The Truth About The Way We Deal With Rape On Campus

When I began speaking about sexual assault to student groups on college campuses, the first thing I learned to do was kick out the grown-ups.

Technically — really, by any measure — I was one of them. I’m in my 40s, and although I have no children, I look like somebody’s mom: short, squat, and given to wearing capri pants, pearl studs, and orthopedic European shoes. But crucially, I wasn’t a mandated reporter. Unlike professors and school administrators, who are typically required by campus rules to report any assault allegations they get wind of, if a student disclosed a sexual assault to me, I didn’t have to tell anyone or initiate any proceedings. I could just offer my sympathy and outrage in a low-pressure way, as a woman, a public feminist, and a survivor of a long-ago campus rape.

I learned quickly that when you ask an open-ended question like, “So, what’s the deal with sexual violence on your campus?” in the presence of mandated reporters, you get a lot of closed-mouthed smiles and hugged knees and glances around the room to see if anyone’s actually going to talk. No one does. But when you ask the reporters to leave for a few minutes, you can barely keep up with the stories that pour forth.

***

In the year since I published my book Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do About It, there have been several high-profile positive developments in sexual violence awareness and prevention, especially on college campuses. In September, the Association of American Universities’ Campus Climate Survey, one of the first major efforts to assess rates and reporting of sexual assault at American colleges, was published. In February, Lady Gaga performed a song at the Oscars about the aftermath of an assault, surrounded by 50 survivors; as they exited the stage, Brie Larson, who won Best Actress for her portrayal of a sexual abuse survivor, stood and hugged each one of them. In June, there was national outrage over a judge’s sentencing of Stanford athlete Brock Turner to only six months in prison for a rape witnessed — and stopped — by two other men. The survivor of Turner’s assault wrote a candid, searing impact statement that went viral, and Vice President Joe Biden wrote back to her.

“You were failed,” he wrote, “by a culture on our college campuses where one in five women is sexually assaulted — year after year after year. A culture that promotes passivity. That encourages young men and women on campuses to simply turn a blind eye.”

Even if he didn’t use the exact phrase, a sitting vice president talked about rape culture. That’s new.
Illustrated by: Elliot Salazar.
Joe Biden seems to be a good egg these days, although the HBO drama Confirmation recently reminded us all of his starring role in the public excoriation of sexual harassment victim Anita Hill. Biden and President Obama have announced that they will not visit any campus that doesn’t take reports of sexual assault seriously. The vice president has even told reporters his preference would be to revoke federal funding to universities that don’t demonstrate a commitment to helping survivors and punishing perpetrators. That kind of leadership at the highest levels of government is a welcome development in the ongoing story of our campus rape crisis.

And still, Brock Turner only got six months. University of Colorado student Austin James Wilkerson — another young white man of the sort judges seem to find singularly difficult to punish — was sentenced only to two years with work release (followed by 20 years’ probation), for raping a drunk freshman girl he’d promised to look after.

18-year-old Massachusetts resident David Becker, who some say was nicknamed “David the Rapist” at the high school where he was a star athlete, was charged with two counts of rape for digitally penetrating two sleeping young women — acts he admitted to in court. Palmer District Court Judge Thomas Estes sentenced Becker to two years’ probation and would have allowed him to move to Ohio to attend college. (As it turns out, the University of Dayton rescinded Becker’s offer of admission.)

Baylor University in Texas saw its president resign and its longtime football coach be fired over mishandling of sexual assault and rape accusations. According to The Washington Post, “an outside investigation concluded that Baylor’s athletic department acted with indifference, if not outright hostility, toward female students who attempted to report rapes.” Attorneys representing six women who have sued the school for violations of Title IX (the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education) say some of their clients were warned they’d be punished for conduct code violations — and that their parents would be told about their drinking and sexual activity — if they pursued justice.

Baylor’s getting a lot of bad press just now, because these individuals got caught. But having visited half a dozen campuses in the past year, from tiny liberal arts colleges to major research universities, I have no doubt that if you asked the right people, you’d find similar stories at every residential institute of higher education in the country. The specifics might be different (not every college has as strict a conduct code as an overtly Christian school like Baylor), but the broad strokes are the same.

Here's how it goes: People get raped. They report it to the university, expecting administrators to take their duties under Title IX (let alone basic human decency) seriously. For the most part, these days, they’ll find people on campus willing to listen, hold their hands, get them medical attention, and remind them it wasn’t their fault. There are countless good people working in student services; I’ve met them, and I’ve listened to their frustrations with trying to improve the situation. (Disclosure: As of fall 2016, I will also be one of them, working in the Women’s Center at a large research institution.) But survivors will usually find that institutions do what it takes to protect themselves. And all too often, that directly conflicts with what it takes to protect students from sexual violence.
Illustrated by: Elliot Salazar.
Shortly after you kick the mandated reporters out of the room, you come to the sickening realization that literally everyone there has a sexual assault story to tell. If it didn’t happen to them, it happened to one or more of their friends. This is immediately followed by the even more sickening realization that most of the people who feel comfortable disclosing these experiences to an author they just met are — regardless of the size or location of the college — white, straight, cisgender women like me.

Which means I’m only seeing the tippiest tip of the iceberg. Because the AAU Campus Climate Survey found that undergraduates identifying as transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, or questioning (TGQN) were at the highest risk for what it termed the “most serious” nonconsensual sexual contact: penetration by force or incapacitation, i.e, rape. Undergraduate women had the next highest risk, followed by TGQN grad students. A much lower number of cisgender men report being raped, but they, too, are sexual assault survivors. The notion that sexual violence is a “women’s issue” has been disproven time and time again.

It is, if anything, a men’s issue — rape survivors of all genders most often report male perpetrators. Toxic masculinity, the combination of entitlement, aggression, and dominance our society associates with “manliness,” is the very core of rape culture. Sociologist Michael Kimmel notes not only that male athletes are more likely to be reported for sexual assault, but that "the so-called 'helmet sports' — football, hockey, and lacrosse — are dramatically overrepresented in incidents of assault, while tennis, swimming, soccer, and track are far less so.” In other words, the more a sport involves groups of men rewarded for displays of aggressive masculinity (as opposed to sheer athletic prowess), the more likely its players are to be reported for incidents of sexual violence.

So why, when I find myself cross-legged on a floor, surrounded by the dozen or so students who cared enough to attend a small-group session on rape culture, am I almost always in a campus women’s center?

***

The problem, I’m pleased to tell students who quite understandably wonder, is not that no one in the administration cares or takes sexual violence seriously. The problem is twofold. 1) Not everyone cares, and too many care more about protecting the school’s reputation than protecting its student body. 2) Among those who do care, no one honestly knows what to do about it.

A systematic review of primary prevention programs conducted by the CDC’s Injury Center has so far found three that meet its standard for evidence of effectiveness. The good news is that’s one more than we knew about when I published Asking for It a year ago. The bad news is they looked at 140 programs to come up with those first two that worked, and both were geared toward middle school, not college students. In other words, it seems that by the time we typically start talking to students about sexual assault prevention, it's too late.
Illustrated by: Elliot Salazar.
The new program on the list, RealConsent, teaches undergraduate men about informed consent, bystander intervention, empathy, communication skills, alcohol, and gender socialization. Which is to say, it aims to undo their first 18 or 20 years of exposure to the ideals of toxic masculinity: male dominance, casual misogyny, hypersexuality, and the suppression of all strong emotions except anger. It aims to teach them that women and other non-masculine people are human, because our culture generally does such a lousy job of that.

It’s a start — a germ of hope. It is something to do, for administrators who are desperate — for both the noblest and most craven of reasons — to do something. In the meantime, though, more than 50% of college sexual violence survivors don’t bother to report it, because they don’t believe what happened to them was “serious enough.” Others don’t report because, according to the AAU Campus Climate Survey, “they were ‘…embarrassed, ashamed or [concerned] that it would be too emotionally difficult’ or ‘...did not think anything would be done about it.'” Some of those hug their knees and look at the floor until all the grown-ups leave the room, and then spill their guts to a stranger who’ll be leaving the next day. It’s not that they don’t want to talk about it, or seek help or justice. It’s that they don’t want to set themselves up for more pain, shame, and trauma, which are too often the results of telling someone what they’ve been through.

A lot has changed in the past year, but the core message of Asking for It will remain timely for the foreseeable future. If we want to solve the problem of rape on campus, and everywhere else, we can’t rely on one-hour programs and six-week online modules at the undergraduate level. We need to root out toxic masculinity and contempt for the feminine where it begins — in childhood. That means we must encourage our boys to expect support and love when they’re hurt and vulnerable, so they feel safe expressing a full range of human emotion. We must stop forcing our children to hug unfamiliar friends and relatives, and teach them from day one that their bodies are their own. We must stop worrying that comprehensive sex ed will put ideas into tweens’ heads and start worrying that it’s not nearly comprehensive enough, if it doesn’t cover meaningful consent and healthy relationships.

The question shouldn’t be “What are colleges doing to prevent sexual violence” but “What are kindergartens doing? What are elementary schools doing?” Lessons in healthy boundaries, personal autonomy, empathy, and kindness can and should be taught at any age. Most college administrators and educators sincerely want to keep their students safe, but they’re up against a culture that sends children confusing and damaging messages about gender roles, sexuality, and violence from day one. Until we all get serious about changing that, there will still be too many young survivors, and too many of those afraid to ask for help.

The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.

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