Notre Dame, Manti Te'o and Institutional Rape Tolerance

Steubenville and what is going on at Notre Dame show us exactly what "widespread lack of consequences for sexual assault" means and will continue to mean for children going to colleges and universities in the United States.
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Notre Dame's Manti Te'o (5) reacts after Notre Dame defeated Michigan, 13-6, in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Notre Dame's Manti Te'o (5) reacts after Notre Dame defeated Michigan, 13-6, in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Notre Dame responded with alacrity this week to a Deadspin report that the story about football player Manti Te'o's girlfriend was a hoax. There appear to be no "institutional barriers" to investigating what's been going on in this strange tale of virtual love and loss. Juxtapose the school's behavior during the course of this episode with their treatment of two living girls who made charges of sexual assault against Notre Dame football players and you have the most absurd and dangerous example of what a madonna/whore fixation central to rape tolerance looks like. Steubenville and what is going on at Notre Dame show us exactly what "widespread lack of consequences for sexual assault" means and will continue to mean for children going to colleges and universities in the United States.

Manti Te'o's girlfriend was the quintessential "good" girl, so perfect as to be non-existent. She was untouched, innocent of any shame related to actual sex (they'd never even met), suffering (car crash, leukemia, chemo), sacrificial (she died) and inspirational. Te'o himself explained that her death "inspired him to play better as he helped the Fighting Irish get to the BCS National Championship." Manti appears to have been the very unfortunate target of a strange hoax. At any rate, an NFL player offered to take him to a strip club to make him feel better. How to better wash away the embarrassing fiction of a dead woman than through the objectification and debasement of some real ones. However, this was the kind of girl Notre Dame's football program could really understand and defend. The death of this abstracted woman seems to have garnered more sympathy from the school community (one of the school's athletic directors cried over this episode) than the two real, suffering girls who accused team members of sexual assault.

One of the two girls, Lizzy Seeberg, whom Salon's Irin Carmon wrote about as "Notre Dame's Real Dead Woman," was a student at neighboring St. Mary's College. According to an extensive piece written by Melinda Henneberger in the National Catholic Reporter, the school police had still not interviewed the accused student "when she committed suicide 10 days later -- and wouldn't for another five days... When the local prosecutor declined to bring charges, as expected in a case without a living victim, his press release made the allegations sound so tame: "specifically, the touching of her breasts." In the days immediately following her reporting the assault she received threatening messages, such as ""Don't do anything you would regret," and "Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea." Before she died, Seeberg explained to a friend, "You don't understand, I'm a really good girl." The second woman, who reported a rape, did understand and refuses to press charges.

She is part of a rule, not an exception. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 95 percent of assaults on campus aren't even reported because of perceived "institutional barriers." What does an "institutional barrier" look like? Notre Dame. The whole place is an institutional barrier as far as I can tell.

Last Fall, the Guardian explained that American "college women have a 28 percent chance of experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault -- four times the average risk. Sexual violence also directly affects men, as 3% to 4% of college men - over 6 million American men - report experiencing rape. Where the American rape rate fell 60 percent in 20 years, the college rate remains the same." College men also experience rape, most frequently at the hands of other men, but not near the rates that women do. Women who go to college are far more likely than others in the same age group to be assaulted. They just aren't reporting crimes because they are scared to and have no faith that they will be believed. And, when they do, there seems to be a fairly evident pattern of schools not being interested. There is no measure of underreporting among male victims available.

As the American Association of University Women puts it, "institutional barriers" include: "administrators who respond to students with disbelief or other inappropriate behavior and campus judiciary processes that are difficult to understand and follow. Many students who were discouraged because of these barriers transferred or withdrew from their schools, while their alleged attackers were almost uniformly unpunished."

Schools are legally obliged to acknowledge, process and report crimes on campus because of a young woman named Jeanne Clery who was raped, tortured and killed in her dorm room in 1986. Because of her attack and death, her parents mounted an advocacy campaign that resulted the Jeanne Cleary Act.

Notre Dame is by no means the only school that apparently needs reminding. "Institutional barriers" don't just refer to accurate reporting or a willingness to believe victims when they report crimes. They include an unwillingness to squarely confront sexual assault before it happens. Otherwise how do you explain why incidents like these keep occurring?
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is charged by an administrator, three students and a former student with attempting to suppress reports of campus rapes. As reported in the Nation, representatives of the school said deplorable things to victims. For example, "Rape is like a football game, Annie. If you look back on the game, and you're the quarterback and you're in charge, is there anything that you would have done differently in that situation?"
  • In October of last year a young woman filed a lawsuit against Wesleyan University in which she described a fraternity commonly known on campus as the "rape factory."
  • At the University of Vermont, fraternity, suspended as a result, thought it was ok to send a survey to its members asking the question, Who Would You Rape? Here is a man named Jon explaining why he doesn't think this is a problem. He actually says, "boys will be boys." If some people are offended by this, "tough shit," because we have a First Amendment. I am going to go out on a limb here, however, and suggest that if you are a girl identified on this list, and you know that your chances of being raped on campus is 1 in 4, that it goes up if alcohol is involved, this list may seem like a realistic threat.
  • A poster, "Top Ten Ways to Get Away with Rape," was hung in the bathrooms at Miami University of Ohio last year. It issued directions such as "If your [sic] afraid the girl might identify you slit her throat."
  • Amherst College was rocked by a first person account of a rape published in the school paper, in which a young woman recounted her assault and the failure of the school to address it. Something they are now tackling.
  • University of Virginia recently was in the rapey news stream after a student, who left school as a result of post traumatic stress brought on by her assault, wrote a detailed story of her rape in order to help other students. She didn't even report the crime to the school when it happened, explaining, ""I think there's a real lack of education on what sexual assault is because, had I known the correct definition, I would have been able to tell myself that's what it was at the time."
  • At Indiana University freshman Margaux J.'s assailant, found responsible by the school in the case, was suspended for a summer semester.
  • Here's University of Wisconsin, Emory, Indiana University, University of Missouri, Boston University, and, not to be forgotten, America's proud college town "Rape Capital" - Missoula, Montana.

In many of these cases schools took "appropriate" actions, after the fact. It's because of these cases, and so many more, that the Center for Public Integrity released a study last year detailing the "widespread lack of consequences for sexual assault."

Another way of saying "institutional barriers" is to say "tolerance." Like the tolerance shown by these schools. Or the tolerance illustrated by the 50 kids who watched the Steubenville boys repeatedly rape a comatose girl all night and did nothing. Or the fact that it took a dogged blogger and Anonymous to reveal information about the case to bring it to the nation's attention. All of these people involved aren't mentally ill. Or sex-addicts. They didn't have their morality sucked out of them by social media. They aren't all mentally ill porn-addicted outliers. Boys who dub themselves "the rape crew" do it because they think it's funny and cool.

Rape happens because boys and girls grow up in communities -- religious, school, family -- that only play lip service to the idea that girls' bodies are their own, that their sexuality is fully human and unshameful, and that their consent is important. And while people and institutions may all say, "Rape is a crime!" they are, by their attitudes and practices, clearly tolerant of it. We are only now beginning to be aware of how not just girls, but young boys have been suffering in silence for decades as a result of the exact same institutional barriers: Penn State, the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, prestigious schools. These rapes of children are the most profound illustration of what societal tolerance for rape looks like. Rapists don't just count on this. They thrive on it. While I am happy we are starting to confront the reality of widespread sexualized violence against women, I am sad that it has taken news of widespread abuse of innocent boys to make people pay attention.

But, back to Steubenville. The boys in Steubenville, and those at Notre Dame and all these other schools, do what they do because they understand a deep social sanctioning of their actions. Considering Notre Dame and other similar stories on college campuses, the Steubenville boys acted rationally in their risk assessment that they would not be punished or held accountable for their actions. And, given the stories above, it was a reasonable assessment.

While individuals have to take realistic steps to ensure their safety like, for example, using Circle of Six to prevent and raise awareness of sexualized violence, it's not enough. It won' be until the "institutional barriers" that exist provide protections not for rapists, but for their victims.