Rape Culture on College Campuses

Trigger warning: this piece discusses visceral details of sexual assault.

The frequency of sexual assault on American college campuses derives primarily from tolerance of sexism and sexist acts and widespread ignorance regarding rape.

“According to statistics in the 1988 book, ‘I Never Called It Rape,’ by Robin Warshaw, 84% of college men who committed rape claimed that what they had done was not, in fact, rape. One in 15 male students reported that they raped someone or attempted to do so in the preceding year. And ‘nearly one third of college men said they were likely to have sex with an unwilling partner if they thought they could get away with it.’ A more recent study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 1998 asked students to what extent it was acceptable for a man to verbally pressure or force a date to have sexual intercourse. The responses show that 17% of men considered that using force was an acceptable strategy to get their way.” (Amitai Etzioni, GWU professor, in a CNN Opinion blog, August, 2012)

Given these findings—and others, including that women who attend college are more likely to experience rape (or were in 2000, when the U.S. Department of Justice published Fisher, Cullen and Turner’s report, The Sexual Victimization of College Women) — colleges that don’t choose to address sexual violence actively and preemptively risk becoming hostile environments for women and for rape survivors in particular.

But isn’t there a judiciary committee to dispense justice? In theory, yes; in practice, it’s almost never meted out. The civil standard for proving a case, “a preponderance of the evidence,” (which Dean Lieber suggested, in 2006, was also the standard for Amherst’s disciplinary hearings) and the criminal standard for proving a case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” both place the burden of proof on the accuser: if the defendant can cast doubt or present evidence that countervenes the accusation of rape, they are likely to go free. Both of these are subjective standards of proof, dependent on the jury or adjudicator’s definitions of the shaky fraction that constitutes a “preponderance” and the various components that comprise “doubt”.
I’ll put a finer point on this with a specific example. When I was a student, a woman I know survived sexual assault and brought her case to court. Medical professionals testified on her behalf about the surgery they’d had to perform on her at Cooley-Dickinson Hospital, because her rape had caused such significant internal damage to her body. Yet somehow, even this medical testimony to physical damage didn’t convince a Northampton jury that she had been sexually assaulted.

For the record, I absolutely support the protection of the innocent, and I believe that there are some rape cases that fall into “gray areas,” in which consent is legitimately misunderstood. But I don’t believe that percentage could be 97 percent of reported cases. And according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), only 46 percent of rapes are reported to the police, 12 percent lead to an arrest, 9 percent get prosecuted, 5 percent lead to a felony conviction and 3 percent result in jail time for the perpetrator. I don’t have corresponding statistics for Amherst, but I have some first-hand observation as a Peer Advocate and as the leader of an on-campus group for survivors of sexual assault. In my humble opinion, our systems currently conspire to protect rapists.

How large is the scale of this problem? RAINN reports that in the United States, someone is raped every two minutes, and that 9 out of 10 of those people are women; virtually all (99% of) rapists are men. As groups like Oneinfour.org assert and academic conferences like the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) confirm (see Rana Sampson’s 2002 summary, “Acquaintance Rape of College Students”), approximately 25 percent of college-attending women have experienced rape or attempted rape since their 14th birthday. POP also found that rape is the most common violent crime on American college campuses today. The fact that neither our particular campus judicial system nor our legal system as a whole yet offer justice to the vast majority of survivors of sexual assault results in an environment that implicitly condones rape — when it is not explicitly doing so.

What effects does this have? Sexual assault is traumatic because it can be humiliating, demeaning and destructive of trust of individuals, communities and institutions, and positive attitudes about body image and sexuality. Many survivors are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which can result in “intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares; [a need to] avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma; and anxious feelings they didn’t have before that are so intense their lives are disrupted,” according to the American Psychological Association. And given the reality of sexual assault, they exist in a hostile environment. They have legitimate cause to believe that their emotional and physical safety are constantly under threat. Additionally, they may feel an existential threat in communal denial of their story, since those who are raped often fail to convict their rapists. Their perpetrators stay on campus, or, often, are only suspended for a short time. During my time as a PA at Amherst, I was told that some survivors were given the “opportunity” to determine how long their perpetrator’s suspension was, while simultaneously being told, as Angie was, “I just don’t understand why you’ve been so angry throughout all of this. You have no reason to be angry about anything.” Since the burden of proof is on survivors, they are seen as the aggressor if they try to push for punishment or protection for themselves (and/or others in their community).

In my discussions of this issue, I’ve heard a few men reiterate that last spring’s Bavaria tanktop emblazoned with “Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847” would only have truly offended if it had depicted a roasting racial/ethnic/religious minority member. Yet in a context of continual, repeated violence against women, such a shirt should be more offensive, because it is not an empty threat of violence: it is an emblem of violence, and a mutually-agreed-upon, communally-perpetuated aesthetic of violence against women. Such comments illuminate a profound callousness towards sexism and sexist rhetoric, and an ignorance of the ugly realities of being a woman in an old-boys club.

That is what Amherst needs to address, as a community: the radical notion that women are people. We each need to take a hard look at ourselves: nobody’s immune to misogyny. Do we take women seriously and treat them equally? We all have a stake in that, whether we know it or not, as the disparagement of “feminine” traits also results in a repressively narrow proscription of acceptably “masculine” behaviors. As Angie wrote, “silence has the rusty taste of shame.”