Do you feel that men have a right to your body?
You probably find the question beyond offensive. And rightly so. Answering should require no pause, no consideration. That kind of entitlement has no place in modern society. We should particularly abhor it in the context of a first-rate university. Duke promotes gender equality and safety from predation. Female faculty and students unequivocally condemn sexual assault in all forms, flagrant and insidious. They reject stereotypes that perpetuate male domination over women. The University recently revoked a deplorable statute of limitations on rape accusations. We universally agree that men cannot pressure women into physical intimacy.
Consider the following comment, which a friend of mine casually offered the other day.
“Well whatever, it’s just oral anyway. We weren’t that drunk, and it’s not like we were going to have sex, and I wanted to call it a night….”
Women at Duke make these kinds of comments with horrifying frequency. One can actually regard it as an argument of sorts. My friend did not want to have sex with the individual. Nor did she want to linger. She could, however, blow the guy in relatively short order, so that seemed the most reasonable course of action. But this logic flows from one crucial assumption: Namely, that the guy must be satisfied before the girl may leave. And her reasoning therefore left me speechless. When I asked whether she was genuinely attracted to the male, she unhesitatingly answered “no.” She has encountered him only once, briefly, since the event. I pressed her: Why had she not just “called it a night,” right then and there? Why should she wait to pleasure this guy? She shrugged and changed the subject, visibly uncomfortable.
Perhaps unfairly, I did not let up. I could not believe what I was hearing. This girl has worked at the Women’s Center. She has spoken eloquently on diverse gender-related issues, including rape. And yet she now seemed to suggest that leaving this guy sexually wanting would have been somehow…improper? Misleading? I asked whether the guy had intimidated her somehow. “Oh no,” she replied, “I just…I would have felt guilty, I guess.”
And there it was.
At first I thought she had misspoken. Guilty? Did she and the guy sign a contract? What precisely did she owe him? And why, exactly? Because, as it happened, she attended his fraternity formal, and he paid for dinner? Why should that matter? But perhaps, I thought, the incident was anecdotal. Surely most of my empowered, educated female comrades would never express such feelings? Then I started talking to them. And far from anecdotal, these attitudes seemed pervasive. Many women expressed an ineffable, subtle but deep-seated feeling of obligation to the men who courted them.
They found this feeling difficult to describe. Not so much “guilt,” as reluctance to disappoint, to offend? And here I could empathize. Imagine that you are a first-year female student, newly arrived at college. Happening to notice you, some fraternity brother extends an invitation to his formal. Hoping to meet people if nothing else, you accept. But the event is exclusive, and so implies a social contract of sorts. After all, he could have graced anyone with his attention. Attendance also begets certain financial commitments, because dinner and refreshment do not buy themselves. And the guy is likable enough. Sparks do not fly, but you enjoy yourself. Moreover, another guy does catch your eye. You resolve to remain friendly with the group, if only to meet him.
Then the evening winds down, and you find yourself alone with your host. The drink has worn off. You are lucid, not aroused by any means, but the guy feels differently. Desire clouds his eyes, plain to see. And you begin to feel a dilemma: If you should thank him for the evening, excuse yourself and leave without further ado—will he take offense? Will he feel slighted, cheated somehow? Will he give his group a bad account of the night, shattering your hopes of meeting the friend? Will you garner a reputation for being cold and distant so soon in your Duke career? These questions run through your mind, provoking other questions. What is a kiss, really? What is a couple of minutes of canoodling in the scheme of things? Will you even recall these minutes, come next week? A kiss and a feel, and everyone wins!
If that narrative seems fantastical to you, look again. It is shockingly recurrent and generates precisely the kind of reasoning exhibited in my friend’s casual remarks. Such reasoning rests on a subconscious acknowledgment of male entitlement, and this is profoundly dangerous. An extensive United Nations report on gender-based violence recently found that rape “was most commonly motivated by a sense of sexual entitlement.” If women unconsciously validate these attitudes by feeling indebted to men who court them and acting on that feeling—then rapists can continue to abuse their male privilege. They can continue making banal claims about women “leading them on.”
As a male, I have never felt obliged to pleasure a girl because she took me to dinner. (Granted, this happens less frequently than the reverse.) I have never felt guilty because I was disinclined to kiss a girl who expected otherwise. These considerations just do not enter my thought process. I have never compromised to “call it a night.” But many women (not all, it goes without saying) frequently do. This double standard is enduring, troublesome and elusive—hard to identify or talk about, much less fight. To further equality and purge rape from our society, however, we must constantly reject it. We must remind ourselves that women cannot be bought for the price of dinner and a room at formal. And we must do this again and again until comments like the one my friend uttered disappear entirely from casual discourse.
So finding yourself conflicted after a night out over whether to please the self-entitled guy before you, please consider my opening question. No matter the fraternity, the formal, the guy or his expectations—the answer will remain a resounding “no.”
Nicolas Russell Pollack is a Trinity sophomore.