Report from the Field: “MFA Rape Culture”

A prestigious MFA program in quite possibly the most diverse, liberal city in America, at a liberal university. A cohort of self-proclaimed feminists and a female workshop instructor. A hotbed of rape culture.

Which one of these is different and does not belong?

Except it did – does. After 14 years, I was finally at a place where I could write about surviving date rape at 17, and it was going to be the subject of my thesis. So imagine my surprise when a (female) classmate said, in workshop, “Did you ever think it was just a bad mistake?” Things went from bad to worse when the workshop instructor suggested I play up The Guy’s “badness;” perhaps consider whether my beer was spiked with GHB. The simple fact that I was intoxicated was not enough for her. Otherwise I was just a sloppy, underage drunk. Another (female) classmate asked whether I’d ever contacted The Guy to get “his side of the story.” The lone male in workshop emailed me and suggested that since so many men have rape fantasies, “maybe he didn’t realize it was wrong.” My anger was too much for him to handle, and he accused me of being “thought police-y.” The following semester, a student helpfully suggested “maybe you should write about happy subjects, perhaps that will help.” Help with what, I’m not sure.

My personal favorite, though, said by the same student who suggested that perhaps it was a mistake, was that since I had been with my attacker afterward, and he hadn’t raped me again, perhaps the initial event wasn’t performed with “the malice you think it was.” Of course. Silly me. Thank you for clarifying that.

I could go on. Cite inappropriate comments made in conference by the instructor after workshop. Go through each workshop of the semester – there are ample examples. But I’ll stop there. I was lucky enough to have a good therapist and several wonderful adjunct professors who got me through that semester and kept reminding me that what was happening wasn’t right. But what about someone not as lucky? As it was, I ended up doubting everything I wrote and still hear the voices of my classmates in the back of my head.

The last day of the semester, I finally met with the Chair of the department and told her everything. Her response, while warm and encouraging, also included asking me why I waited so long in telling her. My answer? An all-too-common victim statement: I thought I was overreacting. I also didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. The full-time faculty is small, and I am not naïve enough to think that gossip among instructors doesn’t travel fast. I didn’t want an issue with one professor to affect my relationships with other professors.

Unfortunately, this happened anyway. Word got back to the professor that I went to the Chair, and the professor evidently talked with several instructors in the program, both adjunct and full-time. Suddenly, instructors with whom I had had good relationships with were distant, and when I asked what was wrong, was met with short, cold replies. The office no longer had a welcoming feeling. Everything I was afraid of came true. The last semester of classes was a painful and lonely one. Friends of mine didn’t understand why I simply didn’t shut up and play the game. Didn’t understand why I just didn’t smile and nod my head.

You know why? Because everything I would have written would have been a lie. I would have been silenced all over again. I couldn’t do that to myself.

But even now, I’m not telling the entire truth. I’ve waited until after I’ve graduated to write this, for fear of someone putting the pieces together and retaliating before I pass my thesis. I haven’t named the program, and I am submitting this anonymously.

I wish I could say I think things will change in the department. I don’t. Past alumni who have dared to write about their experiences online have taken down their postings, and are reticent to share anything but their bare bones experience. The silence runs deep.

The recent #yesallwomen conversation on Twitter was heartening, but what I wanted to say, I didn’t. Yes, I was disappointed in my fellow cohort as a whole. But it was women especially who stunned and disappointed me. It was women in the literary community who also failed me. It was women who also perpetuated the rape culture in the University and the MFA program, fellow female classmates who made victim-blaming and shaming comments, and did not speak up when things became inappropriate in a workshop setting. These are women in their 20s, self-proclaimed feminists who have always grown up with Take Back the Night Marches and who aren’t old enough to remember the infamous sexual assault policy that Antioch College adopted in 1991, about explicit verbal consent each and every time. These are women who are proud and unashamed of their sexuality; perhaps naively, I did not expect backlash from them. Maybe it was fear. Maybe it was denial. It was probably easier to say nothing. Or maybe they knew just how much it would cost to speak up. I don’t have any explanations for my fellow female classmates’ actions (and inaction). I’m not sure there are any explanations I am willing to accept.

Being a writer is hard. Being a woman writer can be hard. We shouldn’t make it harder for each other.


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