The Need for More to Combat Campus Rape
By Alison Kahler
With the arrival of summer, colleges across the United States stood largely empty of students. Yet even as undergraduates were enjoying their summer break, campus sexual assault continued to be a hot-button issue. Brought to national attention recently through the efforts of activists and legislative initiatives, this topic has become increasingly complex as colleges and the country at large react to the phenomenon.
From the moment that Rolling Stone magazine’s high-profile article on rape at the University of Virginia (retracted in April 2015) was published in December 2014, countless pieces questioned the validity of its claims. When it came to light that the main narrative focusing on a student known as Jackie had been fabricated, this revelation provided ammunition for those who already doubted and minimized the accounts of survivors of campus rape.* Meanwhile, UVA’s president Teresa A. Sullivan released a statement condemning the magazine while insisting that the university was a safe and supportive community—despite the preponderance of stories to the contrary. Rolling Stone, for its part, commissioned an investigation and admitted its errors. However, it simultaneously implied that it was either Jackie’s fault for being dishonest and somehow forcing them to abandon their journalistic rigor and ethics, or UVA’s for introducing Jackie to them in the first place. The focus turned from examining the problem of sexual assault on college campuses to finding someone to blame for mistakes in the article. In many ways, an article that was meant to legitimize anti-rape activism ultimately had the opposite effect.
Meanwhile, progress on college campuses to address sexual assault has tended to be slow and cosmetic, and student voices have often been disregarded.
Back in February 2015, the University of California, Berkeley—which considers itself a leader in the fight against campus rape—held a National Conference on Campus Sexual Assault & Violence. Students protested the event, incensed that survivors and allies had not been consulted. The conference appears to have catered more to the wishes of university staff and faculty without necessarily increasing student safety. (In early June, Michigan held its own state-wide university summit, the aftermath of which remains to be seen.)
Columbia University’s new Sexual Respect initiative, too, is a largely symbolic gesture with questionable actual power. This program ostensibly attempts to transform student culture, but administrators did not consult student activists in the planning stages. Sexual Respect describes itself as follows:
“As one part of this initiative, all Columbia students are taking part in new, required programming that explores the relationship between sexual respect and community membership. Both in the nation and on our own campus, this issue has been a focal point and, for many, a deeply personal part of their experience.”
The words “rape” and “assault” do not appear, and the only mention of “violence” was in a link to the side of the page. The phrase “sexual respect” does little to describe what it actually means to respect a sexual partner. Indeed, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger’s refusal to shake the hand of protester Emma Sulkowicz as she graduated in May casts doubt on the university’s claim that it takes student safety seriously (Sulkowicz made national headlines for carrying a mattress around campus to protest her alleged rape in her dorm room in 2012). As a result, many undergraduates, as well as graduate students such as myself, are skeptical of the university’s intentions.
For its part, the Sexual Respect program constituted a one-time ungraded homework assignment, with a choice of such options as movie screenings, TedX Talks, or even art projects—a minor nuisance to apathetic students, condescending to those who are better informed, and unlikely to change the attitudes of students most in need of education on the subject. The program accomplished little more than providing a superficial cover so that when—not if—a sexual assault happens again, administrators can claim that they did everything possible and that the university is not at fault.
Student activist group No Red Tape may have said it best in an open letter to students admitted for the fall 2015 semester (emphasis in the original):
“Instead of working with students to address these urgent concerns, Columbia has treated this as a public relations crisis. President Bollinger, Executive Vice President Suzanne Goldberg, and other administrators continue to make symbolic but meaningless changes and prioritize their image over the wellbeing of students. This week, Columbia launched a new education program to prevent gender-based violence on campus. This program is poorly designed and demonstrates a willful neglect of empirical evidence and student feedback. It will not prevent sexual or dating violence.”
These and other recent conferences and programming initiatives are more about protecting the reputations of the institutions than keeping students safe. Dismantling rape culture must be the priority, and this cannot be accomplished without first understanding what rape culture looks like and how the institution is complicit. Student voices are crucial to this process, but, as in the cases described above, they are ignored all too often by administrators.
New Ways to Blame the Victim
Rape culture is deeply embedded in the United States. Even now, “Responsibility falls on the victims to avoid assault, not the perpetrators,” as Buzzfeed writer Mary Ann Georgantopoulos says of a misguided Canadian study on rape prevention.
Even campus climate surveys meant to help fight rape culture often fall short of placing responsibility for rape on the rapists. This past spring, many schools sent out these surveys recommended by the federal government. Columbia University once again serves as a case study. Its own campus climate survey included a series of sometimes uncomfortable, and potentially provocative, questions on the minutiae of students’ experiences of sexual assault, asking them to painfully detail their own traumatic experiences. Not once were any of the respondents asked whether they had perpetrated such violence.
This line of questioning, coupled with the fact that the survey was sent out after the deadline for students to complete their Sexual Respect assignments, raises questions about whether it truly understands how rape culture works. By focusing only on the consequences of rape culture but not analyzing its mechanisms, it is unclear whether universities take the problem any more seriously than those who actively deny its existence. And without this understanding, even the most well-intentioned programming is likely to miss the mark.
Meanwhile, voices raised in opposition to current efforts have somewhat changed in tenor. Consider Valerie Bauerlain’s lament in The Wall Street Journal that “In Campus Rape Tribunals, Some Men See Injustice.” The article depicts a lawsuit alleging that the civil rights of accused rapists are being violated by revised campus justice processes. Significantly, the lawsuit does not, as reported, appear to allege that the men did not commit the crimes.
Instead, this case exemplifies a new paradigm. Unable to deny that rape on campus is a real problem, rape apologists have fabricated a new villain: the people trying to end campus rape. Survivors and allies, apparently, are the ones introducing injustice onto campuses. Never mind the fact that it is survivors, not the accused, who have been demanding fair and just sexual assault hearings. Once again, rape apologists are finding new ways to blame the victims.
It appears that the old rape culture is alive and well, albeit partially disguised by new rhetoric.
Since the Rolling Stone article, lawmakers have also proposed solutions, with varying degrees of usefulness.
In February, legislators across many states proposed bills allowing guns on college campuses, with the stated intent of helping potential victims protect themselves. However, the dynamics of rape generally do not involve a stranger, but rather an acquaintance or friend, and thus it is unlikely that someone being assaulted would have access to a gun at that moment. Even if they did, the typical reaction to an assault is to freeze, not fight, meaning that a victim can in no reasonable way be expected to have the capacity to fire a gun. Moreover, adding guns into the mix is one more way to place the burden of rape prevention on the victims, and not firing a gun for whatever reason could very well become another reason rape apologists use to blame people who are assaulted.
Opponents of the rule also worry that keeping firearms around college students would pose a risk in and of itself. It is worth noting that there is a strong correlation between the presence of guns and violence against women. Thus, legislation that would allow guns on campuses would not only fail to protect students, it would actually increase the dangers they face.
Still, other legislation may prove to be helpful. Beginning in California, several states have introduced or passed legislation defining consent as active, ongoing, and enthusiastic. Adopting a “yes means yes” standard at the state level will increase existing federal pressures on universities, forcing them to work to dismantle rape culture or risk being deemed noncompliant. Because colleges do not appear to have made much headway in changing overall attitudes toward consent, perhaps taking a more top-down approach will provide a galvanizing push toward progress. Government pressure may ultimately force colleges to finally listen to the stated needs of their students.
What is clear is that more needs to be done to fight campus rape. It is not enough to roll out large initiatives; schools must also do the hard work of effectively targeting systemic rape culture. The summer is the perfect time for universities to take a look at themselves and strengthen their efforts to protect students from assault. As a result, perhaps students will enjoy safer campuses in the future.
*Last November 2016, after a two-week trial, a federal jury ordered Rolling Stone magazine and one of its writers to pay $3 million in damages to the University of Virginia administrator.