Monday, June 04, 2007

A 2007 Commencement Speech

That's the short version of a commencement address I saw in May. Here's mine.


Last night I had a dream. Don't tell me that you haven't had this dream or that you haven't heard about this dream or some variation of it. You have.

If you're a woman you've probably dreamt it, if you're a man you've heard it from your mother, daughter, sister, aunt, grandmother, or a female friend. Men have this dream, too, sometimes. Here it is.

I'm at my own college graduation in a small town in central Illinois, but in the dream the small town is at the outskirts of the city of Chicago, maybe it's a near western suburb. There is a big party at a huge hall; the hall might be a sorority. I feel I don't belong and take my bicycle, ride across a field thinking I'll ride home, ride home to my home in Chicago, which is about 15 miles from the party in the dream.

I'm tired. The riding has made me tired. So I get off my bicycle and start to walk, pushing the bicycle. I'm still much, much closer to school than I am to home. I am only a few short blocks from the field that separates the sorority from the city, when a car pulls up next to me and a wiry, greasy man with sharp features rolls down his window.

"Tired of riding?" he asks.

"I'm okay."

"Did you come from the graduation?" he leers.

I know that I have to get on my bike and ride very fast to get away from this guy who has now cut his engine and is getting out of his car and is walking towards me. But my legs are leaden, and I can't get on the bike. The best I can do is run while holding on so that I am running with it, running as fast as I can.

He is running after me. I'm running fast but he's closing in.
I wake up.

This is a secondary trauma dream, meaning I've heard so many rape stories that it's rubbed off on me, I’m traumatized from the trauma of others. I know too much. I hear too much as a therapist. And little things like statistics scare me. For example:

Did you know that between 20-59% of all college women have been sexually assaulted between the ages of 16-24?

Or that the National Institute of Justice findings indicate that at least 350 of every 10,000 females are raped on campus annually?

Approximately 93% of the perpetrators of rape are male acquaintances known to victims from classrooms, dormitories, fraternities, bars, and parties. They aren't strangers. They look no different than the young men before me today.

If any of you out there happened to cross the line at this school? Then I'm hoping you'll be leaving that behavior behind you. You are older and wiser now. If you didn't know it then,

No Means No.

This is the law. It is a felony to take advantage of someone sexually because you have misinterpreted what she has said or because you think you know what she wants. It is a felony to have sex without informed consent.

Informed consent, among other things, means that neither of you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol when you have sex. If she said “yes” under the influence it won’t hold up as valid in court if she says she meant “no” later on.

Most acquaintance rapes on campuses like ours occur in fraternity houses. There is an association with athletic team membership, too. You've read the news. Thus the workshops we set up to educate new students during Orientation Week target that male population, the one, ironically, that doesn't generally pay much attention to workshops.

Do you remember the day you arrived? Do you remember that first week?

I do. Each September I walk around campus in total admiration. Many of you, as first year students stand out from the crowd, eager and starry-eyed, happy for the chance to learn, excited to leave childhood behind.

My co-investigator, Carolyn Jenkins at Xavier University, made me identify freshmen as first-year students—it’s more respectful, face it, a “freshman” can be in her forties. We did the first on-line university survey to investigate student experiences with sexual assault, gender bias, sexual minority harassment, and racism.

Because of that study Xavier has a state-of-the-art social service response team for students in distress. Other schools are catching up.

Do you remember that first week on campus? Not all of you actually were fresh and naïve. You might have already formed demeaning attitudes about women, thoughts of dominance and disrespect that you learned well before you accepted your admission to college. You assumed that if a girl let herself drink too much, then, well, she wanted sex. You assumed that if she dressed a certain way, and you were aroused, then, well, she wanted sex.

You believed what we call rape myths. If you had attended rape prevention workshops you would have known better.

These things happened in the past four years and some of you are sorry for some of the things you’ve done. You might want to get a little therapy this summer. This is a good time to look back, seriously, before you look forward.

Even if you came here with issues, you're open today to a new beginning. The future will be brighter because you have had a college education. It's okay to stare into that bright light.

You're lucky. Not every student can.

The Virginia Tech massacre taught us that we must work double time to make schools safer places. We have to protect your younger brothers and sisters.

The job is getting trickier and trickier. Students can buy fire arms.

We throw around ideas. Maybe metal detectors at the entries of every residence hall and building. Perhaps mandatory mental health evaluations for new students. Make it mandatory that students agree to treatment if they are found in the least bit to be dangerous to themselves or others.

It is a proverbial “slippery slope.” We’re talking about individual freedoms here.

Colleges nationwide, thanks to the Cleary Act of 1991, do provide preventive education to raise awareness about the dangers facing students. We are painfully aware that alcoholic binge drinking, too, can result in death, and strive—on paper, at least—towards zero tolerance of under-aged alcohol use.

We need to enforce state laws. We have to prevent senseless deaths due to accidents or aspiration. These things happen when people drink too much. Two families lost children this year in a snow-mobile accident. One, the driver, was intoxicated. His passenger was not. Beautiful young people.

Even if your brothers and sisters are warned about the dangers of substance abuse and sexual violence, even if they see a mental health professional, we will still know only so much about the inner workings of their minds.

We really don't know if we will ever be able to protect them or ourselves, for that matter.

We will do our best, however. Maybe resident advisors will be trained to recognize the warning signs, will recognize students with certain genetic predispositions that are lying in wait for that significant stress over-load that will tip them over, trigger the first manic, depressive, or psychotic episode.

Maybe students will take better advantage of student services and professional help on campus to treat mental and behavioral disorders. They have to ask. Maybe we have to encourage them more to ask.

Just as rape prevention programs are offered to students in some high schools, perhaps we can teach young people about mental illness, too. Why not? At some point in their young lives every student on campus should know the warning signs of mental illness.

We all need to be watchdogs. None of us should have recurrent dreams of rape or violence. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be in a caring society.

This really is a commencement, a beginning, an end. If you’ve suffered trauma, or witnessed trauma, like the kids at Virginia Tech, it is a part of your history, something you can not erase, not yet, not until we invent some type of laser that aims at a memory and poof! It's gone. No such technology yet and no drugs that specific either.

But we know that life is a straight shot forward in time, and that you can move on. You don't want to stay stuck, psychologically. You're young, you're strong. You have what those of us who look down at the bleachers and the stage don't have, your whole lives in front of you. Make them matter.

Go from strength to strength, and may G-d bless you.

Copyright 2007, therapydoc


Anonymous said...

As the father of a girl who is a member of the Class of 2017, I applaud and thank you for this post. I wish you could deliver this address to college students everywhere—I wonder how it would be received if you did.

Anonymous said...

Note to Danny... If she is the class of 2017, then you still have 10 years to instill a solid foundation of self-respect and self-esteem... two of the key ingredients that help college students make better decisions in the face of all that freedom (without much responsibility, in the form of consequences) that is suddenly thrust upon them as first year students. If she has that foundation, she'll be able to take advantage of the *real* reason she is going to college -- for the academic learning!!!

As a female, she will always be more vulnerable to violence than her male counterparts, but having a strong male role model where she can observe a man who treats women with dignity and respect will go a long way in helping her to make good choices when the time comes for her to be making choices. If you show her how it's done, she'll have the opportunity for healthy, strong relationships with men AND women.

therapydoc said...

so good, anonymous.

doctor a said...

Great post. Thanks

Emy L. Nosti said...

I wonder what the law is when both people are intoxicated and neither Madison parties, there aren't many guys waiting around trying to get girls drunk; everyone's three sheets to the wind.

Anyway, thanks for the post TD. I don't think I can agree with what I perceive is a pretty strong anti-alcohol sentiment in your recent posts though (I don't mean anti-alcohol-abuse setiments). I think it's more of a cultural thing--kids should learn responsible alcohol habits from their parents over time, not from their frat brothers during rush week. Partly it makes sense because kids are going to want to rebel when they're told they can't do something, but also because it seemed to work with me. I grew up in a sailing culture and saw my parents and everyone else drink socially all the time--but now, if I've had 5 drinks/month, that's a lot for me--typically I might have two drinks every other month. Freshman/sophomore year, <8 / month. Same for one of my sisters (the other likes to party occasionally).

Since I was allowed an occasional taste of wine growing up (which I passed on 19/20 times), I guess it was never very taboo or interesting.

(I did once go to a drinking party in 12th grade--and only because I was told it was just birthday party--had one wine cooler over 3 hours, and got a ticket for blowing <.001. Yeah, so I'm not all that supportive of the existing laws, especially the zero-tolerance BS, when I feel I was punished for drinking responsibly [at the very least, relative to every other attendee, who was probably never allowed to drink and had to make the most of the opportunity]. Oh, and according to the cops, an 18 y.o. not trying to get wasted makes you "a lightweight," not a responsible drinker. As I was saying...culture...)

therapydoc said...

Ah, yes, if only people could drink safely, wisely, sensibly. Some do, some don't. It's the DON'TS that get into trouble and ruin their lives, so yes, I do get a little critical and tell people that indeed, alcohol is considered the enemy of many mental health minded professionals.

The deal on rape is this. If either are drunk and one wants to say that he/she said No or really wanted to say no but was too intoxicated, then that person actually can have his or her day in court and might win. One cannot give informed consent for sex while under the influence.

No consent means it was rape. The law.

Emy L. Nosti said...

Yeah, I understand how seeing that crap every day could make you a bit hostile towards it. Just can't share it--MADD annoys me enough (they're prohibitionists, not just against drunk driving).

I really wonder what things are like in more permissive countries. Wonder if they have more/fewer/the same amount of alcohol problems. I've definitely heard it said that it's not nearly as "cool" to get drunk (then again, I've seen my share of drunk Europeans). Of course, drunkeness doesn't always mean alcoholism--so again, it'd be interesting to find out.

I brought up the rape thing because it happened to one of the girls next door in my dorm freshman year. They were both completely out of it, both "inexperienced," and both regretful in the morning. I just can't picture her holding him (criminally) accountable or vice versa--they both screwed up equally.

MT said...

Do you really have nothing to advise young women with regard to preventing rape? Is it blaming the victim to say that not only is there a (judgment-free) risk entailed in dancing lasciviously in your underwear in front of a drunken fraternity brother, but perhaps also a judgment-worthy social irresponsibility to this behavior? When you test people, some will fail. Society sets speed limits on roads so that everybody can drive safely, not to identify the 2% who deserve a pole position at Indianapolis. With regard to courtship, we have no government speed limit and kids grow up bathed in a lizard-brain fantasia of marketing and entertainment and "reality TV." There's behavior that's bad even though it breaks no law, and it's hardly Puritan to say this applies at least as much to sexual behavior. Girls, do resist, do prosecute, but don't be cock teases or sexually manipulative either.

MT said...

Or rather than "don't be a cock tease" more to the point might be, "don't pretend to be some kind of music video creature you're not."

therapydoc said...

Thanks, MT. I try to get my readers do the finger shaking for me.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask a question on a statistic? You quote 2 statistics back to back that need elaboration. 20-59% of women 16-24 have sexually assaulted, and 350 out of 10,000 of college age women are raped every year. How do these statistics work with each other? does assaulted mean somebody tried and failed and raped mean tried and succeeded? is sexual assault being defined differently than rape? is the 350 something that needs to be multiplied by 4 in order to match up with the other statistic? meaning, 1400 out of 10,000 college age women are raped at some point in their college career. which would tell us that 14% of that 20-59% statistic we counted b4 comes from the college age but the other 6 to45% comes from the ages 16-18 and 22-24? im not saying that i know which stat is accurate but its hard to believe that they both are. Also, the stat of 20 to 59%?? thats a huge difference. Its no helpful to give a statistic if the statistic is that vague. Sorry im a math major and the way i deal with things is by trying to examine the numbers.Brad

therapydoc said...

One stat has nothing to do with the other. One sample is college students, the other, an age parameter.

Yes, assaulted means an unsuccessful (or not even attempted, necessarily) rape.

No, you don't multiply 350. That's it, 350 out of 10,000. Still, it's 350.

I didn't intend that you over-think the stats, sorry.

What's Going to Be with Our Kids?