Anyone who follows the contemporary media closely is doubtless familiar with the suddenly ubiquitous phrase “rape culture.” In the context of higher education, the phrase implies two interlocking beliefs. First: despite crime statistics showing sexual assault (as well as all violent crimes) to be very uncommon on campus, colleges and universities are, in fact, hotbeds of rape (but not, it appears, of all other violent crimes). Second: despite the fact that most college faculties and nearly all administrations are extraordinarily sympathetic to the activists’ position on gender issues, the campus culture over which these figures preside nonetheless–somehow–actually encourages the prevalence of rape at college.
That little, if any, evidence exists to sustain either of these beliefs has not deterred the “rape culture” believers; if anything, the lack of evidence for their claims appears to have emboldened them. Nor have they been deterred by the revelation of high-profile false rape claims on campus (ranging from the Duke lacrosse case to the Caleb Warner affair at North Dakota); if anything, the increasing build-up of sympathy for clearly railroaded males has intensified the rage of those who discern a “rape culture” on campus.
Duke’s “Campus Culture Initiative”
An early sign of an obsession with “rape culture” on campus occurred at Duke during the lacrosse case. In April 2006, in a 2000-plus word statement that declined to mention the presumption of innocence, Duke president Richard Brodhead created a “Campus Culture Initiative,” to explicate and “confirm [emphasis added] the existence of a dominant culture among Duke undergraduates.” There was, of course, no rape, but the CCI proceeded along as if there were, operating under the Orwellian slogan that “diversity makes a more excellent university.”
The CCI had four subcommittees; three were chaired by extreme anti-lacrosse voices among the faculty (Professors Karla Holloway, Anne Allison, and Peter Wood). The gender subcommittee accepted as an unquestioned premise that “Duke’s gendered culture is, in no small part, derived from a fundamental lack of respect, fueled by a mix of insecurity, dis-empowerment, and alcohol.” Members detected a harsh campus culture caused by men’s athletics and Duke’s policy of allowing fraternities, which simply “supports our community of divides.”
When evidence didn’t support the CCI’s claims of a campus culture that tolerated rape, Allison and her colleagues ignored the facts. They claimed that between 20 and 25 percent of Duke female students were victims of “sexual assault”–even though the most recent Duke statistics available to them, which covered from 2000 through 2006 and used a much broader reporting standard than the FBI database, indicated that 0.2% of Duke students, not 20%-25%, “report that they have experienced a rape or attempted rape.”
The CCI’s recommendations, especially about athletics, were so extreme that even the craven Brodhead rejected them. But their spirit lived on as attention from the lacrosse case tailed off. The university subsequently revised its sexual assault procedures to hold that sex between students of “perceived” power differentials could be a sexual assault; and Duke recently further revised procedures to all but guarantee expulsion when a student is deemed a rapist through the school’s due process-unfriendly disciplinary panels.
A continuing theme in campus “rape culture” debates is the manner in which the critique clashes with reality. Consider, for instance, the escalating protests last spring at Dartmouth. Exercising a “heckler’s veto,” activists concerned about what ThinkProgress delicately described as the “school’s attitude toward sexual assault, racism, and homophobia” (it’s pretty safe to say the school opposed all three) disrupted an orientation event for incoming students, on grounds that the college had not invited them to address the incoming students. In the preferred terms of the protesters, who wore t-shirts with such sayings as “Real rapists walk this campus,” the college had “silenced” and “boycotted” them–as if every Dartmouth student has a right to speak at an orientation event for new students.
The protest prompted an alleged backlash–nasty, even violent, items were posted on a message board to which Dartmouth students had access. But, intriguingly, the protesters didn’t report their concerns to the police, even though law enforcement could have obtained a subpoena to determine who precisely posted the threatening items. (“Rape culture” activists generally steer clear of law enforcement, since police might demand evidence to substantiate their claims.) Instead, they appealed to the Dartmouth administration, bizarrely arguing that some were afraid to attend class–even though these “fears” did not seem serious enough to prompt the activists to report the alleged threats to police. In the event, the administration cravenly canceled classes for a day of events that included an address from “a social justice and diversity consultant and facilitator.”
The theater of the absurd culminated when mainstream students, not unreasonably, protested the protesters, noting that the cancellation of classes had robbed them of a day’s worth of instructional time for which their tuition dollars had paid.
Here’s how Huffington Post’s Tyler Kingkade–who, as is typical in all of his work on campus events, uncritically presented Dartmouth matters according to whatever version of events the politically correct offered–described what happened next:
Dartmouth sophomore Nastassja Schmiedt, part of the protesting group, told HuffPost that they continued to receive hate mail after the teach-ins. She gave as one example an email with the subject line of “thievery” and the body simply reading, “You owe my family $280 in tuition for forcing classes to cancel.”
Only in the academy could the item quoted above be considered “hate mail.”
As at Duke, the fact that statistics didn’t support the protesters’ claim of a “rape culture” had no effect. Instead, the Dartmouth administration promoted Amanda Childress to coordinate all of the college’s handling of sexual assault matters. Childress then promptly humiliated the school by musing, at a national conference, about the possibility of expelling accused students based solely on an allegation–on grounds that while campus due process isn’t a right, “safety” is.
“Rape Culture” at Occidental
In the past year, perhaps the highest-profile allegations of a “rape culture” poisoning a campus have occurred at Occidental. Despite the college’s sexual assault procedures, which hold that a male student can be deemed a rapist even if his partner said “yes” to sexual intercourse, campus “activists” and their faculty allies filed a Title IX complaint, alleging that these procedures unlawfully denied the rights of accusers. The move drew extensive media coverage from both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, as well as from more openly ideological publications. (“Occidental Takes on Rape Culture,” blared Ms. magazine.) The protests paved the way for the introduction of California’s SB 967, which essentially seeks to codify by law (and in some instances go beyond) the due process-unfriendly provisions of the “Dear Colleague” letter.
But what will the “rape culture” believers say of this recent editor’s note in the Los Angeles Times? The paper admitted that its reporter covering the story (who was subsequently fired) had an “inappropriate” relationship with one of his Occidental sources. On more substantive grounds, the Times admitted that it had, in effect, been duped by the very “rape culture” people it so fawningly quoted. It turns out that some of the events at Occidental were not sexual assaults as anyone outside of campus walls would understand the term, but instead allegations of sexual harassment or simply “inappropriate text messages.”
Just as the Dartmouth “rape culture” folks considered an innocuous e-mail to be “hate mail,” so too did the “rape culture” protesters at Occidental deem an inappropriate text message to be sexual assault. And yet there’s every reason to believe–as occurred at Duke and Dartmouth before them–Occidental’s administrators will accept the demands of the “rape culture” believers.
The “rape culture” movement operates from three central characteristics.
First, it has received almost fawning press coverage (what media members want to be deemed pro-rape?)–allowing for transparently absurd allegations, such as those at Occidental, to be presented as credible. In some instances, this has come from the usual suspects, such as Kingkade at Huffington Post, Allie Grasgreen at Inside Higher Ed, and Richard Perez-Peña of the New York Times. But the phenomenon has also received extensive, uncritical attention in BuzzFeed, which despite its generally solid treatment of legal issues just hired the discredited Katie Baker to help coordinate its “rape culture” articles. In a media too often accepts at face value a politically correct narrative on campus, the “rape culture” claim is almost ideal for campus “activists.”
Second, the “rape culture” approach allows activists to shift the narrative away from uncomfortable questions about due process and false accusations against innocent male students, and toward a cultural critique in which the facts of specific cases can be deemed irrelevant. Selena Roberts pioneered the tactic at Duke–when the case against the lacrosse players imploded, she (falsely) claimed that her guilt-presuming columns were merely designed to critique a flawed “campus culture.” Or, as Amanda Childress implied in her oft-criticized remarks, whatever value might exist in following specified procedures in sexual assault cases, universities should focus their efforts on tackling broader cultural mores.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the “rape culture” approach provides a weapon to advance a particular type of gender-based agenda (curricular and administrative priorities need to be revamped to recognize that women are victims) in a campus environment in which race/class/gender advocates already dominate. There always will be a stray, anonymous misogynistic comment on a message board, or by a drunken student at a spring-break party, from which advocates can then generalize to claim that a crisis exists on campus–without ever defining precisely what a “rape culture” is, or how the steps they recommend could possibly eradicate it. And since there isn’t a recent example–from Duke to Dartmouth to any of the current Title IX claims–in which those who have cried wolf on campus have experienced any repercussions for their actions, there is no drawback in advancing inflammatory claims, no matter how unlikely.
So expect a lot of talk about “rape culture” in the coming months.