Trigger warning for sexual assault and strong language. Portions of this post originally appeared in Salon.
Between 20-25% of women and 3% of men will experience an attempted or completed sexual assault in college. A girl has roughly the same chance of being sexually assaulted during college, one in four/five, as she does of getting the flu during an average year.
Given these statistics, virtually any college town could be called a college rape capital. Everyone knows that, on campuses especially, alcohol is often a factor. Eighty percent of cases reported (which is only 5% of the total estimated number) involve alcohol. What they are less likely to know is how frequently alcohol is used by rapists; that despite a reduction of rape nationally, sexual assault rates on campuses have not changed in 50 years; and that the Center for Public Integrity has documented widespread victim-blaming and repeated institutional failures. All of this is true 27 years after a family whose daughter was raped and murdered in her college dorm room in 1986 founded the Clery Center for Security On Campus.
So, this is the environment in which the Daiquiri Factory, a bar in Spokane, Washington (a city with at least 10 colleges and universities) recently decided to name a drink "Grape Date Kool Aid." Because punny allusions to a people being sexually violated are so witty. Last weekend, more than 100 people gathered to protest the name and ask that rape be treated seriously. What the hell is wrong with feminists? Can't we give it a rest? Instead of changing the name of the drink, the bar announced, in so much lie-back-and-enjoy-it logic: "We just think everyone simply needs a little daiquiri therapy."
The thing about the bar, however, is that it probably understands its prospective customers all too well. A whole lot of teenagers arrive at college thinking that dehumanizing women and making light of sexual assault is a source of status and entertainment. Take, for example, the young man who wrote this email at William and Mary a few weeks ago:
There's beer to be drunk, porn to view, and sluts to fuck. Let me reiterate that last point: sluts are everywhere... That vagina needs you. Never mind the extremities that surround it, the 99% of horrendously illogical bullshit that makes up the modern woman, consider only the 1%, the snatch." He didn't stop there because apparently that wasn't clear enough. "See some riding boots? Some uggs? A hideous pair of rain boots without a cloud in sight? Now, raise your gaze from the footwear up, allow your eyes to wander from the feet up the long and slender legs of the lesser sex until finally you arrive at God's greatest gift: the box.
This puerile drivel was titled "Life, love and pussy." After this email, framed as a "Save the Sluts" community service project, was leaked, the fraternity that he belonged to issued an apology and outlined disciplinary actions. The administration issued statements and this past week held a town hall meeting, attended by an estimated 700 students, to discuss rape culture.
William and Mary is not unique in any way. While the student there wrote about women as manipulatable, inert sex toys, stripped of voices and autonomy, he did not explicitly mention rape as many of these students, in examples spanning the past few years, did:
- A group of male students at Georgia Tech received an email signed "In luring rapebait" instructing them to, among other things, grab women "on the hips with your 2 hands and then let them grind against your dick."
Nor is this limited to the United States:
These are just examples of rape as entertainment, and not of actual rapes and their botched investigations or damaging and tragic effects. Occidental, Emerson, the University of North Carolina, University of Connecticut, Yale, Dartmouth, (and Swarthmore itself) are all currently involved in very public Title IX complaints for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases, mishandling that creates environments of institutional tolerance for rape and hostility against victims. Many more are grappling with how to avoid the same and manage an environment where 18-year-olds arrive with ideas that are unpalatable to a pluralistic and civil society.
Boys arrive at schools thinking that they can discuss women's "rape potential" with impunity for a reason. As a matter of fact, they feel that rape banter and worse, like posting rape videos online, are ways to gain status. The notion that rape is a serious crime for which they can be held responsible seems not to have entered their heads.
In the United Kingdom, the toxic and sexist expression that permeates schools is euphemistically called "lad culture." What do we call ours? I'd suggest "Boy Crisis," but that's already taken and people are super busy trying to make sure that we create elementary schools that "let boys be boys" so that our pronounced gender gap in self-regulation is maintained instead of eliminated. But, whatever, moving right along.
What will it take for our mainstream culture to teach children that it is unacceptable to talk about and treat other human beings in these ways? There are ways for boys to express their masculinity, create fraternal bonds and explore their sexuality that do not turn girls and women into "boxes," "gullets," "snatches," "pussies," "asses," and "sluts." I know I didn't have to write those words. If they feel assaultive, that's because they are assaultive. This is very obviously hostile and demeaning to women because they are women.
The amazing thing is how much resistance there is to challenging these behaviors on the basis of their misogyny. Neither of the two William and Mary statements, for example, used the words sexism or misogyny, instead opting for "derogatory," "hostile" and "unacceptable," generalized words that are part of our unwillingness to confront the problem at hand. When boys having a "bit of fun" are confronted with objections they and many adults around them seem genuinely shocked and feel as though their "rights" are being challenged. It's too rich.
A few months ago at Swarthmore College, a fraternity pledge posted a photograph on Instagram of his offer to join a fraternity. The picture was of a booklet cover featuring a mosaic of hundreds of naked or nearly naked women. The fraternity had used this format for several years, but this year a group of students led by senior Marian Firke protested the use of the photography. Swarthmore's dean of students agreed with protesters and took steps to address their concerns. Firke was assailed online by men who, after some throwaway "feminist cunt" ramblings, described her as a "Stupid girl who stick[s] [her] opinions where they do not belong," suggested that "somebody needs to send their pledges over to fuck the bitch" and said that she "deserved to be face raped so hard that she will be incapable of spewing any more of this bullshit." This is an abuse of speech that is discriminatory and meant to silence. It does ZERO to support the principles that free speech is meant to protect and enhance and, indeed, definitively degrades them.
As with the William and Mary email, no one at the Swarthmore fraternity advocated or suggested rape. But anyone who thinks that emails and photographs like these do not increase tolerance for rape, create a hostile educational environment for girls and women on campuses and negatively impact their ability to move freely and attend to their studies is deluding themselves. Additionally, not only do these words and media normalize sexism and violence against women, but they endanger boys and men by perpetuating myths that only girls and women can be sexual assault victims.
This could not be simpler: If we want campuses to be safe places for everyone, and if we want male students not to become "accidental rapists," we have to teach little boys and girls that women, as a class, are worthy of respect and have rights, something that is not happening now. At the very least, as a first step, if we have make treating rape like a joke socially unacceptable.
Girls may no longer be scrawling the names of serial rapists on the walls of bathroom stalls in school libraries, but yet, here we are, living with unsafe college campuses and a culture where young men -- and no small number of women -- think rape is funny. There are many initiatives to change campus culture. Some are based on consent, others on sex ed and others on forcing schools to fulfill their obligations to all students equally. There is a thriving Know Your IX national movement and President Obama just announced the creation of a task force to help universities develop best practices for dealing with sexual assault on college campuses. It is as clear as mid-summer Arctic daylight that our "teachable moments" have to happen way before people get to college.