I taught composition at Eastern Michigan University for a few years, and I hated when my students started a paper by quoting the dictionary. It's a flat, stilted, boring way to begin an essay. So I'm cringing as I do it now, but I promise there's a good reason. Here goes as defined by Merriam-Webster:
Coerce: To restrain or dominate by force; to compel to an act or choice; to bring about by force or threat.
No surprises there, right? We all have a general idea what coercion is, and what it looks like.
So can somebody please explain to me why one out of seven students at Holden Hall said they would coerce someone into having sex if they knew they could get away with it? The State News published an informal survey from Holden at the end of October, and of the 145 students who responded, 20 apparently believe that it's OK to "dominate, compel, force, or threaten" another person into having sex as long as there are no repercussions to them, of course.
I should probably check my dictionary again. See, I always thought of sex as an act between consenting adults. When you're talking about an act where one person wants it and the other has to be threatened, manipulated, or forced into it, that brings us to a very different word.
Here's an interesting tidbit: Michigan law states that if "force or coercion is used," that's criminal sexual conduct - that's rape.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying one in seven MSU students are rapists. I highly doubt that one in seven students would have answered "Yes" if the question had been phrased, "Would you commit rape if you could get away with it?" I'm not saying they aren't rapists, either. I don't know. The survey was only given to a small group, and the question only asked what students would do if they knew they could get away with it, not what they had actually done.
What that survey shows us is a group of MSU students who seem to look at potential sexual partners and see things, not human beings. Objects that exist only as a means for their own sexual pleasure. Their partners are the same as an adult magazine or X-rated video - they exist to satisfy the user. The trouble is, nobody worries about whether or not the thing wanted to be used.
So when do we cross the line from sex to rape? I'm sure those 20 students would say it's still sex. Coercing the other person into bed is all part of the game, right? Then again, most convicted rapists don't see their actions as rape either. Rape isn't like other crimes. How often does a convicted killer argue that his or her victim wanted to be murdered? Have you ever heard of a bank robber who tried to tell the judge that he or she deserved that money, so it wasn't really a crime?
But that's exactly what happens with rape, both in the courtroom and out. There's a sense of entitlement. It's not about violating another human being. It's about people getting what they think they're entitled to. Sex isn't a thing to be shared between two people, it's a right. And if someone feels they have been deprived of their right, they'll do whatever it takes to get it back.
I'm not sure where that sense of entitlement comes from. It would be easy to blame television and the media, where the hero almost always ends up having sex with the girl by the end of the show. Maybe it comes from listening to our friends boast about how much sex they're supposedly getting, and feeling like we've been deprived our equal share.
This semester, we've started to see that rape is more common than most of us realized. We've had 11 reported sexual assaults so far, along with a 12th report that was later declared to be unfounded. Doubtless the number of unreported rapes is far higher.
The Holden Hall survey helps us understand why those numbers are so high. Not because so many of us set out to commit rape. But because so many of us simply don't understand where consensual sex ends and rape begins. We don't see the dangers of "playing the game," or how our own attitudes about sex could so easily lead to rape.
Maybe it's time to put a bit more thought into how we can avoid becoming perpetrators.
Jim Hines is the male outreach coordinator at MSU Safe Place. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.