To Coach Whipple, from a student-athlete

Words matter

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To Coach Whipple, from a student-athlete

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

By Jane Doe, Collegian Contributor

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Words matter. I understand that you have apologized, but I don’t accept it. You apologized, but you may not understand the weight of what you did. You may have only apologized because you were caught saying it. You may have apologized because you had to, because you felt sorry for yourself, not because you were actually sorry.

Coach Whipple, I am a proud student-athlete at the University of Massachusetts. I wear the maroon and black just like your players do. I am more than a varsity student-athlete, though; I’m a woman. A daughter and sister, a human being and so much more.

I am also a rape survivor, left with mental illness – post-traumatic stress disorder and a dissociative disorder – as a result. And what I need to tell you, coach, is that words matter.

Rape, along with sexual harassment and assault, is a crime embedded in power and entitlement. This is something unique to sex crimes and hate crimes: The imbalance in social hierarchy allots more power to some than to others, and attackers are allowed to exist because of this power imbalance. Those with power often feel entitled to the bodies of those without. The entitlement that enables rapists is the same entitlement felt by the guy at the bar who grabs at young women’s bodies without their consent. In some cases, because of the entitlement fantasy, women are assaulted and killed at the hands of men who feel so wronged by rejection that they resort to violence.

Extremists do not just come from thin air. Social hierarchy, invented and upheld by the powerful, is the root of the problem. Everyday condonation of violence against women is the trunk which sprawls into branches, with extremists sprouting as leaves. And we as a society reap what we sow. So many people, of all genders, races, orientations, classes, creeds, ages and abilities have paid that price.

One of the most active contributors to rape culture’s hold on our social world is language and how we use it. Validation for institutional mistreatment and mishandling is wrought by words – which words we give meaning to, which we empty of meaning and which we change the meaning of.

“No means yes. Yes means anal,” the phrase a Yale fraternity chanted as it moved through campus in 2011, is a popular joke. President Trump bragged about grabbing women’s vaginas without their consent. There are countless times that I have been sitting in a room full of people and the word rape is used so casually and lightly, meant for laughter, and I feel a knife twist into my chest. A friend walks into a room, I ask how their test went, and they reply that they think they failed – that exam raped them. A shudder goes through my spine and I force a strangled reply.

A football coach tells his team that they were raped by another team’s play.

These examples all matter. These instances all water hierarchal roots. They all allow the trunk to strengthen and the rotten fruit to grow. These all take away our validity and instead validate the culture that condones sexual violence – the culture that says what happened to us is normal and it was probably our fault.

For so long, I have been felt voiceless as a result of that theft. Robbing such a heavy word and experience leaves those affected by it in silence. My trauma confronts me every day; I not only live with the memory of what happened to me, but mental illness and depression will be a lifelong battle. That word may mean nothing to you, but to me it means everything. It weighs on every aspect of my existence, and you have made a mockery of that. What do you say to someone who empties your darkest experience, and who uses your greatest trauma as a punchline?

Coach Whipple, when you use that word like that, you erase centuries of gendered violence. More than that, you take centuries of gendered violence and use trauma of that scale to describe a football play. Coaches are some of the most influential people in athletes’ lives. Not only have you raised sons of your own, but you are an authority figure, even a father figure, to hundreds of young men. When you use that word like that, you teach your players that it is acceptable for them to do the same. And it isn’t.

The heartbreaking truth is that so many just do not care about the nameless. People feel that they need to have a personal relationship with someone they know is a rape survivor in order to give thought to the issue or be conscious of their actions. But even when survivors do show their faces and say their names, they are all too likely to be blamed, abused, ignored and otherwise further damaged, which is why they rarely do. People and institutions use survivors as chattel, as faceless statistics whose stories they own – our trauma is simultaneously capitalized on and ridiculed. Narratives are plundered and twisted for another’s gain. Trauma is exposed, only to make its impact smaller.

Reclamation of language is the taking back of power – power over ourselves and our experiences, and also power over interpersonal, community and mass rhetoric. To do this, however, it’s required that individuals take a serious look at their own words, actions and understandings. Why must we or those around us be personally hurt by a tragedy in order to care? Just because a hurricane is far away does not mean that it does not impact your life, and it does not mean that those directly impacted are an irrelevant joke.

Words matter. People hear them. Actions matter. People see and feel them. Understand that what you do and say may be helping the tree to grow. Actively challenging your own beliefs, behaviors and language is actively challenging institutional rape culture. Coach Whipple, you can use your power to either condone or condemn. I challenge you, and everyone, to do better.

Jane Doe is a Collegian contributor. 

Editor’s Note: The student athlete who wrote this piece requested anonymity for fear of consequences of expressing her opinion.