The 'Princeton Mom' Controversy and Campus Rape Today

Forty years after they were students, some alumni still worry about the future of sexual assault on college campuses.

Tina deVaron remembers one rainy spring night of her freshman year in 1975. She had just finished an exam that day, and her residential advisor—"kind of a nerdy guy"—took her out for a beer with some of his friends on the rugby team. After she had returned to her dorm room at the end of the night, she heard a knock on her door. It was one of the rugby guys. He asked deVaron if he could sleep on the extra bed in her room so he wouldn’t have to walk up campus in the rain. She let him in.

"I still don’t know why I let him in," deVaron recalled in a piece she wrote in 2011 for Christian Science Monitor on the incident. "I was not drunk; I remember every minute of the next hour. I said no, he said yes. I struggled; he was the rugby player. When he had finished raping me, he went back to his dorm in the rain."

"I was sober, this was not a date, not a make-out session gone wrong," deVaron later told me in an interview. "This was a person who was a friend of my RA. It’s classic."

Now, 40 years after the incident, and deVaron finds herself infuriated after hearing comments recently made by Susan Patton, a fellow Princeton alumna from the class of '77, about date rape. The comments trace back to an interview she did on CNN last December in which she equated date rapes to "a clumsy, hook-up melodrama, or a fumbled attempt at a kiss or a caress"—commentary she gave more than a year after writing the March 2013 letter in the Daily Princetonian that sparked the first wave of immense controversy. Asked in the CNN interview if men should be taught not to rape, Patton said, "We could teach burglars not to steal, but better advice? Lock your door."

Apparently, that was precisely what deVaron failed to do. She had opened the door to her attacker, and as a result had been swamped by a feeling of self-blame. "For a long time I thought that what happened to me was my fault because I opened my door," she said. She didn’t report the assault because she assumed that wasn’t an option. "The culture was such that there was no place to report it … There was no place to go where I had any kind of an idea that it would be anything but my fault for opening the door."

"You were so alone. You didn’t even tell your friends," she continued. Sexual assault and rape were under the radar, taboo, swept under the rug, deVaron said. Yet by acknowledging that these issues were covered up, "we’re admitting that things were things. But it’s almost like it doesn’t even exist. It’s a real mind game."

In response to Patton’s comments, a group of five alumni from the class of '78 recently wrote an open letter, published in the Daily Princetonian in February, criticizing her commentary. Over a hundred of her former classmates, including deVaron, signed their names in support. To them, Patton’s comments bring back memories of an earlier era, when issues of campus sexual assault and rape went unreported, shoved away, or even joked about. They fear that comments like Patton’s risk undoing the decades’ worth of work to encourage women to speak up about sexual assaults.

In many ways, Princeton is a microcosm of the sexual-assault debate happening across the nation. Last fall, shortly before Patton’s interview, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights concluded that the university had violated Title IX regulations, joining a working list of about 100 colleges nationwide that are also under federal investigation for potentially mishandling sexual assault complaints. In a recent feature story, The Atlantic looked at how the administration at Princeton—which in the late 1980s became notorious for its handling of rape on campus—eventually backpedalled on reforms in an effort to save its reputation. Using past experiences to explore the challenges facing modern-day solutions, The Atlantic revealed that schools like Princeton, which in response to widespread problems developed the some of the most constructive sexual-assault policies, also tended to have the highest-number of recorded incidents; in other words, they had an incentive not to be transparent.

Indeed, progress on gender equality at Princeton, especially in social life—and often closely linked to matters of sexual assault—has been slow. A 2011 report on women’s leadership on campus, for example, highlighted that the class of 2013 was the first to include equal numbers of men and women; both Patton and deVaron were at Princeton in its early years as a coed institution—less than ten years after women were first admitted in 1969. Tiger Inn, the "frattiest" of Princeton’s 11 eating clubs—which are not officially affiliated with the university but are at the heart of the university’s social scene—has been embroiled in controversy this year over its treatment of women. (It’s worth noting that a court order in 1990 forced it to admit females.) Late last November, the words "rape haven" were spray-painted on the club’s stone fence. This year, some headway is being made—at least momentarily; Tiger Inn elected its first female president, and Ivy Club, the other eating club forced to go coed in 1990, elected its second.

But now, some alumni are worried that people like Patton will jeopardize this progress, potentially bringing the climate regarding sexual assault allegations at Princeton back to the 70s.

This is something that is especially frightening to deVaron. "The idea of an environment being hostile to women was not even on the table," she said, recalling the climate on campus four decades ago. It was an era before Title IX—the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination at colleges and is now widely used as a tool to regulate sexual-assault on campus—existed. There was no rape counseling, no talks or workshops during freshman orientation, no hotline to call. When sexual assault did occur, deVaron said, it was "so far off the radar that the only option is to bury it … The climate is so different now. We need to really be mindful of how much progress has been made."

Despite her willingness to publicly comment on what she believes are the realities of campus sexual assault these days, Patton said she didn’t know whether there’s a difference between then and now—even though she graduated only a year before deVaron. "It’s hard to remember back to the 70s of what the climate was like on campus," she told me. "I couldn’t compare it because I just couldn’t remember it."

For many of those who do remember their undergraduate days, Patton’s comments represented a step backward. In her interview on CNN, Patton said, "It makes me wonder why do you not just get up and leave. Or why do you not, as a woman, tell a man who is making advances that you’re not comfortable with stop, leave?" Patton advocates for women making smarter decisions, taking more responsibility for their own safety, and recognizing that they are empowered to do so—all valid points that most people would support. But critics say her focus on individual empowerment detracts from the main issue at hand.

Ann Daniels, an alumna from the class of '78 who also penned the letter, finds this "apparently supportive terminology of empowerment and responsibility to blame women once again" regressive.* That’s where things are going backwards," she said. "There’s a line between encouraging responsibility and blaming the victim, and this crosses it. And this crosses it right back to where we were when the first question was always, 'What was she wearing?'" Another class-of-'78 alumnus and letter writer, David Abromowitz, said such "corrosive assumptions" are impeding justice from being done on campus.* "We thought we had made a lot of progress, and yet maybe we haven’t," he said.

Many alumni are also pushing pack against Patton’s use of her self-styled label, "Princeton Mom," which is also her username on Twitter. "We feel she appropriated the name to make statements that did not represent what many people at Princeton feel," said Julie List, 58, another alumna and co-author of the letter. Patton should have capitalized on her fame constructively, she said, using it to facilitate improved relationships between young men and women. Just this week, Mark Nelson, an alumnus from the class of '77, started a crowdfunding campaign titled "Not The Princeton Mom," which has already raised close to $7,000 for Princeton’s sexual harassment and assault advising center, SHARE.

"Susan has been my friend since freshman week 1973, and she’s still my friend," Nelson said in an emailed response. "But if we all remain silent, she speaks for us by default. It was time to respond, and I’m glad we found a meaningful way to do it."

Patton explained that the "Princeton Mom" label describes the two things that she is "immensely proud of": her Princeton affiliation and her children, both of whom are recent Princeton graduates. "I’m entitled to any Twitter handle that I choose ... I thought it was light hearted, I thought it was fun. I could just have easily have called it Manhattan Baker or Bronx Artist."

This latest tension within Princeton’s alumni ranks also illuminates a larger question that’s being debated across the country: how to address campus rape.

Patton believes all sides share the same goal: to keep everyone safe and encourage students to act responsibly. "There are many paths towards keeping everybody safe and the path that I’m advocating is personal responsibility," she said.

Others disagree, saying the focus on personal responsibility is too narrow. "We are not, in fact, solely responsible for our own happiness," List said. "We need to look for a structural intervention. Not a one-on-one intervention as Ms. Patton recommends. She says it’s empowering girls to be responsible for their own safety, their own success, their own happiness. I don’t agree with that." List would rather see a systemic solution to a systemic problem, one that addresses the issues’ many complexities; these challenges range from policies that sometimes discourage students from reporting incidents to a lack of consensus as to who’s responsible for combating the epidemic. Some advocates have suggested that the DOE clarify its definition of sexual misconduct; that universities form partnerships with local law enforcement agencies; and that the schools, in determining guilt, use a standard of evidence that protects the rights of both the victim and the accused. These are among of the practices recommended in a 2014 report by a White House task force on sexual assault.

Patton denies the criticism that she is blaming victims, insisting that the class of '78 is taking her comments out of context. "They misinterpreted my views [with] this inflammatory misrepresentation because it made for a provocative headline and it drew attention to their cause," she said, emphasizing that she has received numerous messages thanking her for airing her comments and encouraging her to stand her ground. It’s important for her to speak these opinions, Patton said, because her position "is one that many people agree with but are unwilling to speak publicly for fear of being attacked by the left."

DeVaron, too, received a wealth of positive feedback after going public with her experience. Alumni similarly thanked her via Facebook and emails, and she estimated that one in five women who reached out "said something like the same thing happened to me, or worse happened to me." This number corresponds to the Department of Justice’s 2006 statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted in college. "It’s real. It’s happening. And I find it so odd that not more people have spoken up about it," deVaron added. Although the campus sexual-assault epidemic has gotten a lot of publicity as of late, only 20 percent of campus rape and sexual assault victims report it to the police, according to a report released by the justice department last December.

Soon after the letter was published in February, deVaron said, a fellow alumna 1982 contacted her, writing, ‘Thank you. I too was raped at Princeton. I was never able to talk about it. I’ve never been able to talk about it.’ "

Of course, Patton’s comments are also causing a stir among students, many of whom cast them as misinformed or, at least, disagreeable. But there are students, too, who found resonance in her comments.

Coy Ozias, 18, a freshman from Virginia suggested that Patton in her CNN interview was referring to situations in which a woman gets tipsy, has sex with a man she shouldn’t have, and wakes up regretting her decision—not date rape. He also worries about the heavy burden men have to shoulder in determining whether a person is too drunk to agree to sex, and feared the consequences of false accusations. "I completely support doing everything possible to cut down rape cases, but it’s almost gone too far, actually starting to persecute the men. And I think that was a lot of what Susan Patton was saying," Ozias said.

For other students, Patton’s comments amount to an opportunity for discussion—and perhaps even a blessing in disguise. "It gives people something direct to push back against," said Cameron Langford, 22, a senior from North Carolina. "It encourages people to come out of the shadows and say, we don’t agree with these views."

The February letter has, naturally, sparked continued debate on campus. Unfortunately, much discussion has centered on the merits of Patton’s claims—not on ways in which students, faculty, administrators, and community members can get together and and proactively combat the problem with lasting solutions.

DeVaron thinks that Princeton can, and should, be doing a lot more. The university, she said, should bring together a cross-section of respected stakeholders to evaluate what it can do to reduce the prevalence of rape on campus. "Wouldn’t it be great for Princeton to host a conference on how to change the culture of violence against women, and to change the culture that still happens on Prospect Street?" deVaron asked, referring to the row of houses home to Princeton’s eating clubs. "If you think of universities as incubators of positive change, why can’t Princeton be on the cutting edge of social change with regards to violence against women? It is in plasma physics, so why not this?"

* A previous version of this article stated that Ann Daniels and David Abromowitz are alumni from the class of 1977. We regret the error.