The past month’s debate over campus rape has revealed a disturbing shallowness on both sides of America’s divided body politic. Although Rolling Stone was shamefully irresponsible in handling the story at the center of its recent article about rape at the University of Virginia, campus rape is a serious national problem. Unfortunately, we seem to be so caught up in debates about culture that we are losing our capacity to find political solutions to political problems—or even to recognize political problems for what they are.

Voices on the left and right seem to agree that it was a mistake for universities to take over the investigation and punishment of rape. Likewise, both those who believed the story of “Jackie” (the UVA student featured in the article) and those who suggested Jackie’s story might be a hoax often agreed on this point. Police and courts should reclaim jurisdiction over rape on campus; only they have the tools needed to protect both vulnerable women and the rights of the accused. Moreover, they do not have a vested interest in protecting the university from bad publicity.

But this will not happen, and during the whole UVA rape debate no one offered a serious plan to make it happen. Our large colleges are going to remain the modern equivalent of the Praetorian Guard—a regime unto themselves, judges of their own cases, thumbing their noses at the impartial rule of law. What’s more, only a few prominent voices on either side of the debate seemed to be seriously interested in analyzing why the colleges have this imperial power, or offering practical ideas to help restore the rule of law. Most commentators talked glibly about calling in the cops, but rarely asked why the cops were not actually being called. When they did, their answers were equally glib.

These responses to the UVA rape story illustrate the limits of the now-fashionable turn away from “politics” to “culture.” Nowadays, we hear it preached up and down the land that “politics is downstream from culture.” It’s certainly true that almost none of our most urgent problems will be cured, or even significantly affected, by one party or the other winning the next election. But, in fact, politics is not “downstream” from culture. Politics is part of culture, and some of our cultural problems are political problems that demand political solutions. The longer we ignore this, the more women will be brutalized by the rape system that now dominates Greek life at many large colleges.

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Arguing about Rape Culture Doesn’t Protect Women

There are now two kinds of debates going on about rape culture, and neither of them is likely to accomplish anything helpful. One kind is over whether a rape culture exists, either throughout American culture or in some pockets of it. The other, which takes place among those who agree on the existence of a rape culture, is over what to do about it.

I would not belittle the concern about culture; I’ve done a lot of writing about culture myself. I’ve taken some heat for saying that we should think less about winning elections and court cases, and more about the culture within which those battles take place. But one thing I’ve learned in studying how we approach culture is this: a culture is a huge, amorphous thing. Even those who study culture professionally admit that nobody is sure exactly what it is, where it comes from, or what to do about it.

This is one reason the debate over whether a rape culture exists can reach no firm resolution. In the end, it depends on what you mean by a rape culture. It depends even more on what deep presuppositions you rely on to interpret the world. Radical libertarians will never see a rape culture, while radical feminists will never see anything else.

Likewise, the debate over what to do about a rape culture produces no fruitful ideas. The left will march and rally and write and talk, and throw millions more dollars at the same old worthless programs and systems we already have (if not even more ridiculous ones), and get the same results they get now. The right will talk about the need to civilize barbarous young men, without offering plausible proposals for making that happen, or even considering whether this neo-Victorian storyline is sufficient to grasp the depths of the problem. And of course we’ll also wander off into irrelevant issues such as lowering the drinking age, without asking whether it’s true that college women go to Greek parties primarily to drink.

By contrast, the accusation that a “rape system” now operates without serious hindrance at many of our schools of higher learning prompts a different kind of response than does any assertion about “rape culture.” If you disagree with the accusation, you will demand that I show you tangible evidence—not exegesis of subjective cultural signals, but the kind of hard facts about which we have some hope of reaching firm conclusions. Meanwhile, if you agree, you are prompted to ask where the tangible weak points in the system are, and how we might organize to attack them.

Identifying and Analyzing a Rape System

Of course, a rape system can exist symbiotically with a rape culture. To say that many large schools sustain a rape system is not to deny that they also sustain a rape culture. In fact, since politics is part of culture rather than separate from it, the assertion that a rape system exists implies that a rape culture exists, at least to a large extent. The difference is that a rape system is a problem we can do something about.

What facts would we need to establish to show that a rape system exists? While there are many factual questions we might consider, I think the three most salient assertions are:

1. Fraternities knowingly tolerate routine commission of rape at the parties they host.

2. Officers of the university do not typically do the right thing and very strongly encourage all victims to go to the police. Instead, they deal with victims in ways that prompt very few of them to go to the police.

3. Peers—the subset of students who frequent Greek parties—often do not do the right thing when confronted with a victim, either.

In an essay of this length, I cannot prove such assertions beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, as many people on both sides have been loudly pointing out, because our colleges are exempt from the rule of law, we do not currently have the investigative apparatus to know whether they could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. We would need impartial police and prosecutors, armed with subpoena powers, actively investigating every rape accusation. Calling in the cops to hunt for Jackie and her attackers will not be sufficient. We need to have them investigating rape cases on a daily basis, day in and day out, in order either to accumulate the necessary evidence or to determine that such evidence is not there.

I will, however, record my personal experience.

UVA, the Rape System, and Me

I was a student at UVA from 1991 to 1995. From what I saw, assertions one and three—regarding the actions of fraternities and peers—were not only plausible but highly probable. Assertion two was unquestionably true. Not only did university officials fail to send victims to the police, but they were instructed by their superiors to do everything possible to keep rape cases within the university’s laughable student judicial system. A close friend of mine was employed by the university at that time and heard these instructions, given explicitly, with her own ears.

One morning in my first semester, a young woman was absent from one of my classes. It was a small class, and she was usually a lively presence, so I noticed her absence. Halfway through the period, she burst into the room, panicked and hysterical. She cried out in a loud voice: “Does anyone here know the technical definition of rape?”

Praise God, a friend of hers leapt up and guided her out of the room. All of us just sat there in silence for what felt like an eternity. The professor stood, dumbfounded, in the middle of the room. He was a highly cultured and humane but worldly man, very much like Mr. Sensible in C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress. I looked up to him, more than I realized at the time. At last he said, slowly and with gravity: “We grow accustomed to seeing people in two dimensions. Then sometimes we see them in three dimensions. And it’s disturbing.” Another long silence that felt like an eternity followed. Then, he calmly and deliberately resumed his lecture. The woman stayed away from the class for most of the rest of the semester; near the end she came back. We all pretended nothing had happened.

I regret that I didn’t do much about the rape system. I had a weekly column in a widely read student newspaper, and it was a perennial topic of public debate. At one point, I did suggest that the prosecution of rape should be transferred from the student judicial system to the marginally more rigid “honor” courts—because if rape isn’t dishonorable, what is? But, for the most part, I was fast asleep, submerged in the dogmatic slumbers of shallow right-wingery. I was more interested in winning arguments with feminists than in protecting vulnerable women. I was—rightly, I still think—angry at the injustice of a student judicial system that did not respect the rights of the accused. I was angry at the suggestion that media should not report the names of accusers. However, I was not sufficiently angry at the rapists, or the system that protected them.

Taking on the Mob

What could be done about the rape system? On one level, we don’t lack any of the power we need to take them on. What we lack is the political will to do so, because the rape system is protected by a powerful coalition of forces.

There is, of course, the universities’ desire to hush everything up for publicity’s sake, and to maintain their privileged status above the law. The universities will sometimes have to go through the motions of “doing something,” as UVA is doing now. But when the dust clears, everything will be as it was.

The university is also afraid of what might happen if it took on the Greeks. It is a deadly mistake to think of the fraternities and sororities that are complicit in the rape system as student organizations. Their alumni networks are a major source of donations for the university. Perhaps even more important are the informal student recruitment efforts these networks make on the school’s behalf. A serious move against the Greeks would have a considerable impact on the school’s budgets and the quality of its recruitment pool.

In fact, for the university, taking on the Greeks is a lot like taking on the mob. The police can arrest a mafia boss any time they like; he does not hide, and if they came to arrest him he might yell and curse, but he would give himself up without a gunfight. However, they will not come to arrest him. He has too many powerful, unscrupulous friends. Arresting him would set in motion a chain of events to make even the bravest prosecutor uneasy.

Our only hope for a solution lies in the nexus between culture and politics. After the revelation of Rolling Stone’s irresponsible behavior, this is probably not the right moment for a major initiative against campus rape. But such a moment will come, and when it does, we should be ready.

Purely “cultural” approaches will not work, for the problem is political: it involves justice and law, and any solution would disrupt organized factions’ access to money and power. But the political solution must simultaneously be a cultural solution. It must create plausibility and credibility for the necessary reforms. We need political action that will strike not just terror but shame and self-loathing in the hearts of those who sustain the rape system, and give ordinary people—the silent frat brother or alumnus, the dean with a terrified young woman in his office—the bravery to do the right thing.

More than anything else, what’s needed is a person who could stand up in front of the community and announce that the rape system’s days were numbered—and be believed. If I were the head of Charlottesville’s prosecutors’ office or president of UVA, I would seriously consider recruiting a former prosecutor or law-enforcement official who had successfully battled organized crime to lead the creation of a new special unit to handle rape accusations. I’d look for someone with a good track record of both nailing the bad buys and protecting the rights of the accused; plenty such people exist.

Just imagine a latter-day Eliot Ness standing in front of the cameras, surrounded by his team of Untouchables: “I took on the mob and won. Now I’m giving the rape mob at this school one week to get out of town. After that, all rape charges will come directly to our office and be handled by our staff.” See how fast the supposedly deep-rooted rape culture dries up then!

The impact of such an initiative would range far beyond Charlottesville. If it were successful, other jurisdictions with large colleges would come under enormous pressure to emulate it. University-controlled justice systems that fail both in protecting women and in respecting the rights of the accused would be weakened or dismantled. And the long-term benefits for American society of imposing real limits on Greek debauchery would be incalculable.

Nothing is stopping us from doing this but a lack of political imagination. We must remember how to think about politics as something more than a brutal clash of forces—as an arena for constructing expressions of dignity and justice. The more we chant “politics is downstream from culture,” the less we are able to think in those terms.

With apologies to Martin Luther King: I am aware that the law cannot make frat brothers respect women. But it can stop them from raping them, and that is also important.