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Back in the early 1970s, my husband worked as assistant manager of the local drive-in in the west Texas town where we were attending college. Since he didn’t get home until after midnight, I had those long evening hours to myself. When the weather cooperated, I took long walks. Most of it was along streets and avenues, but one route took me the long way around campus, past the far-flung tracks and ballfields, where there were no houses, little traffic, and few streetlights.
One night, in the silence under the stars, I began hearing footsteps besides my own.
After a hundred yards or so, there was no doubt someone was following me. When I stepped up my pace a little, so did the phantom footfalls. When I slowed down, ditto. Some impulse told me not to run, to stand up straight, to show no fear. But I cut corners to get back to the campus quad, and from there briskly walked the four blocks home. At the gate of the fence that surrounded our little house, I finally turned around: “Why are you following me?”
Memory is faulty, but I recall someone short and thin and not very threatening. He asked an obscene question. “Why don’t you come in and ask my husband?” I cheekily replied, before opening the gate and striding to the front door of my empty house. He didn’t take me up on the invitation.
My experience with the nighttime stalker could have shaped me, yes, but not made me.
Solitary walks after dark in remote areas aren’t smart. I could have used the advice offered by the University of Nevada campus police in a January welcome-back email sent to students returning to UN–Las Vegas. “Avoid dark, unpopulated areas” was near the top of the list. Other tips, such as “Look confident, keep your head up” and “Be aware and alert to your surroundings,” sound like thoughtful advice from Dad.
Not all students saw it that way. After a weekend of strenuous objections from the CARE Center and Student Diversity and Social Justice office, the campus police department apologized. For what? Apparently, well-meant advice from those who know something about violence was in fact “violent.” Trying to prevent harm was itself “harm,” a form of victim-blaming that placed responsibility for an assault on the one assaulted. To the social justice crowd, the cops might as well be reminding young ladies to dress modestly and avoid getting blind drunk at frat parties. (Which is good counsel, but verboten to say out loud.)
“Blaming the victim” is a slogan dating back at least 30 years. “A woman should be able to walk down the street stark naked and be safe,” Oprah declared on one of her programs. Theoretically true, though meaningless in the real world.
But perhaps there’s more than simple outrage reflected in the students’ complaint. As they put it in a campuswide memo, tips that “place responsibility on the individual to avoid being attacked erase the lived experiences of so many of us.” In other words, advice offered to help them be safe made them feel unsafe. There’s a sort of logic here, but it defies rationality. It’s not “lived experience” getting erased in the students’ minds. It’s the obvious difference between assigning blame for an act already committed and forestalling an act that might be avoided. Could it be that some victims and their advocates are not merely camping out on victimhood, but identifying as victims? As if it’s not only a potential rapist who objectifies women, but the women themselves?
My experience with the nighttime stalker could have ended very badly. If so, it would have shaped me, yes, but not made me. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis pictures a chronic complainer in life who is still complaining in the afterlife. “The question is whether she is [now] a grumbler, or only a grumble.” Being perpetually outraged runs the risk of becoming perpetual outrage. I hope these kids grow out of it. There is so much more to living.
—This column appears in the March 13, 2021, issue under the headline “Perpetual victimhood.”