An Open Letter To My Alma Mater’s Former President On College Rape


Dear Dr. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg,

I usually take great pride in calling myself an alumna of The George Washington University — but not today.

You made comments on the Diane Rehm Show this week about how college women drinking too much is feeding the campus rape crisis, and in doing so you perpetuated the dangerous notion that it is a woman’s fault for being sexually assaulted or raped. It is disturbing to think that as the former president of GWU, current president emeritus and a professor of public service, this is how you view college rape culture.

But it’s not surprising.

What was she drinking? What was she wearing? How was she walking? How was she talking?

These are the questions that often get asked, as if a man’s decision to sexually violate a woman is somehow the woman’s own doing.

“One of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women,” you said. “They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave. And so part of the problem is you have men who take advantage of women who drink too much. And there are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children on that — in that regard.”

It is my firm belief that instead of teaching young women how to drink less, we should be pouring resources into educating men of all ages about how to be sexually responsible human beings.

In short: Why teach our daughters how not to get raped when we can teach our sons why rape is wrong?

According to some estimates, at least one in five women will be sexually assaulted or raped in her college years in the United States. This is an epidemic, and I can assure you the root cause is not female intoxication.

When I read your comments, I couldn’t help but think back to when I was a freshman at GWU and a young man burst into my female friend’s dorm room and attempted to sexually violate her while she was asleep. (I happened to be sleeping in a bunk bed next to hers.) Thankfully, she was physically unharmed.

“I wonder if Dr. Trachtenberg knows what it feels like to have a stranger pin you down in your own bed, stick his tongue in your mouth, and tell you exactly what he’s going to do to you,” Caroline Hopper, my friend and survivor who agreed to be named, said to me today after hearing about your comments from fellow GWU alumni.

Following Caroline’s attack, we were subjected to lineups and interrogations. We had to testify before a grand jury, where we were met with the same question: Were you drinking?

“I did not ask for this,” she told me. “I didn’t ask to have to tell my story in front of a room full of strangers. I didn’t ask to feel unsafe for years to come. To think that what mattered is whether or not I had been drinking is revolting.”

If a man can sexually violate a woman while she’s safely asleep in her college dorm bed and have this question thrown at her, then how are we ever going to stomp out college rape?

I am so grateful to have attended GWU, despite that experience during my freshman year. This could have happened at any university.

But you, as a leader in the world of education, have an obligation to protect your students. And this starts with eradicating the blame game.

When I attended GWU’s Elliott School of International Affairs, I learned a lot about other countries and other cultures, and my invaluable education allowed me to further my dreams of pursuing international journalism.

I am now in the Middle East, covering places like Egypt, Iraq and Gaza. I often interview survivors of sexual assault and rape, which are frequent occurrences during wartime, political unrest, and — lest we forget — on college campuses.

In one interview this summer, an Egyptian female colleague and I met with Cairo police officers who were supposed to enact a new anti-sexual harassment law. Egypt is now known for its mob rapes and its weak, often inept, legal system.

The police officers offered me what they thought was sound advice: “If a woman is wearing provocative clothing, the change needs to come from her.”

The United States is lightyears ahead of Egypt in terms of how victims of sexual violence are treated, and how the problem is addressed. Or is it? I can’t help but hear that Cairo police officer’s comments on sexual violence echoed in your own.

The change does not need to come from the victim. We can fight back and stay sober and cover up our cleavage. But this does not and will not solve the problem of why rapists rape.

Sincerely and with respect,

Sophia JonesMiddle East Correspondent, The WorldPost

Update: 8/30 —

Read Dr. Trachtenberg’s response to the open letter below:

Thank you for writing. I am most obliged for your thoughtful text. And I agree with almost everything you had to say except your assumption that all of my thinking on the subject at hand can be reduced to the few words that I had a chance to utter on the Diane Rehm Show the other day. Those observations no more define me or what I think about the state of gender relations than your letter sums up your views on all things contemporary. I am disappointed that you should think so and rush to judgement on so little data. Rapists get the blame for rape. Not victims. They are not responsible no matter how much they drink or how they dress. I am not shifting blame from one to the other and I resent your suggestion that I am. But surely there is no harm in a dangerous world to taking precautions while we try our best to make the social environment a safer, better place. Women (people) who drink to excess are more vulnerable than those who do not. So how am I wrong for advocating education about that which may make life a little safer for those who might become victims? Yes we need to deal with rapists but we also have to help potential victims become street wise. When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, coming home from my after school job after dark, I was taught by my mother to walk in the middle of the street where it was light. And to avoid dark alleys. She loved me and wanted me to be safe. She wanted me out of danger. Education is empowering. So I also urged that women be taught how to defend themselves. Should they have to? No. But I think its a practical idea and accords with long standing feminist theory. I am informed that I have possibly not been as sensitive about some matters as I ought to be. Perhaps. I am almost tempted to yield on that. But I can assure you that my heart is in the right place. I am on the side of the angels no less than you. I will be glad to continue this conversation face to face when you are free to do so in DC. Meanwhile, again I am in debt for your instruction even if I dissent in part.