RAINN’s Recommendations On Protecting College Students from Sexual Assault Fight Violence with Violence

Earlier this year, RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, set out a set of national recommendations to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

As someone who has worked at a campus resource for students affected by sexual and interpersonal violence for the entire time I’ve been an undergraduate, I was flabbergasted by the RAINN recommendations. The report reads like it comes from someone who just recently encountered the idea that sexual assault is a problem and was told to solve it in the most economically efficient way possible. The recommendations seem to throw up their hands at the pervasive sexual violence on college campuses, concluding, “We’ve got to take rapists off the streets!”

“This is some bullshit,” an advocate told me anonymously.

The RAINN recommendations open with the assertion that rape culture is an “unfortunate trend.” The report reads,

“..there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”

By dismissing the idea of rape culture (and setting it up as mutually exclusive with holding perpetrators responsible for their actions), RAINN disregards years of activism and advocacy that has demanded acknowledgement of the role of sexual violence in maintaining patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonization. Rape culture is not just the pervasive undercurrents in media and society that teach men that they are entitled to women’s bodies. It is also the legacy and current reality of rape being used to oppress marginalized racial groups, particularly black Americans and immigrants; and as a tool in the colonization of native peoples in the Americas. This is not a “small percentage.”

RAINN’s recommendations outrageously call on campuses to partner with local law enforcement in all cases of sexual violence. They utilize an analogy that equates not reporting sexual violence to law enforcement with not reporting murder. Murder and sexual assault are both serious acts of violence, and they are also really different. In cases of sexual violence, there is a survivor, who continues to live with the trauma of the event, and also is more likely than not to have some sort of continuing relationship with the assailant. Rape culture also creates circumstances that mean the survivor is likely to be blamed for their own assault unless it fits into a specific narrative that law enforcement are familiar with and sympathetic to. Though many murders also go unsolved, there are fewer circumstances in which murder victims are blamed for their own deaths. It’s also important to note that immediately deferring to law enforcement can also be disempowering and retraumatizing to the survivor, and can create dangerous situations for the survivor later in the case that the system doesn’t intervene (which is likely. Because rape culture).

By dismissing rape culture and then, as RAINN’s recommendations do, evoking the criminal justice system as the only and most important solution to ending rape, RAINN both obscures the fact that sexual violence is pervasive throughout the criminal justice system, and cuts off the potential for alternatives, like transformative justice solutions. Devoting resources to developing transformative justice solutions is important, because they don’t require the engagement with the criminal justice system, which at the moment, is often the only option survivors have to make the immediate violence stop. The criminal justice system is unsafe for everybody within it, and is also much less likely to be useful or safe for people who are members of communities of color, queer and trans* communities, or any survivor who does not want to see their assailant behind bars, which is a reality for many people for a variety of reasons. Immediately deferring issues of sexual violence to law enforcement solutions does not end sexual violence; it limits options for survivors and can deter survivors from seeking support, in which cases the violence is more likely to continue.

So the question remains: why would RAINN, historically considered the organization of record on sexual violence, offer such an antiquated and dangerous approach to sexual violence on college campuses? The answer is likely financial.

There are clear economic incentives for colleges and universities to move away from the idea of rape culture, particularly when, as is becoming increasingly apparent in mainstream media, the institutions that are pointed to as responsible for the entrenchment of rape culture are the Greek system and athletics. The Greek system and athletics programs create some of the most lucrative funding streams for universities, and, as Lauren Chief Elk recently pointed out on Truth Out, these programs use rape culture to entice membership:

“A popular perk coaches offer [to athletic recruits] is access to young women and sexual assault without consequence. This standard is set for athletes before they even begin college…Young men are given the message – by college officials – that before they join the team, objectifying and victimizing women is something they’re entitled to do…”

Because colleges use the promise of sex and access to women in their recruiting, there is direct financial incentive for colleges to obscure the connections between its athletic teams and Greek life and rape culture.

Why would RAINN cater to these college’s financial needs? Isn’t it the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization? Big non-profits, like RAINN, rely on corporate sponsorship and the cooperation of the large financial institutions, like colleges and universities, that they advise to sustain their national reputation as a resource and charity (its tagline just quotes Worth magazine calling RAINN, “one of ‘America’s 100 best charities,’” nicely illustrating their incentive to maintain their image). It’s a lot easier for RAINN to help colleges divert the blame for the pervasive issue of campus sexual violence away from some of its main funding streams, than for RAINN to advise colleges to invest in doing the potentially expensive long-term work of picking rape culture out of some of its most traditional institutions. This phenomenon is a piece of the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), which explains how non-profits are tied more closely to the financial interests of their funders than the realities of the people they claim to serve.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also implicate the mainstream, corporatized feminist movement in the RAINN recommendations. The recommendations point to an antiquated trope of an assailant as an anonymous figure. This idea of sexual violence as anonymous and isolated was used as a tool at the start of what is recognized as the anti-sexual violence movement by the predominantly white feminists who led it, in order to get funding and popular support. The movement relied heavily on the criminal justice system, and the idea that rapists belong behind bars. They supported, and RAINN is supporting, a world in which oftentimes survivors’ only options to be safe are within the criminal justice system. The predominantly white feminist anti-sexual violence movement helped create and continues to sustain the prison industrial complex, and it doesn’t acknowledge the complicity of the criminal justice system in perpetuating sexual and non-sexual violence against people of color. This is omission is apparent in the many articles that denounce the RAINN recommendations for their dismissal of rape culture, while still remaining uncritical of a system that centers prosecution as a way to end violence.

via Tikkun

via Tikkun

So what should we do instead? In a magical world where I was selected to make recommendations to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, I would encourage colleges and universities to be even more cognizant of how rape culture infiltrates their campus institutions and organizations. I would recommend funding teams of people that are prepared to respond to incidents of violence without enacting a chain of events that will ultimately cause more harm, while also funding programs that can teach all people – not just the men – how to not sexually assault and how to dismantle the oppressive culture that makes it ok.

This might sound like a pipe dream, especially when we currently have so few viable options for survivors outside of the criminal justice system, but we need to start somewhere. RAINN’s recommendations take seventeen steps backwards. I’d rather see recommendations that take one step forward.

Avatar of Maddie

Maddie cooks without recipes and writes without outlines, generally with good results. Maddie graduated from Vassar College with a degree in Women’s Studies and a strong friendship with the Geography department. Read her thoughts on border politics and trains, among other things, on her blog.

Maddie has written 42 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. Thumb up 9

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    I have been in disbelief about the RAINN recs since I saw them earlier this week. Thank you for this article which 1. forces me to finally get mad about that nonsense and 2. lays out some actual solutions in a very succinct and clear way. I propose some kind of secret campaign to deliver this article to all university and other officials hidden inside the RAINN materials.

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    I think RAINN are right to point out that sexual violence is the result of a very conscious decision to commit violence and that rapists should be held accountable instead of their actions being attributed to vague abstract outside entities. Transformative justice attempts to deal with sexual violence always seem to emphasize how much responsibility survivors have towards their attackers – how much we have to be held accountable for how we react to our trauma (we must not report it to the police, must submit ourselves to the appropriate accountability processes, must forgive and forget and teach the people who hurt us etc), while simultaneously talking about how little control attackers had over their actions, how little intent and conscious choice went into them – if only they had gone to a couple of workshops, if only they had known to ask for enthusiastic consent, if only they had access to better sex ed they would’ve known consensual sex is better etc this isn’t really their fault they just didn’t realise that raping women is bad etc etc. This attitude makes me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

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      Thank you for saying this. TJ, even/especially in leftist and feminist communities, seems to care more about the assailant than the survivor. I agree with the article that the CJS is inadequate and deserves every bit of criticism that can be lobbed at it. But let’s not pretend that the “rehabilitation” that TJ looks to practice so often leaves the survivor in the dust.

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      Hi Andreea – I want to start out my reply by validating your uncomfortable/unsafe feelings. What you feel is important. (*heads up – I’m about to talk about rape culture and victim blaming*) In the status quo, dominant culture teaches us (and all survivors of violence) to believe not only that we can prevent ourselves from being assaulted, but also that if we are assaulted, it was our fault and we should bear the blame. It seems to me that your discomfort is stemming from what you see as a resurgence of this type of victim-blaming within tranformative justice, but under a different label. (If I’ve misinterpreted you, please feel free to correct me.)

      In transformative justice, the goal is not to put the onus on survivors to account for their own trauma. The objective is to stage a community response to the violence, in which those who have caused harm take responsibility for their actions and change. While the process does recognize structures that have cultivated attitudes that influence the violence, it still focuses on how the individual who has committed a violent act must take accountability for it. The survivor is NOT the one who must forgive and teach the person who has caused harm – rather, the community is meant to work together to address the needs of all closest to the center of violence.

      I hope that brief explanation can perhaps clarify some of your concerns. Transformative justice activists that I have read and heard have also recognized that because our society is the way it is, this intervention process may not best serve the needs of all survivors; activists I respect a lot have acknowledged that some survivors do turn to the criminal justice system because they just need to make the violence stop, and that is still often the fastest way to do it.

      A really great resource is the Creative Interventions Toolkit, which is hundreds of pages of how a transformative justice intervention should work. If you’re interested, the entire PDF can be found here: http://www.creative-interventions.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/CI-Toolkit-Complete-Pre-Release-Version-06.2012-.pdf

      • Thumb up 14

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        I find it kinda condescending that you assume Andreea needs an explanation of transformative justice rather than that she knows what it is and has seen this frequently in that community/movement. What the supposed “goal” is is irrelevant if that’s not what is actually put into practice.

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        It doesn’t matter what tj is “supposed” to be. In practice, it is exactly what Andrea described. It was definitely what my experience was like. Have you ever gone through this process yourself? Because it sounds like you skimmed the revolution starts at home and that’s about it.

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          I really appreciate everyone sharing their experiences and perspectives. Transformative justice, when and if it happens, is definitely not a simple practice to put into place, and it’s a problem if it isn’t done in a way that makes survivors feel safe.

          Transformative justice is not a process I’ve gone through myself. I find it compelling because there have been situations I’ve experienced where I wished transformative justice was an option and it just wasn’t, because we aren’t at a moment in time where it can always happen. I have a hope of moving towards TJ, because what I’ve seen instead is an increase in the mandatory involvement of PIC and security structures that are clearly not implemented with the interests of survivors in mind.

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          Maddie, I agree with you that mandatory involvement of the PIC is a problem and not in survivors’ best interests (though I think it’s a stretch to characterize the RAINN paper, problematic as it was, in that way, and I want to assure people that RAINN Online Hotline volunteers are DEFINITELY trained on how harmful pressuring survivors to report is).

          Unfortunately, my experience with transformative justice and its advocates on the issue of sexual violence has not been encouraging (I get the theory, I’m talking about in practice). What I have seen in practice is:

          - People who actively discourage survivors who DO want to report to the police from doing so, and guilt-trip them for contributing to the prison-industrial complex.

          - People who oppose removing perpetrators of sexual violence from activist groups, etc, because that would violate ideals of inclusiveness.

          - People who oppose restricting people with past criminal convictions of certain types of sexual violence in their participation in activist groups, etc, over the concerns of survivors fearing for their safety, because that would both violate ideals of inclusiveness and be making use of the tools of the criminal justice system/prison industrial complex.

          The fighting over this issue tore apart a wonderful group that I was involved with and caused most of the sexual violence survivors (some of whom had been the most active group members) to cease or dramatically decrease their involvement with the group.

          There are a lot of things about restorative justice that I like. I’m a survivor of police violence, and what I want to see happen (and will never get) is closer to restorative justice than to criminal justice – public recognition of wrong done, public concern about survivor well-being, removal of the perpetrators from public safety positions. I don’t really give a crap about putting them behind bars; that isn’t meaningful to me and I don’t like the criminal justice system as it exists. So I get where restorative/transformative justice is coming from. But this is an issue where it needs a lot of work in practice. A bunch of people with personal experience are telling you that it’s a problem.

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      Andrea, I totally hear you on this one. I’ve worked for community based rape crisis centers for years now, and even though I’m super duper critical of the CJS, I’m still wary of transformative justice as a tool for meeting the needs of abuse survivors. From what I’ve read and seen, it feels too much like mediation to me, which only works if both parties have equal power. The nature of one of the parties being a perpetrator and the other a victim/survivor means that creating a power balance just isn’t possible. I think if I saw transformative justice initiatives outside of CJS that truly centered survivors and their needs, I may feel differently.

      I’m also cognizant of the racial element here, (obviously I have no clue how you identify race-wise; for the record, I’m white)because white women have heavily relied on the CJS as a solution to gender based violence even though institutionalized racism as a rule makes this system mostly inaccessible for people of color, particularly women of color. This is obviously a major problem! My safety as a white woman in the world should NOT come at the expense of people of color and their safety.

      TL;DR: I have hope that community-based approaches are the key here, but only ones that center ALL survivors, particularly those with extremely marginalized identities.

      • Thumb up 7

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        Yes! I wanted to respond in support to Andreea but couldn’t find words. You articulated a lot of it, though. I’ve read a few things on transformative justice (including portions of the PDF another commenter linked to), and it disturbs me that I, as a survivor, would be expected to be in conversation (directly or indirectly) with my abusers to determine the appropriate course of action for the community as a whole. I would rather leave a community (obviously, a choice not always available) than remain in a community which expected me to see my abuser as an equal part of it. I don’t want to be part of a community with abusers in it. I’m not saying people never change, but I am saying people cannot be asked to simply forget someone’s past.

        Also, and this is something I’m not totally clear on so feel free to provide more info, but it feels like transformative justice approaches encourage the problematic viewpoint that the burden of proof of intent/lack of prior knowledge is on the survivor and to me that has the potential to excuse behavior and further alienate survivors.

  3. Thumb up 3

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    Thanks for your smart, thoughtful critique of RAINN, the criminal justice system, and the other institutions (from Greek life to white/corporatized feminism) complicit in our system’s current problems.

    I think perspectives like yours are so important for survivors on college campuses. I’m really glad you’ve written this article in a way that points out RAINN’s problems but also reminds us that the CJS is not the only solution, despite what we’ve been told.

  4. Thumb up 5

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    WHAT!?!?!?! There are not enough tables for me to flip in rage with this level of bullshit. This is NOT what I expected to come from the hands of RAINN. Is completely undermining your entire function and the community you are serving really worth the money?

  5. Thumb up 4

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    Thank you for writing this. Your critique highlights SO many things that I have been trying to articulate, but have felt too angry and upset to do, for a while now. I was assaulted (by my girlfriend) last year, and my university handled it terribly. I actually had a police officer LAUGH at me when I gave my statement…because I guess he assumed it was a man who had attacked me and was too shocked and uncomfortable with the fact that it had been a woman, much less someone with whom I had been in a relationship. Not to mention the repeated victim blaming by our “sexual assault victim advocate” on campus (Why didn’t you just leave the room? You could have pushed passed her. Did she really hit you? She’s very upset about this whole thing, do you really need to go forward with a disciplinary hearing?) And of course the hearing committee found her not guilty. Looking back, I would have regretted not reporting it, I think, but I very much understand why there are so many of us out there who don’t. We desperately need comprehensive reform for sexual assault and violence, particularly for LGBT folks.

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    I think RAINN’s comments in particular are deserving of critique, but agree with Andreea that the focus on transformative justice as the primary / only form of justice is a gross error. You can say yes, I think our society needs reform when it comes to rape culture, yes, I think the criminal justice system needs reform, BUT yes, often times the best/most comforting/whatever thing for survivors is for their perpetrators to be legally punished. That’s okay!!!

    (And you know, I think it’s really awful that we can criticize but sympathize with things like patriarchal bargains but when someone is a VICTIM OF VIOLENCE suddenly they need to be better than the system.)

    And there is a difference between saying that our society needs to be transformed, and that perpetrators just need an “accountability process.” I am not involved in transformative justice in any way, but I have friends who have been involved in communities that prioritize that, and it has failed them. It has allowed their abusers to *manipulate the process* and keep abusing. If you want an example of this, just look at the recent article/interview with Hugo Schwyzer by LA Mag (“The Hugo Problem”). Transformative justice was a discussion around him because he CLAIMED to be holding himself accountable, he had a ~process~. Guess what he’s doing right now? Abusing a 22 year old young woman who is in the same mental treatment facility as him. Transformative justice indeed!

    Also, I find it ridiculous that anti-sexual violence advocates are blamed for keeping the criminal justice system going (essentially blaming rape victims for perpetuating violence against marginalized communities/injustices unrelated to the charges they are pursuing, when all they want is safety from their attackers) when so few rapists are actually punished by it.

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      Thank you for articulating the things I’m feeling. Particularly: ” I find it ridiculous that anti-sexual violence advocates are blamed for keeping the criminal justice system going (essentially blaming rape victims for perpetuating violence against marginalized communities/injustices unrelated to the charges they are pursuing, when all they want is safety from their attackers) when so few rapists are actually punished by it.”

      YES. Bless. Thanks. Tears.

    • Thumb up 1

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      Since I can’t reply to your comment upthread, I’ll add here: Maybe people shouldn’t go so hard for something they admit to having zero personal experience with. This goes double/triple/quadruple if you are not a survivor yourself (I am not asking you to disclose, that’s not my business, but it struck me since the only mention of personal involvement is working with students who have experienced violence, so just something to keep in mind if it’s true here).

  7. Thumb up 9

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    what a disgusting article. apparently transformative justice means that a victim of rape’s desire to see their rapist behind bars and away from potential victims is now “contributing to the prison industrial complex.” 6% of rapists are punished for their crimes. And you want to make that number smaller? You know who benefits the most from this type of activism? Rapists. Who doesn’t have to spend years in a cell? The rapist. Who gets to continue living life, eating their favorite food, watching movies, interacting with potential victims? The rapist. So thanks, Maddie Taterka, for advocating for rapist’s rights. As if the media, justice system, and the patriarchy wasn’t already doing that.

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    Well, RAINN is headed by a man. What does a man know about rape culture? Oh, that’s right. Nothing. Also, why the hell is a man heading RAINN?? I really don’t want a man telling me what I should be doing wrt preventing rape. Ever. Especially the issue of the epidemic of campus rape, which is DEFINITELY mostly man-on-woman.
    Gosh, this is just so frustrating. I was taught at a young age to not do certain things lest a man be overcome with his manly urges and not be able to stop himself. In church. In school. Everywhere. How is that not rape culture? Bet Scott Berkowitz doesn’t shit about that.
    So angry.

    Related: there’s a serial rapist (targeting college women) in my college town that the police have done a minimal amount about. The only people talking about it are college women. Enraging.

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    Without getting into the whole transformative justice debate, there’s a lot of problematic things in RAINN’s document (the dismissal and lack of understanding of rape culture, the lack of understanding of primary prevention, the simplistic emphasis on reporting to police as the primary way to prevent sexual violence) and as someone who volunteers for the RAINN online hotline I’m facepalming. The lack of recognition of how law enforcement is complicit, is appalling.

    That said, this article is mischaracterizing what’s in the report a little. The point of the “colleges should partner with local law enforcement” bit is so that people who WANT to report to law enforcement aren’t stuck within college systems that are trying to shut them up. This piece’s characterization of what the anti-sexual-violence movement believes are also at odds with my experience volunteering with a rape crisis center, where we talk a lot about the prison-industrial complex and de-emphasize the idea that the only way to deal with sexual violence is to report. It’s also erasing the radicalism of some of the early rape crisis centers (though it is correct that there is a component of the movement that emphasizes criminal justice in order to get mainstream acceptance).

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