CW: mentions of sexual assault
It’s Admitted Students Day at Scripps College, and I’m thinking about the incoming class. They’re excited and probably scared: it feels like every potential future is staring back at them in a wash of green and indie pop. And I am excited for them. But mostly I am plotting how I might introduce myself at Malott in August after the “Welcome” banners come down.
The specter of August consumes me. Anti-sexual violence activists know August as the beginning of “the Red Zone,” or, according to the organization Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment (PAVE), “the period of time between mid-August and Thanksgiving break where statistically more than 50 percent of campus sexual assault incidents occur.” Further, PAVE reports that “84 percent of the women who reported sexually coercive experiences experienced the incident during their first four semesters of college.” These early semesters, defined by the unknown, become the most dangerous.
But slowly, as underclassmen spend time on campus, we begin to gather information about our surroundings. We collect information in a web of whispers, in experiences shared in the confidence of a dorm floor, through a friend of a friend, from an upperclassman you sat next to in class. Campus becomes familiar and so do our peers. Since we can’t be everywhere all at once, we begin to inform our interactions with the experiences of survivors.
This practice culminates in “the whisper network” – a more apt descriptor for what has been historically characterized as idle, malicious shit-talking and gossip among women. Jia Tolentio, a writer for The New Yorker, defines this structure as “the unofficial information channel that women use to warn each other about men whose sexual behavior falls on the spectrum from creepy to criminal.” In this way gossiping is more than just a way to pass the time, it’s an act of self-defense.
Understanding the absence of protection offered to survivors by the law, human resources, and Title IX, we turn to each other, compare evidence, and act accordingly. The structure of college poses a number of inherent barriers to this network. Most notable is the four-year graduation cycle that nearly guarantees the disappearance of institutional knowledge if it is not intentionally passed down. The information must also cross social circles, departments, years, and – at the 5Cs – campuses. The whisper network is wildly imperfect, but when it works it can help to mitigate evasion of accountability.
However, after a year of virtual learning and another of preventative COVID-19 policies, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into this already fragile network. Our gatekeepers of institutional knowledge — the juniors and seniors — have been faced with the already enormous task of passing down information. Yet this challenge has increased ten-fold without the assistance of consistent club meetings, parties and cross-campus dining. The number of official opportunities for students to make broader connections has dwindled and with that social circles have become almost exclusively limited to a student’s year and host-campus.
Older students have scrambled to reassemble the community they left behind in 2020, while new students fail to even conceptualize what a pre-pandemic consortium looked like. Upperclassmen have expressed to me how few underclassmen they know, sometimes only able to name one or two. Underclassmen attempts at nightlife are at times comedic, as an upperclassmen explains: it’s as though new students have tried to fill in the gaps by attempting to replicate the types of parties and experiences seen in movies and television. Every conversation with an upperclassmen about 5C culture post-COVID-19 contains the same refrain: “It’s just so different now.” Even the divide between the sophomore and freshman classes is immense.
With fewer relationships across years, campuses and circles, the whisper network has become smaller, patchier and less informed. This means that survivor testimony circulates slower, if at all. Thus, those who practice serial predatory behavior are able to easily evade social consequences by jumping from isolated social circle to social circle — whether that be by campus, year or both.
As the year comes to a close, graduation ceremony preparations serve as a bleak reminder of the fragile nature of institutional knowledge. More students on campus now than ever before fall within the red zone — as both freshmen and sophomores experiencing their first semesters on campus — at a time when the whisper network is frailest. It is my hope that we can use our remaining time on campus to begin rehabilitating the network. Fall semester creeps towards us, and the 5C community vacuum offers tremendous potential for both danger and recreation in the ashes of old tradition.
I implore upperclassmen to introduce themselves to the nearest underclassman and talk massive amounts of shit with them. I ask you to reach out to incoming freshmen and tell them what you wish you knew. The pandemic has left yet another rift in our social fabric, so please go gossip; it’s for the greater good.
Guest columnist Cassidy Bensko SC ’25 is from Santa Clarita, California. They’re a certified tree hugger, goldfish enthusiast, and lover of comedy.