MacColl: Men must do more to fight sexual assault, harassment

Margaux MacColl, Op-Ed Contributor

I was in the room of a fraternity house on campus, watching TV with two men. One was a good friend I’ll call “Joe,” and the other an acquaintance I’ll call “Nate.” Nate sat next to me on the couch, our legs touching. I moved away. He moved closer. He leaned on my shoulder. I leaned away.

He whispered in my ear. I moved further away again and still, he moved closer. This carried on for about 30 minutes before Joe got up and left. When I finally found the nerve to leave the situation, Nate walked me to the door, despite my repeated requests not to. He hugged me goodbye, holding on for too long, too intimately. I quickly turned around and left the fraternity house, walking home alone at 3 in the morning.

When I texted Joe to ask why he left us, he said he felt “uncomfortable.” He told me that I “should have asked to leave” if I wasn’t interested in Nate.

As far as stories of sexual harassment in fraternities go, this might seem pretty tame — but that doesn’t make it any less important. It’s certainly not my worst experience, but it’s a painfully common one. Nate’s behavior and Joe’s indifference are indicative of a much greater problem.

Because sororities aren’t allowed to throw parties, fraternity houses often become the epicenter of the social scene for students. And it’s a scene that revolves around men choosing to invite us into their houses, their rooms and their inner circles.

Since we, as women, are there by invitation, our interactions have repercussions. If I outright rejected Nate, I could be socially ostracized by his entire group of friends. Nate, after all, lives in the fraternity house. Since he’s surrounded by his fraternity “brothers” all the time, his narrative becomes the dominant one. It becomes, by default, the only one that matters. Greek life envelops men in an echo chamber where their stories hold more weight than anyone else’s, regardless of the truth.

I needed my friend, Joe, to understand the pressures I felt, how voiceless I was in that moment. I needed him to realize that whatever discomfort he was feeling himself, I was feeling double that, compounded by fear. I needed him to recognize how hard it can be for a woman to just “ask to leave.” I wanted him to help me without having to explicitly ask him to do so.

I want him, and all men, to understand that female and male voices aren’t taken equally. The weight of our “no’s” are not the same.

For me to say no, I must use all my strength. I must fight the societal pressure to be polite. I must fight the fear that I’ll be socially penalized by men who perceive me as rude. I must fight the fear that I’ll make things “awkward,” that the men will resent me. I must fight the fear that “no” won’t even be enough, and that he’ll take what he wants anyway.

For Joe, and plenty of other men, “no” is often weightless — it’s what they’ve been raised to believe is their right to say. After all, when Joe felt uncomfortable, he just left.

Not all men will sexually assault women. But many men will, and numerous others will be friends with men who do. By not calling them out, by not being cognizant of how the women around you feel, you are being complicit. For men who say it’s unfair that they’re held accountable for heinous actions they themselves do not condone, I say that women have been carrying the burden of sexual assault prevention for too long.

I am asking men to think about how women feel in an all-male space, to feel the weight of a woman’s “no” and understand how hard it can be to say. I am asking men to understand that anytime you have not gone out of your way to help a woman who seems uncomfortable, you are complicit. I am asking you to take responsibility for the culture your gender has created.

To my male friends: I love you, and I know you are not “bad” people. I’m not saying Nate or Joe are bad people. But to all men — especially the men I know and love — I am telling you that you need to do more. I am telling you that you need to do better.

Margaux MacColl is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.