The email was sent on Dec. 29, 2008.

“START GETTING GIRLS FOR THE PROGRESSIVE,” the man writes. “If you know some hot chicks that want to get drunk and attend one of the most absolutely ridiculous and awesome parties of the year, ask them to be in the progressive. Try to preface it like that and not that we want them to use their bodies to seduce freshman into joining our fraternity.”

He goes on. “We most likely won’t use all of them, but if we don’t have to scramble for sluts the day before the party, that would be great.”

The end of the email contains some critical advice. “Get some hot b*****s before they get snagged by other fraternities to go to the date function stuff with you (the hotter the better).”

The bulk of this email, sent by the rush chair of a Duke fraternity in 2008, references the group’s most important recruitment event: their progressive party. Progressive parties, once hosted by many Duke fraternities during rush, had a recognizable structure: the desired freshman boys were led into rooms, each room designed as a different theme and populated by women instructed to dress as “Playboy sluts,” “sexy angels” or, in one case, “basically ass-naked.” The freshmen were supposed to be dazzled into joining the fraternity; the women were supposed to do everything from bartend to give sexual favors in order to make that happen. After pressure from women on campus, as well as push from the Duke administration, the Interfraternity Council outlawed these parties in 2011.

Progressive parties were, and remain, disgusting. But they are the symptom, not the disease.

Almost every day this semester has brought with it a new, front-page scandal of sexual assault. It’s a shocking, heartening and saddening time: heartening for the courage of the women who’ve spoken out, shocking and saddening for the prevalence of sexual violence. The employers of the accused have largely responded swiftly and strongly, investigating these claims and often terminating the men involved. But for every sexual assailant who has been found guilty, there are dozens who have not—for every 1 perpetrator incarcerated, 99 walk free. This social moment has shown bravery and accountability, but it has also taught us that sexual harassment is not rare—it is a plague. And many of us are the most vulnerable to it: female college students are three times more likely than the average American woman to experience sexual assault.

But why are 570 Americans sexually assaulted every day? Why do 40 percent of Duke women report being the victims of sexual assault over their four years? Why, on college campuses, do we struggle to respect the basic right to control one’s own body?

The answer, I suspect, lies in that email.

I remember the October day when a friend angrily showed me the email. I remember reading it once, then twice; I remember how I blanched at the most blatant lines. “Scramble for sluts?” I shook my head in disbelief. “Hot b*****s?” It angered me, of course, but I justified his words: It was 2008, I thought. Things are different now. As my friend left our dinner table that night, the email left my mind along with him. But over the past few months, his words began popping back into my head at the strangest of times—while reading a party invite, or during a class debate about sexual violence. Months later, it was bothering me so much that I had to reread it. Once I did, I finally began to understand why his words were stuck in my head. It wasn’t the lines that had stood out to me upon first read—not the scrambling for sluts, not the hot b*****s. Instead, it was the tinier, subtler language that got me thinking about the character of sexual assault. (finally allowed me to connect his words to the diaspora of sexual assault)

“We most likely won’t use all of them.”

“We want them to use their bodies to seduce freshman.”

Get some hot b*****s before they get snagged by other fraternities.”

The message this person is transmitting to the hundreds in his organization is clear. It is not a message of preparation for rush events, nor a reminder to invite fun people to their parties. It is a profoundly rooted message: that women exist to “use,” to “get,” to “snag.”

Sexual assault is not a plague in a vacuum—the act cannot be separate from its ideological basis. It is a phenomenon with layers and roots, and at its heart lies this exact, destructive belief: that women belong to men to use, get, snag. It is not that women ought to belong to men, but that we do, categorically. Like racism or homophobia, this is a belief so profoundly and reflexively buried in our social schema that it is not often spoken aloud, or spoken explicitly—instead, it manifests itself in action. Many of you have probably heard that rape is a crime of control, but I’d argue that it’s wider than that—sexual assault is a crime of control, and often the exercise of male control over women.

Albeit the progressive party this man writes of no longer exist, the attitude he demonstrates— “getting” and “using” women—certainly does. And this, I think, is the crux of the problem: it is easy to loathe a rapist, but harder to condemn this kind of language. It’s called “locker room talk,” or “boys being boys”—what’s the harm in a little coarseness, just among friends? The harm is that it betrays beliefs that comprise the roots of sexual assault. When you marginalize a group— when you imagine, and speak, as if that group is yours to use—it becomes easier to hurt someone. When you are constantly told that women are objects to be used, it becomes more conceivable to exercise control over a body you don’t own.

Not all men who use this type of language are sexual assailants. But as sexual assault becomes a larger part of our campus conversation, it’s not enough to merely punish those who have engaged in violence. If we aim to reduce the prevalence of this crime, we have to look critically at ourselves and ask what traditions, actions and conversations feed this plague. 

This is one.

Cameron Beach is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.