Sexual assault has taken over the headlines in the past several months as more and more disturbing figures regarding the subject come to light, particularly with respect to its prevalence on college campuses. From Time magazine, whose May 26 cover flashed a red college pennant emblazoned with the word “rape” to the New York Times, which has featured at least three articles, as well as an op-ed and a “Room for Debate” forum, on the topic in the past three months alone, news pieces concerning campus sexual assault are ubiquitous and unending. Crucial as such pieces are in raising public awareness of a sensitive, yet central issue in a modern discussion of gender relations, these articles unknowingly perpetuate the problem. The media catalogues our cultural discussion of rape into two distinct, and separate, entities: the aforementioned discussion of how to end sexual assault on college campuses, and the backlash against rape culture. These are not, and should not be, two separate discussions. When we fail to regard sexual violence, on or off college campuses, as a byproduct of rape culture, we fail also the many victims, and future victims, of this violence.
As college students, this is an issue that should be near and dear to our hearts. Too many men and women of any age know the pain of sexual violence, and, on many college campuses, the pain and degradation of the initial attack are only further compounded by humiliating interrogations by impersonal panel members, often reported to be untrained, even bewilderingly ignorant given their position, and then the subsequent inadequate response to the students’ complaints. In May, the proliferation of such offenses as these prompted the federal government to open investigation into 55 colleges and universities across the nation for violations of the landmark 1972 Title IX bill, which prohibits sexual discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Among the 55 schools highlighted were four in Boston itself: Boston University, Emerson College, and Harvard, both the college and the law school. But while we may breathe a sigh of relief that Wellesley is not on this list, we must also recognize that as necessary as it is to repair these critically damaged response systems, changing the way we respond to rape isn’t going to fix the problem. That can only be accomplished by changing the parameters of the discussion.
In its profile of the subject, “The Sexual Assault Crisis on College Campuses,” Time magazine cites a piece authored in 2002 by David Lisak and Paul Miller, appearing in the journal Violence and Victims, that found that, in an anonymous survey of men at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, only 6.4% of study participants reported committing acts that would be defined as rape. More tellingly yet, most of the men who did so reported more than one sexual encounter in which they behaved thus. Translation: Most rape isn’t about crossed signals or mixed messages. It’s about sexual predation by repeat offenders, and “consent is sexy” and “no means no,” while important messages to convey to young people, aren’t going to change that. What we as college-aged women need more than consent education, more than safe drinking tips, and more than increased stringency in enforcement is to be respected. Which brings us back to the question of rape culture.
It should be established at this point that not all sexual assaults are committed by men against women. Nonetheless, the majority of sexual violence does follow this pattern, and it is easy enough to see why. As young people ourselves, we are only too keenly aware of how immersed our generation is in the varied media, whether social, visual, auditory, or otherwise. Yet in almost all of these arenas the depiction of women is constructed in such a manner as to suggest that women are sexual objects, to be viewed, and ultimately possessed, by men. The camera makes voyeurs of us all, and, if the romantic comedy genre has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that men are entitled to a woman’s love, both physical and emotional, if they treat her with any degree of decency.
So long as colleges remain on the defensive, so long as assault-prevention programs focus on the symptoms and not the disease, progress will be sluggish and disappointing. Young women will be hurt. It is not going to be easy, but if we as a society are serious about achieving change, we need to focus on changing our underlying cultural paradigms, not on quick fixes. We owe our young women — and our young men — that much at least.