To Fight Campus Rape, Culture Must Change

NPR | June 12, 2014 3:17 p.m.

Contributed By:

Barbara J. King

Dickinson College students protest against sexual assault on campus in 2011.

Dickinson College students protest against sexual assault on campus in 2011.

Christine Baker, The Patriot-News/Landov

Inside Higher Ed reports this week on a California bill that would require college students to obtain “an affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity.”

The bill, already approved by California’s Senate, is a response to escalating concerns about rape culture on college campuses. As Inside Higher Ed notes:

“The proposal would shift the burden of proof in campus sexual assault cases in which the accused cites consent as the defense to those accused, rather than those making the allegations.”

A second recent proposal, this time aimed at campus policy rather than state mandate, comes from Wesleyan College in Connecticut. There, a group of faculty, staff, and students propose the co-ed integration of campus fraternities, so that women would live alongside men in them. Noting the climate of sexual assault that is linked with fraternities, the creators of the proposal write that educational efforts must be by fraternities and not merely aimed at them:

“The societies themselves must substantially co-educate, affording equal privilege and control to individuals of all genders, in order to eliminate the gender-based power dynamics by which sexual assault is promoted within fraternities. Moreover, drastic and continuous reform to practices and culture within fraternities is needed to adequately address the rape culture they explicitly or implicitly endorse.”

As a person concerned about sexual violence in our society, and as the mom of a college-age daughter, I care a lot about efforts to dismantle rape culture. Conservative pundits like Christina Hoff Sommers who fret that “the new rape culture crusade is turning ugly” put primary attention on exactly the wrong thing. Vigilance against false accusations is necessary, sure, but Sommers’ suggestion of “paranoia” is a stunning dismissal of the statistical realities.

And when George Will suggested a few days ago that when colleges “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate,” responses have been appropriately pointed, as in this column by Zerlina Maxwell.

Something has to change on our campuses.

Originally, I worried about the efficacy of the measures suggested in California and at Wesleyan. Won’t the California bill just lead to more he-said, she-said confrontations? (Men are raped, too, and rape occurs also outside a male-female context; but today I focus on the statistical-majority problem.) If the male aggressor claims that the female “partner” gave spoken consent, would the woman be believed? And on the matter of fraternities, is it really safe to ask women to integrate them? Could such a social experiment not be costly physically and emotionally to the women who pioneer the change?

In seeking guidance, I could think of no one more informed to consult than the anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday — whose writings, including the book Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus — focus on sexual violence in the U.S. and cross-culturally.

In an email message, Sanday responded with thoughts that made me feel more hopeful about both measures. On the matter of fraternities, a case-study experience of Sanday’s brought good news:

“I have worked with a fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania that lost its charter and then sought to regroup as a co-ed fraternity. I was impressed with the dedication of the brothers and the women they worked with who came to live at their house. It was clear that they didn’t have the mentality that parties were only about “getting laid.” At parties, they appointed designated watchers to question male and female party guests or house members who appeared unable to function due to drinking. What impressed me in talking to male and female house members was the degree to which they showed concern for everyone.”

Sanday highlighted the importance of “the fact that college males are directly questioning the privileging of the all-male spaces that often rule campus party life.”

Reflecting on both the California and Wesleyan proposals, Sanday had this to say:

“These two developments — enforceable legal guidelines favoring evidence of affirmative consent on some campuses together with the critical examination of fraternity life on many campuses — promise to make campus sexual cultures more equitable and by so doing change the broader understanding of the meaning of sexual equality.”

Sanday also made points about the plasticity of human behavior as regards sexual violence that were relevant:

“Also useful is the serious reexamination of the U.S. cultural privileging of male sexual aggression on the grounds that because it is ‘natural’ it cannot be questioned. Anthropological research and fieldwork, including my own, dispute this assumption. There is wide variability in sexual customs ranging from societies in which sexual aggression is rare to those in which it is common.”

“In my own work I differentiate such societies as rape-free as opposed to rape-prone. Looking at ninety-five band and tribal societies, I found that forty-seven percent could be classified as rape-free, while only eighteen percent were rape-prone. By rape-free I did not imply that there was no rape, only that there was a very low incidence compared to rape-prone societies in which the aggressive assault of women was a common component of male sexual culture and was not punished. Interestingly, widespread sexual aggression is often related to a social emphasis on male toughness and competition and a low respect for women as citizens. In the rape-free societies I studied rape is punished and both sexes hold exalted positions in public decision-making and both are integrated and equal in the affairs of everyday life.”

“Such findings suggest that whatever the biological component might be in sexual expression cultural values and social policies make a difference. In other words, as much as college policies can nurture sexual equality, their absence can have the result of nurturing sexual inequality.”

Sanday’s last point merits extra emphasis. I know of no research on this question specifically, but over and over again in my informal networks I hear of students who feel that the administration at their colleges don’t really want to hear what’s going on and don’t make it easy to report and follow through on incidents of sexual violence.

These two proposed measures will not end rape culture. But something has to change. As the proponents of the Wesleyan proposal write, “We reject a course of inaction simply because action is imperfect.”


Barbara’s most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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