Destroying a Rape Culture

Two weeks ago, over 50,000 activists signed a petition demanding that Dartmouth College take action to curb a growing sexual assault crisis that gained national attention last year when a student was raped after being mentioned by name in a "rape guide" that was posted online by students at the college.

Tragic events like this are forcing more and more people, college students among them, to acknowledge the realities of rape culture. No, rape culture isn't a feminist narrative used to make campuses "treacherous places for falsely accused men" (you can thank U.S. News and World Report for that description). Nor is it a term used to "aggressively paint men as dangerous and as the root of evil" as the University of Wisconsin - Madison's student newspaper put it. Rape culture is a culture in which we allow responsibility for sexual violence to be shifted from the rapist to the victim. Rape culture is a culture in which our first reaction upon learning about an alleged assault is to doubt victims, to ask what they were wearing, or what they were drinking. Rape culture is a culture in which myths and misconceptions about rape are allowed to be taught as truth.

Fortunately, an increasing number of people are becoming comfortable with talking about and addressing head on the issue of rape and sexual assault. More and more blogs, traditional news outlets, and writers are taking the time to engage in honest and meaningful dialogue about rape culture -- to a certain extent.

For many people, rape culture and the prevalence of sexual violence are things that we're comfortable condemning so long as we're able to speak using euphemisms and treat them as problems that exist in far-away lands. It's much easier for people to criticize or confront rape culture when doing so involves talking about gang rape in New Delhi or the practice of "corrective rape" in South Africa than it is when people are presented with the harrowing figures about rape and sexual assault in their own communities. The perfect example: college campuses.

The alleged sexual assault by Florida State University football player Jameis Winston briefly brought the issue of rape and sexual assault among college athletes to the national spotlight. One of the most disturbing details to come out of this long, nightmarish saga occurred when Patricia Carroll, the attorney for Winston's accuser, claimed that the detective first assigned to the case warned her that "Tallahassee was big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable."

The FSU case, despite the notoriety it received, is far from the only sexual assault incident involving a major university sports program -- there have been at least 16 documented instances of a college sports player being accused of rape or sexual assault in the past three years alone.

This culture of acceptance and desensitization to the stark realities of sexual violence is one that extends far beyond the football field or the athletic department. Even though stories of powerful sports programs run amok are the ones which dominate headlines and talk shows, those examples account for only a small fraction of rape and sexual assault incidents on college campuses. The experience of Jameis Winston's accuser -- an experience that included being doubted, called a liar, and made miserable -- is an experience that is all too familiar for so many college students who are victims of rape or sexual assault. What follows are some chilling statistics about sexual assaults on college campuses:

According to the National Institute of Justice, 19 percent of undergraduate women report having been the victims of attempted or complete sexual assaults during their time in college. As damningly high as this figure is, it likely represents an understatement since it takes into account all undergraduate women, some of whom have as many three or more years left in college before they graduate. The National Institute for Justice finds that 26.3 percent of senior women report having been victims of sexual violence.

In a culture where women are often shamed, pressured, and compelled to remain quiet about what's happened to them, it's likely that this figure is still an underestimate of the actual number of women (and men) who have been victims of sexual assault on a college campus. The National Institute for Justice explains that while underreporting is a phenomenon that affects the general population (only 40 percent of all attempted and completed rapes and sexual assaults are believed to be reported), a culture of shame, pressure, and stigmatization makes it so that as few as 5 percent of all college women who are assaulted end up reporting the crime.

It's clearer now than ever before that this problem is one which has reached epidemic proportions and demands our attention. Addressing it requires the active participation of students, faculty, and administrators. It demands honest and meaningful dialogue that re-frames the way we as a society (and as college students in particular) talk about rape and sexual assault. We need to shift the discussion away from the victim and his or her "responsibility" not to get raped and instead focus on the perpetrators and their responsibility to not rape or assault someone. Instead of blaming and shaming women who wear revealing clothing, we should be condemning and rebuking the men who are unable to take responsibility for their own sexual expression.

Currently, many colleges and universities focus (sometimes exclusively) on programs or campaigns that attempt to deal with the issue of rape and sexual assault through the mantra "no means no." This platitude, while often serves as the starting point in our discussions about sexual assault, all too often also serves as the ending point of those conversations. It's time for individuals as well as colleges and universities to re-teach what it means to have consent. Consent is active, continuous, and given freely. Consent requires sobriety. Consent can be withdrawn. Consent to one sexual act is not consent to all sexual acts. "No" doesn't mean "convince me."

"No means no" may have been a good start, but now it's time we embrace "yes means yes."

Even with these steps aimed at changing the way students think and talk about rape, it's clear that universities and their administrators need to do more. It's inexcusable that colleges and universities are willing to dedicate a tremendous amount of time, money, and resources to combatting drug use and underage drinking and at the same time, push meaningful action on this issue to the bottom of their priority lists. Here are just a few of the steps that colleges and universities need to take in order to help alleviate the growing crisis:

1) Establish anonymous reporting hotlines which allow students to report instances of sexual violence. While critics often cite the potential for false accusations, the rate of false reports for rape and sexual assault is only 2 to 8 percent; similar to the rate for other violent crimes.

2) Establish, fund, and promote psychological counseling centers that can provide treatment and counseling to victims of sexual violence. Research has shown that counseling services for sexual assault victims reduces panic attacks, reduces PTSD effects, and helps victims feel as though they're in control of their lives.

3) Require students to participate in sexual violence education programs similar to the alcohol education programs required by most colleges and universities. Public education programs about sexual assault have resulted in up to 10% in declines in sexual assault rates.

One of the most important elements is for these programs to be continuous, ongoing programs that are responsive to input from students and faculty. Rather than one-and-done programs, these programs need to function as year-long campaigns which foster dialogue and shift the focus from teaching women about how to dress, how to drink, and how to defend themselves and towards teaching men how not to rape, how not to sexually assault someone, and how not to commit acts of sexual violence.

It's time for ignorance to be replaced by anger. No longer can we allow our protest and our voices to be silenced. As we demand justice on behalf of every victim who's been called a liar, a whore, or a slut, we must make our voices louder and our demands more forceful. We must relentlessly challenge the individual actions and beliefs that foster a rape culture as well as tear down the institutions which support it. Rape culture is real. Now it's time we do something about it.