and awkwardness and guilt and revulsion that makes this scenario so complicated.
Dominus’ vision of this new language, this “Red Zone,” is certainly not getting to the root of the problem. (And as football fans have pointed out, it is not an ideal phrase to choose since teams in the red zone of a football field are eager to score.) The struggle to combat college sexual assault has come to rest on this idea of spoken consent: “No Means No” and now in California, “Yes Means Yes.” Very few people have pointed out how difficult it actually is to articulate anything in the complicated moment of a blundering, drunken sexual encounter with a peer. Let us not discredit women who time after time have said that sometimes the words don’t come easily. What do we do about those experiences? How do we combat the problem without any words at all?
— Caterina Gironda, Southern Editor
Featured image, “At a loss for words” from blog life is 2 short.