Our 'Rape Problem' Can't Be Solved By Colleges

A University of Virginia student looks over postings on the door of Peabody Hall related to the Phi Kappa Psi gang rape alleg
A University of Virginia student looks over postings on the door of Peabody Hall related to the Phi Kappa Psi gang rape allegations at the school in Charlottesville, Va., Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. The university has suspended activities at all campus fraternal organizations amid an investigation into a published report in which a student described being sexually assaulted by seven men in 2012 at the Phi Kappa Psi house. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Last week, Rolling Stone published an explosive story about a gang rape at a UVA fraternity. The article, "A Rape on Campus", written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, is graphic and jarring and, for people not immersed in the topic, shocking. Erdely describes, in detail, a violent rape allegedly perpetrated during a frat party, by more than seven men, one of whom referred to the woman, Jackie, as "it." As horrible as the rape itself is to read about, the aftermath was equally or actually more enraging. She and her friends knew she would be publicly shamed if she came forward and the school's carelessness and willful denial verged on the criminal.

Erdely masterfully captured how the culture at UVA could lend itself to the circumstances of this rape and others. After publication, other survivors of rapes at UVA came forward and filled the article's comments sections. There is, however, nothing new about rape at UVA, or gang-rapes on campuses, or the ways in which people in fraternities (small "f") are prone to engage in rape.

Shamefully, only in the glare of public outrage, has school acknowledged what's been going on for decades and has committed to change. UVA President Teresa Sullivan explained earlier this week that Jackie's rape, and sexual assaults on college campuses, "points to an entrenched cultural problem in student life." That assessment, while true, is critically insufficient and UVA will not solve the "rape problem" on its own.

Particularizing "rape on campus" in the search for real and lasting prevention and solutions will not solve the problem of rape on campus.  The culture that enables rape is the broader one of male dominance, violence and exploitation.

The Rolling Stone article came fast on the heels of allegations made against revered Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi (who was arrested yesterday) and critical media coverage of decades old allegations of rape against American icon Bill Cosby (whose accusers now number 19). At the same time, lost in the awful news shuffle of the past two weeks, was a detailed story about the sexual abuse of girls, competing in USA Swimming, by their coaches and another about three high school girls in Oklahoma bullied at school after reporting their rapes.  Even though the Internet has heightened public awareness, many people simply refuse to believe that one in five women in the United States experience sexual assault. For men that number is one in 77, although I suspect it is higher. But, these statistics are, if anything, low.

Rape, and unconscionably high institutional tolerance for rape, is a problem on campuses. There are ways that schools can reduce its occurrence, but sexual assault is everywhere.  It's important not to focus on UVA when talking about UVA. Rape is a military problem. A Catholic Church problem. A celebrity problem. A respected media personalities problem. A Rotherdam problem. An early marriage problem. A gang problem. An elder care problem. A problem in mental institutions. A prison problem. A problem in the sciences. A problem in the Occupy movement. In police departments. In football. In swimming. On borders. In war. And, perhaps most frightening of all for many people a family problem. I say this because it's in families where investments in, and the effects of, gender binaries and their hierarchical outcomes, are intimate and personal. Where people become complicit as individuals, for what is often referred to as "unpleasantness."  To understand how rape works as an oppressive, regulatory force in culture, it's necessary to understand how gender stereotypes and binaries work as oppressive and regulatory principles.

What is almost impossible for some people to contemplate is that there are human cultures where rape is virtually unknown. Societies where women don't calibrate themselves, for their entire lives, to its threat.  More than 40 years ago, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted an extensive cross-cultural study of rape involving more than 150 human societies around the word. She found that 47% of societies she studied had no rape, 36% had some incidence of rape, and 17%, of which we are one, were definitively rape prone.

What marked cultures where rape was missing were that women had authority in the community that was not related to reproduction -- they were political or religious leaders and made valued economic contributions to society; feminine qualities were valued by communities; the relationships between men and women was not defined as hierarchical; boys were taught to respect girls and women (something altogether different from learning to protect them); these societies were stable and peaceful, making reliance on brute male physical dominance less likely; divinities were not uniquely male; and, lastly, these cultures had great respect for their environments and did not destructively exploit them.

On the other hand, rape-prone societies like ours are those which tolerate, encourage and often glorify violence as a marker of masculinity starting in early childhood. Boys learn that to be men meant being aggressive, competitive and dominant; work and access to authority are more rigidly sex segregated; women have minimal, if any authoritative roles in public or religious life or sports; femininity and feminine qualities are considered inferior and routinely mocked; "women's work" is undervalued and considered demeaning to men; and, women's roles were largely restricted to reproductive ones, their reproduction more likely to be regulated by men.

Sound familiar?

On campuses, where women students succeed academically (but continue to be marginalized by male dominant teaching hierarchies) it's easier to ignore the evident connections between gender, power and abuse in heated and frankly, distracting, debates about alcohol abuse. Alcohol, however, is a weapon used strategically, not a cause, and conversations that focus on it tend to ignore power differentials and how schools themselves enable serial predator. Alcohol doesn't explain how it is that rape is something many boys and men are very confident bragging about, especially to other boys and men. It doesn't explain why they think it's ok to issue instructions about "luring rapebait" or to secretly mark the hands of girls they've targeted for assault.  What Erdely described is a textbook example of how rape is used by the powerful to abuse and dehumanize the less powerful and, often in the case of gang-rape, to form fraternal bonds. A study published by John Foubert, Jerry Tatum and J.T. Newberry in 2007 was one of four that found that frat members are more than three times as likely to perpetrate rape. For people concerned about false rape accusations, the best advice they could give their sons is to avoid frats, not girls.

Sanday turned her critical lens to American fraternities and published her findings and conclusions in a book, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus, updated and reissued in 2007. She interviewed fraternity members and detailed specific rapes and the ways in which schools responded. In her painstakingly created portrait of daily frat life, she discusses pornography, initiations, hazing, and the role of bonding rituals, often built around degrading women. She also talks about efforts to create rape-free fraternity cultures.  Sanday's thesis is one among many theories of rape. However, it has the advantage of spanning decades, of being derived from details observations across cultures and of having highly relevant applicability to today's stories. Her book about should be required reading for anyone even remotely interested in understanding the problem at UVA and elsewhere.

The UVA story has been catalytic, as have other similar related events elsewhere. Students are protesting, there have been public calls to shut down the Greek system on UVA's campus and people previously confounded by the expression "rape culture" are now reconsidering what it means.

Schools, it is evident, should not be adjudicating felony crimes.  College sexual assault dynamics are a microcosm of larger ones, however. Moving college rape cases to the legal system is hardly a successful solution in a country where police routinely downgrade complaints and harass survivors, where hundreds of thousands of rape kits are left unprocessed, and where courtroom biases are so thick you could slice them with a knife.

Rape is a gendered act of dominance, and popularly understood that way. It may be a sex crime, but it's an abuse of power. Rapists easily intuit this and rely on status quo hierarchies to act with impunity. They are not strangers. They are not monsters. They are teachers who assault students, priests who assault alter boys, celebrities who assault fans, coaches who assault athletes, high ranking military officers who assault their soldiers, fathers who assault children, senior frat boys who assault freshman girls. They count on good people looking away and deferring to their privileged place.

Respect for female authority and seeing women as more than useful for their sexual and reproductive value, it is safe to say, are not central values in fraternities. But, this is also fundamentally true in so many of our major institutions, where women remain, uniformly either less than 17% of those with authority or completely cut out of power. Globally women still make up on average 20 percent of legislatures. The U.S. ranks 79th in the world for female representation.  Women make up fewer than 15 percent of corporate board membership; religious hierarchies virtually all exclude women. These are not random facts disconnected from the issue of rape and the role its definition plays in how rights are understood and distributed.

It is a massive risk, and an act of bravery, to come forward and accuse a person, or several people as in Jackie's case, of rape. It usually involves accusing a person with authority or higher social status. Awareness of this fact is very evident at UVA and in Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi accusations. Importantly, higher status translates into credibility, a perk of status that rapists also exploit.

For anyone really interested in understanding how seven perfectly average boys could so viciously rape a female classmate at one of the nation's most elite schools, how they could hold her down, violate her, call her "it," and get away with it until now, I'd suggest a good place to start to put what is happening at UVA in context of the broader culture that we all live in and contribute to. It's one still largely governed by the idea that complementary roles for men and women means separate but equal, which is demonstrably untrue when it comes to authority and status, and almost always conservatively protects the hierarchies that lend themselves to sexual abuse.

Fraternities on campus are powerful and impart status to boys, who then use it in traditionally acceptable ways. They can and do change. As disturbing as it is, we can and do challenge and create new norms.  It is a good first stop to look at closely-held, family-friendly ideas about what makes "real" boys and girls and think about how they contribute to double standards in early childhood.  The more stereotypes, the more binary, the more hierarchical and authoritarian, the higher the likelihood that rape will happen and be tolerated, as it has been at schools across the country. UVA's rape problem is everyone's rape problem.