No, it’s not about the NFL playoffs. It’s about the one other, non-flu pathogen infecting college campuses across the nation: sexual assault. Since the beginning of the school year, sexual assaults on campus have received ample attention, particularly at places like Columbia University and the University of Virginia. Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia (colloquially known as “mattress girl”), has served as the face for these issues through her performance piece Carry That Weight.

This has been a complicated time for me as a spectator, given that I have known Emma since kindergarten. Emma was, in my experience, hardly a shy or dainty girl. During the day, she was smart beyond belief, funny and easy to talk to. At night, Emma was just as bravely forward with some of my friends as she was with the telling of her story to the country. She was never a pushover. So, in the midst of all of her publicity (largely in September), I never doubted she was telling the truth. But I did wonder one thing: how could this happen to her, of all people?

Confusion seems to be a hallmark of many sexual assault cases. Confusion is present before, during and after the act. Confusion seems to be a consequence of an initial incongruence between the two sides that led to what could even be interpreted as non-consensual sex. In my experience, consensual sex is tremendously unconfusing — there aren’t really that many confounding factors when you are taking each other’s clothes off. So the very concept of rape resonates with confusion, typically about far more than “what happened in the room.”

In the effort to alleviate some of this confusion, scientists have conducted studies to try to analyze sexual assault with probabilities and quantifications. For example, 19 percent of female students in college experienced completed or attempted sexual assault during their time on campus. Similarly, female students who experienced sexual assault prior to college were eight times more likely to experience it again during college. Furthermore, female students who have “reported getting drunk since entering college” are 1.7 times more likely to be the victims of sexual assault, with fraternity men being the most likely perpetrators.

But what do these numbers really mean, or rather, what are we to make of them? Don’t spend time drinking at fraternities? Don’t go to college in the first place?

These are coarse interpretations of an extraordinarily sensitive question. Sexual assault is not a “disease” itself; it cannot be vanquished with comparative effectiveness studies and rehabilitation regimens. It is, rather, a symptom of a much larger malignancy.

On Tuesday morning, The New York Times sought to address this broader malignancy in an article titled “Sorority Anti-Rape Idea: Drinking on Own Turf.” Amidst a comprehensive profiling of recent sexual assault cases, the author, Alan Schwarz, explores a suggestion to have drinking occur in the sorority houses themselves. Female students interviewed detailed the role of a “home-court advantage” at Greek parties, the importance of “ownership of the social scene,” analogizing host fraternities to “hunting grounds.” Thus, the suggestion to have sororities host parties.

However, from where I sit, this suggestion would only introduce more issues. The benefit to being a visitor (in the Greek context, but also more broadly) is that, if uncomfortable, you can leave. Though there are dangers off-campus late at night, reliable taxi and bus service, coupled with walking in a group, mitigate these issues. There is much power in the ability to leave on a moment’s notice. On the contrary, opening your own house up to others makes this “escape plan” far more complicated. A closed door in your own house is equally dangerous to that of another’s, with the caveat that you have nowhere else to go.

No. I think that the deeper issue to be explored here has to do with the male-female relationships, interactions and expectations in the campus context. It’s less tangible than an address on a Facebook event.

I was recently asked by one of my friends when the last time I had “sober sex” was. He was surprised by my answer — he hadn’t done it since high school. Another friend asked what he should “do with” a girl he was interested in. I suggested he take her on a date. He laughed at me. A third friend shared his internal debate on whether or not to ask a girl to be “exclusive.” He resolved it was better not to.

I believe that these are the products of the larger relationship problem. Relationships are complex, convoluted and opaque. This, in my mind, is the malignancy.

To put it simply: I just don’t think guys and girls know each other well enough nor intimately enough. When you know someone intimately, you know whether they’re being blunt, versus sarcastic, versus sassy. When you know someone intimately, you know whether they’re squirming in discomfort, writhing in pain or just ticklish. When you do not, you don’t know how to tell someone you’re scared, uncomfortable and need to go home. When you do not, you don’t know how to read the signs, and you don’t know how to give them.

Mandating comprehensive sexual assault education for all entering college students, including the detailed narratives and experiences of survivors, would supplement this more intimate education. The current feeble attempts at sexual assault education lack the detail, strength and emotion of testimony. The combination would serve to make the signs more clear and to clarify some of the insidious confusion.

I’m still confused about how what happened to Emma happened to Emma. There are no clear answers, nor immediate solutions. But I do hope that she, as with other victims (male or female), can recover a sense of normality in time. And I do hope that he, as with other perpetrators (male or female), can get to know the objects of his desire better in the future. But, that way, they might become more than objects; they might become living, breathing, feeling partners. That way, when they say “yes,” explicitly or implicitly, he might be able to hear them.

Or too, when they say “no.”

Eli Cahan can be reached at

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