By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – It was 30 years ago. She was a student any professor would consider ideal. Front row. Eyes up. Tidy. Attentive. Smiled easily, often. But after Thanksgiving break, she didn’t come back.
Went down the hall to check. The receptionist didn’t look up, motioned me toward the dean’s office. He told me the student had been raped and would not be returning, at least not for a while.
Christmas came and went. Before the new semester started, a summons to the office. The dean said she would be returning. He told me that I should be prepared.
Her skin was sallow. Shoulders sagged. Hair stringy. Her clothes might have fit when she bought them, but not any more. Weight loss. She sat in the back. No eye contact with anyone. No smile.
After spring break, she didn’t return.
Slit wrists, the dean said. They buried her body in her home town, her grave not far from where her energetic, open, caring spirit had been stolen less than a year earlier.
• • •
The most serious crimes under Mississippi law are murder, arson, kidnapping and rape. Of those, only one involves human contact that in another context is welcome, even essential.
Maybe that’s why people have a hard time figuring out what rape is.
And what it isn’t.
It is a “crime against the person,” the highest echelon, and distinct from lesser crimes against property, such as burglary or larceny. It is violent attack on another person, not different in any way from an assault with a knife or gun.
It is not “getting carried away.” It is not “thinking that’s what she wanted.” Though 75 percent of the approximately 1,000 Mississippi women who will report rapes this year will know their attacker, rape has nothing to do with romance or affection.
It is the 180-degree opposite of romance or affection.
It is brutality.
Now truth be told there are cases where there’s an after-the-fact rethinking of a situation. There are also cases where men are blackmailed, threatened with an accusation of rape. Nowhere is it written that women can’t be as conniving as men, and may the wisdom of Solomon be with the police, prosecutors and jurors who must sort out facts in dispute.
But the fact that rape is sometimes mislabeled and the term misapplied doesn’t diminish by even the smallest fraction how horrible this crime really is.
• • •
For a long time, men could just say to themselves, “Hey, I’m not a rapist,” and not think of it any more.
Women, however, were constantly admonished, taught to be constantly aware. Don’t go here. Don’t go there. Wear this. Don’t wear that. Never walk down a street alone. Always make sure someone knows where you are and who you’re with. Keep pepper spray in your purse. We teach our daughters how to use their car keys as a weapon. We give them whistles to wear around their necks.
In recent years women’s groups have also said to men, “Hey, maybe if you’d teach your sons what rape is – and what it isn’t – that might be helpful, too.”
And, at least to some degree, it is happening.
On the campus of Mississippi State University last month, about 500 male students and faculty donned high heels to walk a mile in the shoes of women. This week in Jackson, a similar awareness event is being held for the fifth consecutive year under the auspices of the Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault and Gender Violence, which created and trademarked “Walk A Mile In Her Shoes,” says the idea is to invite conversation on the topic.
That’s a good thing. All of the stigma associated with rape should be assigned to the rapist, not a smidgen to the victim. Decent people don’t abuse others in any way, including sexually.
• • •
By all rights, that student from 30 years ago should have her own children, perhaps grandchildren. Instead she has a cold stone marker in a little cemetery in the Mississippi countryside. In her day our culture had not made it clear enough to women and to men how to apportion blame in these situations.
Perhaps we don’t know yet – but if men haven’t thought about it and if parents haven’t talked to their sons about it, well, there’s not going to be a better time.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.