(Note: some of the imagery in this week’s post deals with a mature subject that may bother some readers. However, it must be understood that situations like those described DO occur and thus it is appropriate to discuss in a college course.)
One of the great things about my job is that I get to teach a wide-variety of courses. There is always something new to teach and some new challenge in how to best-teach that material, depending on the way that group of students would use that information.
I once taught a now-defunct course called Health and Fitness for Elementary Schools, in which I was tasked with teaching all K-8 Health TEKS to a group that was generally about 50% Elementary Education majors (they had to take it) and 50% people taking the course as an upper-level elective towards a Kinesiology degree. It was a truly unique demographic mix of students.
As part of that class, students presented over assigned health topics; part of that assignment entailed creating questions from each of the levels on Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy. In that context, two of my students that were not Elementary Education majors came up with the original version of the question posed below; since then I have made very small changes to the question, re-purposing it and re-using it in that class (until I stopped teaching it) and in other courses. It has turned out to be the question I use in classes that creates the best discussions: “Susie Goes to a Party”.
“Susan goes over to her friend’s house for a party. She decides to wear her really short denim skirt and a low-cut halter top. When she gets there she has a few drinks. A cute guy starts flirting with her, and she flirts back. They decide to go into a bedroom, where it is quieter, so that they can talk. He then rapes her. Is it Susan’s fault or not? [If you want, assign a percentage of blame to each of the people involved.] Support your answer.”
After that first time it was used in class, I made it a required take-home writing assignment each subsequent semester of Health and Fitness in Elementary Schools. In general, probably 90%+ plus of all of the students would assign some percentage of blame to Susie; I would estimate that in the writing assignment about 1/3 of the class would say it was at least 50% her fault. After the assignment was graded, we would spend a significant amount of time, up to an entire 80-minute class period, discussing the scenario and all of its related implications, especially as it relates to health.
There are a variety of discussable factors brought up in that question, ranging from drinking, to appropriate dress, to sexual practices, to the role friends should serve in social contexts, to rape drugs, and so on. What I have found most-remarkable about it is the layers of subtext that it has. What do I mean?
When you read the question, you automatically make some assumptions. You generally base those assumptions on your prior experiences. Go read the question again. I’ll wait…most college students imagine Susie as a college girl that goes to an off-campus party of some kind, drinks alcohol, is overly flirtatious, and then is raped.
But the question does not say those things; the reader assumes them.
Yes, maybe Susie is at a kegger, but what if Susie is an older adult at a swingers party? Does your percentage of blame to her change then? What if Susie is a 9-year-old at a child’s birthday party, the drink is literally Kool-Aid, and the “cute guy” is an older man? Do you feel more sympathy for Susie then? What if the party is a kegger, except that something was slipped into Susie’s drinks? What if Susie is known to be promiscuous? What if Susie was a virgin prior to the party? What if Susie’s name were something more suggestive of a specific race? How might that sway your opinion? (To really go next level, what if Susie was “Steve” and the “cute guy” was a “cute girl’?)
Anyone seen Jurassic Park? Right after this scene the group is taken to a lab and it is explained that the dinosaurs are re-created using incomplete DNA and that the gaps are filled in with that of frogs. In other words, the scientists are filling in the unknown with their “best guess”. SPOILER ALERT: it doesn’t work out very well. Similarly, if we do not know the entire picture of a person or a situation, we should look a little closer to find out what we want to know (2nd video with episode 109) rather than just guessing based on our very limited experiences.
That is a tremendous lesson for all of us to learn, and especially so for college students.
To be clear, at the end of every discussion of the “Susie” question, I would make sure that the students were told that no matter the scenario, rape is always 0% the fault of the victim and always 100% the fault of the perpetrator. Period. End of discussion. If you are raped, it is NOT YOUR FAULT.
That said, from a teaching perspective our students must know there are choices we make that do expose us to risk. During the discussion on the “Susie” question I would ask “What are some things Susie could have done differently?” Here were some common answers:
- Not gone to the party at all.
- Not dressed provocatively (if she did).
- Not had alcohol (if she did).
- Not led him on (many students assumed this).
- Not gone into a private situation with a stranger (or for that matter, with someone you know, as “acquaintance rape is the most common type of rape”).
- Made sure that anything she ingested was “vetted” in some way, i.e. bring your own food/drink, don’t drink from an open punch bowl, don’t let a guy give you a potentially manipulated drink, etc.
- Attended the party with friends with the express purpose to watch out for one another.
There were other suggestions, but those were the major ones; the common thread is that they all involve a choice.
The vast majority of human health comes down to making wise choices. Yes, some health problems exist that are outside of our control (more on this later), but the vast majority of health comes down to choices. You can choose to do anything, but not everything is beneficial. Do you exercise, avoid alcohol and other drugs, get flu vaccinations, floss, wear a seatbelt, or not expose yourself to unnecessary risk?
It is tremendously important that we impart upon our students that making wise choices is vital to health, both on this earth and elsewhere. If we can do that, maybe we can help save future “Susies” (no matter the nature of the risk behavior) from unnecessary despair.