Conservative commentary on campus sexual assault has tended to focus on the criminalization of male sexual desire and the encroachment of political correctness in university environments. To be fair, the lack of professionalism in the Rolling Stone exposé on sexual assault at UVA, and the new innovation of the California affirmative consent laws, certainly lend credence to concerns that sexual assault advocacy is headed toward a state of hyperbole and paranoia. Complicating the issue is the deeply entrenched culture of rampant alcohol use and permissive sexual mores—factors that are even being invoked by a defense attorney in the Vanderbilt sexual assault case as mitigating circumstances for his client’s behavior.
Party culture, the disparaging of contemporary masculinity, and the bureaucratization and politicization of society all reflect troubling trends in Western civilization. Yet the timeless phenomenon of the lust for domination, and the attempt to cloak darker desires under the auspices of friendship, hospitality, and normalcy, play an even larger role in campus sexual assault. In many ways, campus sexual assault is just one more iteration of a culture that permits the objectification and commodification of women as things to be used. Such objectification has been consistently critiqued by conservatives and contemporary feminists alike.
In this essay, I offer a snapshot of the cross-pressures that make the phenomenon of college rape a complicated one for thinkers and policymakers to address. To do so, I illustrate the current environment for women on university campuses. Then, I examine two facets of rape culture on campus: the recidivism of repeat offenders and the reluctance of women to come forward after assault. Next, I examine the limitations of Title IX in light of these two facts. Finally, I highlight potential areas for reform of the way campus sexual assault is dealt with on campus.
What It’s Like for Women on Campus
On my first day of graduate school at a wealthy and respectable institution, I was seated on a bench waiting for my 6 pm seminar to begin. It was still light outside, and I was skimming through readings for another course when I looked up to see a group of college-aged men, some with their ID lanyards around their necks, slowing down their bicycles as they approached me. “Take off your shirt!” they began to shout, and I sat, stunned. They kept yelling, and I collected my books and ran into the building.
This experience prepared me for what would become a regular exposure to tales of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Official emails about alleged sexual assaults on campus were a university commonplace. Students would tell their TAs about campus parties where women were addressed as sluts and “hoes” as a part of the event’s theme, while men were addressed by titles of power such as “wizard” or “master.” I read letters to the editor that described the way some undergraduate men used female students’ low self-esteem as leverage to get women to offer sex to compensate for their “inferior” looks.
But the worst came when a friend of mine was raped by a man she was dating, while visiting his apartment for dinner and drinks. He pinned her down on the bed after she refused to go further than kissing and fondling. After my friend came forward to university authorities and sought a Title IX hearing, two other women claimed to have had similar experiences with this man. The hearing found in her favor after texts he sent her contradicted his version of events. The man was expelled from our school, but he promptly applied and received admission to another college in my friend’s hometown. He even received letters of recommendation from faculty at our college, though they knew he had been found guilty of sexual assault.
Each of these stories conveys an attitude of viewing women as disposable and interchangeable objects of consumption to which certain men felt entitled. This is what is meant when the somewhat imprecise expression “rape culture” is used. At the same time, the intuition expressed in some circles that it is impossible for there to be as many men guilty of sexual assault as the statistics would suggest is largely correct. It is not that a vast number of men commit sexual assault, it is that the men who do rape or molest do so repeatedly after targeting and grooming their victims. This is not surprising, given that “the strongest predictor of future sexual violence is past sexual violence.” A small subset of men possess the attitudes of hostility and callousness required to commit acts of sexual assault.
Why Do Victims Remain Silent?
Another important issue surrounding the phenomenon of campus sexual assault is the question of why women who undergo sexual assault may not have fought their aggressors, or may have delayed in coming forward. Did they call out? Did they claw or strike or bite? Did they reach out for help right away? Interest in proof of violence dates back even to ancient Rome. After finally recognizing the injustice of rape after many centuries, Roman law required signs of lack of consent such as yelling, pushing, fighting, or scratching.
Many of the women who come forward after a sexual assault do so after some time has elapsed, a fact that is detrimental to any future pursuit of justice, and the lack of evidence of resistance adds one more murky layer to unravel. I can understand why some victims are tempted to remain silent. Once, in graduate school, I was fondled for ten minutes while on the T in Boston. The train was crowded, and everyone was hunched together. I wondered later why I did not defend myself. I realized that, in the moment, I made several calculations. Though the train’s crowding may have offered me a circle of people to cry out to, I also feared that the man would just deny it and say I was imagining things because of the closeness of the commuters. I also feared that if the man did not say this, other people around me would jump to the conclusion themselves. Fearing that I might not be believed, I stayed silent.
To cry out for help is to call attention to the fact that you are being treated in a way that makes you feel intense personal shame and humiliation—and to invite others to look at it. Crying out like this can come at a high personal cost. It can feel as if you are adding witnesses to your shame, especially when you think that you will not be believed.
One should never feel ashamed or humiliated for asking for help in a situation like this. Yet, when you are being touched in a sexual way without your consent, the feeling of disgrace can be emotionally overpowering. The shame can induce a kind of astonishment, a disbelief that this thing is actually happening to you. This seems to be especially true when you have known and trusted the aggressor. The nauseating feeling of being used by someone you trusted can cause a fight or flight response in some victims. For others, the response is to go limp, just as some creatures play dead when they are caught by their predators.
The Paradox of Title IX
Of course, even given the complicating factors of delays in reporting and repeat offenders, there is most definitely the possibility of specious allegations and regretted encounters. Slate recently published an excellent article on the jeopardizing of due process for accused students who find themselves subject to the Title IX process. The student profiled in the article was falsely accused, and he paid a high price, even though many witnesses attested to the consensual nature of the sex act.
We cannot possess the knowledge to distinguish miscommunications and next-day regrets from authentic sexual assault. By its nature, sexual assault is nearly always a case of he said/she said. Even if the woman comes with marks or tears on her body, even if specimens are collected from her following the alleged assault, there is always the possibility that the sex was consensual yet rough. And it is apparent that—even with witnesses to the consensual nature of the act—a man can still find himself condemned as a rapist though he did no wrong.
This is where the appeal of Title IX is the strongest: it possesses a limited scope. Title IX is described as a “learning centered” “educational process” within the university community that examines whether campus policies have been violated and distributes consequences if they have. “For behaviors that may violate college policies and the law,” the Association for Student Conduct Administration advises, “victims are encouraged to pursue criminal procedures if they seek outcomes beyond the jurisdiction of what the campus can offer or impose.”
Title IX provides a space for the assaulted to air their grievance without the humiliation of testifying in open court, and it protects the falsely accused from having their names defamed in the papers and to juries. The process takes place within the safety net of a university setting, where the worst fate is shunning or an expulsion that is not listed on the accused’s transcript.
This is also where the paradox of Title IX is most apparent. Sexual assault is a crime, and universities are not courts. Despite its attractions, the great fault of Title IX lies in the fact that it has enough teeth to cause serious loss to an innocent student unjustly censured, but not enough bite to stop serious predators from enrolling in other universities and finding a new crop of victims. Described in the Slate article as a “powerful” tool for women, it is not so much powerful as it is pliable, subject to the competence of school officials and the potential for untruthfulness in either the accuser or the accused.
Steps toward Reform
It is not clear that Title IX is an adequate solution to the problem of sexual assault on campuses. Even if it is a prudent stopgap, reforms are still needed for it to operate in a just way. These reforms include clear communication of the steps for reporting rape at universities, the openly offered option of going to the police with the claim, the prevention of repeat offenders’ re-entering the educational system, and the separation of the interests of the university from the officials responsible for carrying out Title IX.
Aside from reforming Title IX, other steps can be taken to help minimize the occurrence of sexual assault. Organizations such as the Love and Fidelity Network, which seeks to model healthy relationships for college-aged men and women, are growing exponentially. Bystander intervention is proving to be a popular model for the reduction of sexual assault on campus, and training in such intervention should be encouraged.
An equally powerful tool is for college-aged men to be taught to hold and express the view that sexual assault is a contemptible and unmasculine behavior that does not carry with it the luster of “conquest.” Furthermore, pre-emptively educating potential victims of sexual assault to disassociate their feelings of shame from their actual self-worth may increase the reliability of reporting and decrease the time of delay.
In many ways, the focus on false allegations and the issue of the criminalization of male sexuality can be a strength as we sort through the problem of campus sexual assault. Yet it is important to remember that these critiques do not offer the whole picture. As we keep an eye on the way that sexual assault allegations can go wrong, let us also examine the attitudes that contribute to sexual assault and deliberate about the policies that best protect victims—both the assaulted and the falsely accused.