There’s been no shortage recently of offensive, disappointing, and altogether jarring reports centered on similarly upsetting responses to sexual assault, particularly of the acquaintance-rape epidemic that lives on each day on campuses across the United States.
Take, for instance, the current debacle going down at the University of North Carolina, where Landen Gambill may be expelled for speaking out about her rape. A sophomore, Gambill has been called to the school’s “Honor Court” for “intimidating” her rapist and being “disruptive,” despite the fact that she hasn’t identified her alleged perpetrator and has merely expressed some negative truths about the school’s lack of support systems for survivors. (Background information you may find valuable and pertinent: her story came to light because of a mounting case against a former UNC dean for intentionally under-reporting sexual assault.)
Meanwhile in Colorado Springs, the University of Colorado has taken to dispensing “valuable” information for vulnerable populations on how to prevent their own sexual assault – an ages-old victim-blaming practice which is only made worse by the specific content in their list of recommended strategies: among them, peeing and vomiting in order to ward away rapists. Another tip? “Tell your attacker that you have a disease or are menstruating.” The implication is that the victim/survivor is inevitably burdened with the responsibility and blame for their assaults because they didn’t do enough, and also that rape is a crime committed not as a need for power, but out of sexual attraction that would dissipate if only she did something “gross.” And when universities fail to take real, progressive, and empowering steps toward rape prevention, every brochure they hand out starts to feel more like the guide on “How to Get Away With Rape” produced by a college student in Ohio this January. Until universities arm students with the right information, they will continue to feed a cycle of violence that perpetuates rape. (How to get away with rape: go to a rape-prone university in a rape-prone society.)
Of the innumerable obvious reasons to be disappointed about this bullshit, at the forefront are the chances these universities had to start meaningful dialogues on their campus, but didn’t take. The useless and victim-blaming tactics they’ve chosen instead have been approved by university power structures. It’s too late to take any of them back. What the fuck is going on? Well, a serious gap between acknowledgment and real understanding, and a corresponding gap between what is done and what needs to be done on campuses nationwide.
Before we begin, let’s start with the basics: rape is real, and it happens. And on college campuses, it happens a lot: one in four college-aged women report rape or attempted rape, and one in five are raped during their collegiate years. 30.6% of lesbian or bisexual women report having been raped in their lifetime. Most survivors (80 – 90%) knew their attacker, be they classmates or close friends. As far as the perpetrators, we know that one in twelve men admit to rape, that 35% of men admit they would rape if they felt they wouldn’t get caught or punished. And fewer than 5% of rapes – attempted or completed – are reported to a legal body.
The sum of those numbers is grim, and together they add up to an image of campus life we don’t often see echoed in the media, in university environments, or in our own national discourse on the issues. (In fact, earlier this week Bob Beckel of Fox News threw a hissy fit about the “myth” of the acquaintance-rape epidemic, expressing his skepticism about the phenomena by asking, on air, “When’s the last time you heard about rape on a college campus?” How gentlemanly.)
At the heart of Beckel’s fantasy world, however, lies the central problem: we don’t hear enough about rape on college campuses. And we need to.
I worked actively on organizing around issues of sexual assault on college campuses and know the barriers activists face, even at the most liberal and progressive universities, to enact changes around violence against women that are real, tangible, and codified. In my one year spent as Director of AU’s Women’s Initiative, I picked up the pieces from my university’s administrators’ controversial decision not to pursue a $300,000 VAWA grant the year prior – explaining at a student-led meeting that “it wasn’t cost-effective” to devote those funds exclusively to education, or the hiring of a victim advocate. (The grant funds specific programs meant to reduce sexual assault on selected campuses, and the decision was made after the grant proposal had been read, approved, and re-approved.) Instead, AU reinvested existing money into more gradual changes on campus.
Moving forward, I made both compromises and demands to do my best to put structures in place before I left – since we weren’t in a budget cycle I couldn’t tackle the creation of a fully-funded women’s center (the creation of which was a years-old promise from administrators scrapped, dutifully, the instant I graduated), so instead I put together a “non-compulsory” educational program on consent and sexual assault that incoming students worked through at orientation. I held events using my organization’s money that expressed everything administrators could not: that women had the right to feel safe at parties and everywhere on campus, that rape apologism and justification was not acceptable, and that there’s no middle ground when it comes to the fact that rape is unacceptable. There was no room for “grey rape” and no room for rape apology. Someone had to do that. Someone had to be willing to take the polarizing position. And, of no coincidence, it is typically a student with the freedom to do so – freedom from contractual obligations, pressure from superiors, and lobbying voices from, apparently, the depths of Hell’s most evil chambers.
After one year of rabble-rousing, however, I graduated. And poof. I was gone, and so was my work and my voice.
Student activists and even administrators working to tackle the issue of sexual assault on campuses face the same recurring obstacle: turnover. Staff relationships and responsibilities shift quickly, and students passionate enough to create change eventually have to leave and trust that someone will pick up where they left off. Administrators understand this dynamic well enough to reassure student advocates with basic improvements while holding out on larger and more important ones.
To indicate or assume, however, that all staff and administration personnel on college campuses in this country are pro-rape or working to create and foster unsafe spaces is simply untrue. Universities face a unique “conundrum” specific to their structure: educating and taking action around sexual assault in a public way makes them more vulnerable to parental concern and less “attractive” to potential students, and budgets are often too tight to make changes to resources in an appropriate time frame when concerns arise. Administrators I worked with to create changes on my campus also frequently cited a (tired) concern in which students or parents would come to campus, see anti-rape educational materials, and then become so “concerned” about the “need for those materials” that they stray from ultimately selecting to study at the school. In other news, atop budgetary complications, colleges face a catch-22 wherein taking action against assault somehow looks more problematic than rape itself, because it’s done in the public sphere while rape is committed in secret. It is because of a fundamental lack of discussion on campuses and in our culture about these issues that that concern is very real – because parents and students alike prefer to pretend that those problems occur outside of their own college bubble and social scene. Because we actively deny rape happens, and it makes us feel safe to do so.
Despite mandatory reporting laws for school officials, such as the Clery Act, rape also remains vastly underreported both on campuses and in a broader sense – meaning that universities will only be “responsible” for and report one or two assaults each year despite the statistically proven prevelance of acquaintance rape on campuses across the country. The problem, then, is that more victims and survivors need to report in order to force schools to be accountable. And yet, in our current justice system and political climate, that very act is a huge risk: perpetrators can take violent or threatening actions against students; in some universities reports of sexual assault don’t warrant class changes or restraining orders against an alleged rapist; in many cases, survivors may even be encouraged not to report in order to keep numbers low, and cases may be overlooked to protect the alleged attackers. And as Landen Gambill’s story makes clear, there’s no guarantee that speaking out about your rape won’t just cause the administration itself to punish you for it.
What we are witnessing is a slowly-mounted shift from a passive rape culture to an active one; from hidden desires to silence rape survivors to real words and actions from university leaders that tell us how badly they don’t want to confront this issue or even look it in the eye. And whether or not that change is purposeful, malicious, or premeditated, it is harmful.
I do have some faith in the student bodies across this nation to attempt to uphold rape-free societies on their campuses. And individual actions, no matter how small or seemingly futile, are invaluable. When one of my friends came forward publicly about two sexual assaults on our campus, the student community reacted visibly: social groups were changed; my friends and I had to kick people we once liked out of our parties. But it wasn’t enough, and tellingly, the administration did nothing. A rapist still played on our basketball team. A rapist still walked around the quad. Every day rapists, known rapists, cross campus to go to class. Every day rapists walk freely in the spaces that should be safe for everyone. Every day, there are survivors of rape who suffer greater backlash than their rapists do.
But sometimes small actions do work, albeit in small measure: when someone in my graduating class penned an op-ed about the “incoherent concept” of acquaintance rape and blamed rape reports on “regret” for “bad drunk decisions,” students barricaded the American University Eagle’s office and circulated petitions (ahem, that was me, I was on TV once) until the administration responded. And yet, promises made by them still hadn’t come to fruition by the time I graduated. This was in 2009. Still I wait to donate to my alumni association. Still I wait for progress.
When universities hesitate to take action against alleged rapists, the message to their student bodies is loud and clear: we don’t give a fuck. Or, to give them a slight benefit of the doubt, we don’t give a fuck enough. Students are not stupid, nor are they blind to or uninformed about happenings on campus; when administrators selectively tackle issues their priorities speak louder than a billion rape prevention brochures. Combine this with active efforts to cover up, apologize for, and justify rape and the message is even bolder: we don’t believe rape is a real problem and we don’t want students to act like it is. And students who do, will pay.
When universities act that way, they perpetuate a rape culture. Knowingly or not, they help create a new generation of rapists and survivors. They foster a fucked-up power dynamic where people trying to fulfill their dreams may be derailed by violence at any moment. Colleges foster the future, and if they refuse to progress the national and international discourses on rape – those which place responsibility on victims to prevent their own assaults and forgive rapists because “boys will be boys,” those which blame victims and perpetuate rape myths, those which leave survivors with no safe spaces – it will be bleak. And futhermore, since universities are directly accountable to the needs of their enrolled students and their larger communities (AU, for instance, was almost completely tuition-funded and therefore relied on our money), when colleges ignore the rape epidemic they are failing as community institutions. They are failing in their very missions every second they do not act to protect the potential victims of assault and take care of the existing survivors of rape and violence in their community.
What we need is a change: an acknowledgement that comes with empathy and the ability and drive to conceptualize a world without rape. Rape denial, victim-blaming, and rape apology aren’t new phenomena, and in fact it seems fair to say they’re getting old. As you read this the Violence Against Women Act’s reauthorization remains a political pawn, with real women’s lives on the line. As you read this, thousands of rape kits sit unprocessed and unacknowledged in cities across the United States. And in the time it took me to read over the news I referenced in this post – let’s say four hours – 312 women in America were raped.
These concerns are not meant to take away from our progress. Over the years we’ve been able to carve out more and more dialogues on what constitutes a sexual right and what it means to be safe, protected, and responsible. But if we’re hoping to change a culture, a good place to start would be its hotbeds. A good place to start would be its future citizens. The responsibility to promote dialogue, make progressive changes, and uphold victims’ rights on college campuses is paramount. In fact, it could very well be the key to a new culture.