Males Are Vulnerable, Too
To the Editors of The Crimson:
In "Sex: Laying Down the Law" by Assistant Dean for Coeducation Janet A. Viggiani (April 23), I found many good ideas and suggestions on one hand, and some disturbing sexist attitudes and factual errors on the other.
I believe it is appropriate and correct for Harvard and for all educational institutions to define basic values about sexual conduct so that there can be no ambiguity about the individual's right to choose when, where and how to approach sexual relations. On this I agree with the author, if I understand her correctly. However, this article brings up much larger social issues which go far beyond the scope of the article itself.
When people enter college, they have already endured 18 years of conditioning by their families, peers and society about sexual matters. Very often, these influences are extremely unhealthy. As the author correctly observes, in a tragically large percentage of instances those influences include sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is a crime, and sexual abuse of a minor is a felony. When people are victims and do not know they are victims, the cross they bear is especially heavy. I know: I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse myself.
It is at this point that I start to take deep issue with Ms. Viggiani's article. We all must accept that sexual abuse in our society is widespread, perhaps more widespread than even the most knowledgeable of "experts" dare suspect. We are talking about a very sick society, one in which most victims of sexual abuse have precious little support for their emotional wounds and misdemeanors. This situation is scarcely addressed by Ms. Viggiani, who places most of the responsibility upon males, whom she characterizes as "confused" about sexual "rules." It is not only males who are confused.
From early childhood, male children are conditioned to be tough and aggressive and female children are conditioned to be fragile and passive. What a breeding ground that is for sexual misconduct! However, the author ignores an extremely important fact: there are large numbers of woman who perpetrate sexually against boys. Since women are conditioned to be more gentle, they can perpetrate in ways which society finds hard to recognize as abuse.
My mother began sexually assaulting me when I was about five years old. The abuse was so "gentle" that it took me almost 40 years to realize that it was incest and to begin to heal from the life-devastating impact that abuse had upon me. By typifying sexual abusers as male, Ms. Viggiani is vilifying men and exonerating female perpetrators. This is the sexist side of her article.
I am speaking with some experience in these matters. For about two years I have attended numerous support groups for survivors of sexual abuse. The membership in these groups has been pretty consistently 50/50 male/female, and the perpetrators discussed are both male and female, perhaps somewhat more male than female but surprisingly close in percentage.
Mike Lew is a counsellor who has written an excellent book titled Victims No Longer about male survivors of sexual abuse. This book compliments Ellen Bass' Courage to Heal, which is directed toward female survivors but has applications for male survivors as well. It would be wise for anyone dealing with sexual behavior to investigate both of these books.
The issues which lead to acquaintance rape (which is rape, just like any other kind) often have deep roots in some early history of sexual abuse. Education aimed at making sex a matter of a comfortable and safe act of choice should take into account the whole issue of personal boundaries.
When Ms. Viggiani defines responsible sexual behavior as "sexual behavior that does not lead to the violation of another human being," she has hit the head of the nail squarely. This is the principle to work from. But in a society where so much sexual abuse is occuring we must look to the sickness in our society as a first step to understanding the real ills. The problem is so elusive because men and women participate in a dysfunctional system vis-a-vis sexual values.
While it is true that men are generally bigger and stronger (thus more sexually threatening) than women, it is also true that all children are weaker than all adults, whether those adults are male or female. Any adult can sexually over-power any child, regardless of gender on either side, and it happens in all combinations in our society (tragically).
One thing that is missing from Ms. Viggiani's article is the recognition that males are as vulnerable, emotionally, as females. As soon as males start to realize how vulnerable they really are, they can rise above the denial that has cast them in extremely uncomfortable roles as the "stronger" sex.
The pressures upon young men to "go after" female partners are intense. I remember the bull sessions in my Harvard dorms in which male dormmates would recount their sexual exploits to sexually inexperienced or virgin classmates. This just adds to the pressure. Why should anyone HAVE to have sex if they are not ready for it? I was pressured, ridiculed and cajoled to seek female companionship, and it made life miserable for me because I was not ready for such companionship. The Beatles song "Hey, Jude" is a classic example of perverse pressures put on males to "make it" sexually. In a society such as this, no wonder things go terribly wrong in sexual encounters.
Moreover, society forces young people to become adults far in advance of when they should have to make basic and long-range decisions about sexuality. Whatever happened to enjoying life for its own sake? Why does our way of life have to be so driven by sexual obsession? I think all these issues are important to a larger understanding of the problems addressed by Ms. Viggiani's article. Please continue to make The Crimson a forum for these issues. Richard St. Clair '68, A.M. '73, Ph.D. '78