The Tables Turn on College Rape

UNITED STATES - JULY 30: Anna, a victim of a campus sexual assault who declined to provide her last name, becomes emotional d
UNITED STATES - JULY 30: Anna, a victim of a campus sexual assault who declined to provide her last name, becomes emotional during a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to introduce legislation that aims to curb sexual assaults at universities, July 30, 2014. Also appearing are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., left, Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Anna's mother Susan. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As our country moves forward with awareness and acknowledgment of the epidemic of rape on campus, someone's been left behind:  our college men.  While momentum is growing for a Senate bill which cracks down on sexual assault on campus, college men are grumbling about their plight.  One frat boy at Harvard lamented that he doesn't even know if he should serve women alcohol anymore!  While a Stanford guy griped, "Some men feel that too much responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been put on their shoulders."   Up till recently, things were neatly as they should be: college women shouldered all the burden of not being raped -- and blame if they were victims.  But now, as the school year gets underway, college guys suddenly have to worry about new concepts like consequences for their actions -- and that dreaded word, accountability.  This is so unfair!

No, this is not an excerpt from The Onion or a SNL skit. This is the on-campus reality.  As the default setting of 'victim blame' dissipates, we are finally beginning to grapple with an epidemic which impacts 1 in 5 women on campus.

The rape crisis on campus is not new, but our acceptance of it's existence sure is.  Exactly four years ago today, I wrote an article here, "Back to School, Back to Rape," highlighting a DOJ report with startling findings on the prevalence of college rape. The comments to my column were representative of the mood in our country at the time: that the rape statistics were likely alarmist and disputable, and even in the off-chance true, it was college women's fault for drinking alcohol and dressing provocatively (read: the victims deserved it).  This meme conveniently cast college men as helpless victims of their surging, ever-present hormones -- incapable of separating things like right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral.

That was George Will's argument when he penned an op-ed in June.  Will decried that the rape crisis being brought to light by the Obama administration was a made-up concoction in which college women were conveniently using the "coveted status" of rape victim to make college men -- who were, of course, helplessly fueled by a "sea of hormones and alcohol" -- look bad.   It was clear we were at a turning point when social media erupted.  Will's column was condemned by everyone (including US Senators) other than a few conservative allies, and he was summarily dropped by the St. Louis Post Dispatch.  

Credit does go to President Obama who, after countless Title IX complaints were filed by college students alleging that their schools did not provide a safe environment, addressed our nation in April and provided research data and steps forward.  For starters, the US Department of Education was empowered to investigate these complaints.  So far, 76 colleges are under investigation, and the list is growing. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has taken the lead on legislation to hold colleges accountable as well, which is gathering bi-partisan support in the Senate.

Back to college men.  As the concepts of accountability and consequences enter the fray, I have a few suggestions for the guys based on the 76 colleges under investigation.

1. If a woman is unconscious or incapacitated, don't have sex with her. Walk her home to safety or get help.

2. Don't put rape date drugs in other people drinks.

3. Try to imagine your female classmates as people, not prey. No, means no.

4. If you see a woman being sexually assaulted by a man or group of men, do not take photos or video footage. Intervene!

5. When you're drunk and feel the urge, try not to wander into your dorm-mate's room and hold her down. That's not hooking up. That's rape!

Sarcasm aside, I'm grateful that we're having the conversation, and that our college men are examining their behavior in the mix.  It's shocking to read articles describing college men questioning how to, and if they can, navigate alcohol and women, without it resulting in rape.

What's changed?  How did it get so off course?  The media is largely culpable.  According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, today's teens consume an average of 7 ½ hours of media a day -- songs, movies, television, video games, etc.  The prevalence of sexual violence in the media -- especially towards young women and girls -- has not only markedly increased, but also become trivialized.   Our media is feeding our boys and girls a steady diet of roles and scenes which are dehumanizing, violent and sexualized.  And sadly, it sells!

To combat this trend, parents need to be proactively involved well before our boys become college men.  Start a conversation, and have them consistently -- even when they give you the eye roll.  Our pop culture and sports are filled with innumerable teachable moments -- bad behavior and it's consequences.  And tell your son about the brave woman student at Columbia who is carrying her mattress around campus until her rapist gets expelled.  She's sending a message.  We know the rapist's name.  We know her name.  She someone's daughter, not objectified prey.