There are several ways an undergraduate suitor can react when his anti-rape-activist date explains what she does. One of the most common is a sort of primal response — an instinctual, indignant protest: Not ALL men!
And, according to a number of women who have become campus leaders in the growing conversation around consent, that’s hardly the worst-case scenario.
These women have had their stories and their mission written up in student papers and in national ones; they’ve had bylines and quotes in the New York Times, interviews in the Huffington Post and on Dateline. They become poster children for sexual politics. And with their crusade often comes a weird social life: They’re out there fighting the good fight, but do they also get to hook up like normal college students?
Meghan Warner, a senior at UC Berkeley, serves as the director of the university’s sexual-assault commission and is part of a federal complaint against the school for its mishandling of assault cases. She’s appeared in a Glamour issue honoring college women who are about to change the world. And she says there were men who wouldn’t approach her or date her after recognizing her, or learning of her work.
“Nobody ever explicitly said, ‘Oh you’re a survivor, we can’t date,’” she told me. “But they’d assume that I was just doing this for attention, or more frequently they didn’t want to deal with it. It was too much. They assumed I’d have a lot of needs.”
Then there were those who were a little too eager to make it know that they would never, ever assault a woman. “Their first response is ‘I’m not one of those guys, I would never do that,’” she said. “I mean, what, should I be carrying gold stars now?”
Chrissy Keenan, a UCLA senior, is the president of Bruin Consent Coalition, a campus group that works to raise awareness regarding sexual assault on campus. “When people know of me but they don’t really know the work, they hear the term ‘feminist’ or ‘sexual-violence prevention,’ they think, ‘super-extreme, bra-burning feminism,’” she explains, which often puts people on the defensive.
Keenan herself, though, sometimes finds it hard not to go on the offensive. She’s so used to laying down the nitty-gritty details of consent that she’s been known to open romantic interactions with a spiel that feels straight out of a student handbook.
She animatedly tells a story about a recent Tinder rendezvous: “One time, I agreed to meet with this guy at 8 or 9 at night. Before we met, I said to him, ‘This is the work I do, I know the chief of police … so, don’t try and get creepy; I know all my rights.’ And five minutes later, he was like, ‘Actually, I’m really not OK with how you just assume I’m a bad guy. And I get very bad vibes from that, so we shouldn’t hang out anymore.’”
“I was in a rage. He was a total fuckboy about consent,” she said.
“Honestly, even if they’re supportive, even if they say all the right things, and really want to discuss my job, it makes me feel weird about hooking up with them,” says Sofie Karasek, a recent UC Berkeley graduate and co-founder of End Rape on Campus. (She’s also involved with the UC Berkeley lawsuit and has a large part in the campus rape-culture documentary The Hunting Ground.) “It’s like, ‘Oh, we were just talking about rape, and now we’re going to hook up.’ It’s just weird.”
Maybe most insidious is an expectation that their advocacy — and their own experiences — put them somehow outside the realm of a normal social life.
“Just because someone wants to socialize and date doesn’t mean we’re bad victims or that our experiences haven’t been that bad,” Warner says. “When we talk about sexual assault or prevention, there tends to be the perception of ‘oh, you’ve ruined someone’s life.’ My life was not ruined.” Warner says. “People heal at different rates. Some people can’t date and they aren’t ready and they might never be ready. But we’re not broken. What happened to me had a lasting impact on my life, but I still enjoy my life.”
Still, Keenan can attest that sometimes — when she’s lucky — her advocacy and her dating life are perfectly compatible.
There was one time, one guy, knowing what I did and what I talked about, he made consent part of foreplay,” she reacalls. “You know, very intentionally asking, ‘Is this okay? Is this okay?’ It was cute. It was great.”