Rape Culture on College Campuses

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by Monica Reid

The existence of rape culture is something that is continuously debated and studied in American society. The fingerprints of the strangling hands of rape are evident throughout our culture, even in places which are meant to be safe from such violent acts, such as college campuses. Rape culture is widely prevalent in all of American society, is especially ubiquitous on college campuses, and is not being properly addressed or combated by most universities. Fisher and colleagues, quoted in the article “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Multilevel, Integrative Approach to Party Rape,” maintain that “A 1997 National Institute of Justice study estimated that between one-fifth and one-quarter of women are the victims of completed or attempted rape while in college.” This means that a whopping twenty to twenty-five percent of all women will graduate college not only with a bachelor’s degree, but also with the trauma of sexual violence. Although women and men both experience rape, for the purposes of this article, I will only be addressing the rape of women by men, and the rape culture which encourages and perpetuates that specific kind of rape.

There seems to be some ignorance as to what the term “rape culture” is referencing. Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle, the activists of the creative collaboration FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, state that rape culture consists of “jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable.”. Rape culture deeply permeates American society, yet often goes unnoticed and dismissed. This, in and of itself, proves that rape culture is present. If rape culture did not exist in America, then rape would be taken seriously and recognized as a widespread epidemic that needs to be eradicated; it would not be ignored and denied as it is today. Rape culture is especially rampant on college campuses. The frequent presence of pro-rape media, acceptance and perpetuation of rape myths, and lack of required prevention education about rape all play into the rape culture present on many campuses. 

The widespread use of social media and exposure to all other kinds of media, including, but not limited to television, movies, music, and magazines, all contribute to rape culture. At the center of pro-rape media is pornography. Very often, the women in pornography are portrayed as being extremely submissive to their dominant male partners and willing to do anything and everything they desire without any verbal consent being required. This, among other cultural stigmas, can cause confusion in young men about what consent is, and if it is even necessary in the first place. Consent is voluntary, sober, non-coerced, continual throughout the various stages of the sexual act, active, and authentic. If there is a lack of consent, the sexual act becomes rape. When engaging in sexual acts, men should be asking for the woman’s consent. However, since many men’s first exposure to sex is through mainstream pornography, in which consent is usually nonexistent, it is understandable that men are confused about the concept of consent. Men are not usually taught about consent by parents, guardians, or teachers, so it is not surprising that they are unaware that consent is imperative.

Not only is there a myriad of pornographic films in which consent is insufficient and unexpressed, there is an entire genre of pornographic films in which rape is portrayed as a fantasy which women desire. This is a perplexing and frankly upsetting reality, as rape by definition is undesired sexual activity. Rape cannot truly be something a woman ever wants, because rape is inherently unwanted. A woman may, however, have a fantasy of being sexually dominated, but this cannot be considered a “rape” fantasy because consent was involved. These “rape” fantasies are therefore very misleading. Through pornography, men are tricked into believing that rape is something for which women yearn. In a study by Joetta L. Carr and Karen M. VanDeusen, which targeted the risk factors for male sexual aggression, “pornography consumption was common among the men in our sample and may further add to the risk of sexual aggression. Specific violent or rape-theme content of the pornography has been associated with propensity to rape and pro-rape attitudes.” Through this type of pornography, in which gender inequality and degradation and objectification of women is accepted, men are led to believe that forced sex is an activity through which they can gain power and control over women, and furthermore, that women actually want to be controlled and robbed of their personal power by men.

There are many myths about rape which are widely accepted as truths by college students and faculty. According to Burt and colleagues, as quoted in the article “Communicating/Muting Date Rape: A Co-Cultural Theoretical Analysis of Communication Factors Related to Rape Culture on a College Campus,” these rape myths include but are not limited to “notions such as the idea that ‘no’ really means ‘yes;’ that women can resist rape if they wish; that in most cases the victim is promiscuous; and that women falsely report rape to protect their reputations or because they are angry at someone.” These myths can be easily debunked with some logic and research, yet are instead validated and supported. One myth that I would like to focus on states that only promiscuous women get raped. I would like to expound upon this myth, as it goes much deeper than stereotyping victims as promiscuous. This myth expands further to state that women who drink alcohol and do drugs, wear revealing clothing, and stay out late at night at parties or clubs, get raped, and that because of their participation in the aforementioned activities, they are somehow responsible for the rape occurring.

The party atmosphere, slut shaming, and victim blaming present on college campuses hugely perpetuates this myth. According to Armstrong and colleagues, “The most common way that students—both women and men—account for the harm that befalls women in the party scene is by blaming victims. By attributing bad experiences to women’s ‘mistakes,’ students avoid criticizing the party scene or men’s behavior within it”. A woman’s behavior has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not she experiences rape. What determines the occurrence of rape is not dependent upon the woman’s actions, but rather on those of the man who rapes her. The man is the one who chooses whether or not to rape the woman. Therefore, even if the woman was behaving in a promiscuous manner, was drunk or high, wearing a miniskirt, and out at night, she still did not ask for or provoke rape. Rape myths and victim blaming perpetuate the idea that the woman played a part in or invited the rape, and that she is to blame for what happened to her. The perpetrator is excused and his actions are justified because the woman was doing something “wrong.” Students and faculty who buy into this myth are one of the main forces behind the existence of rape culture on college campuses.

The only way that rape culture will be put to rest is by building awareness about the truths of rape through education. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights requires all institutions of education receiving federal funding to provide prevention education, however, many would argue that education about sexual violence is unnecessary and extreme. Due to the high incidence of rape on college campuses in comparison with other crimes, I would argue that because it is such a huge problem, requiring a class educating students is immensely necessary. Students need to be informed on what rape is and what consent means. Beyond that, students also need to be informed of what their rights are, and what steps they can take towards justice if they are raped. According to an article in the City Journal, “No crime, much less one as serious as rape, has a victimization rate remotely approaching 20 or 25 percent, even over many years. The 2006 violent crime rate in Detroit, one of the most violent cities in America, was 2,400 murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults per 100,000 inhabitants—a rate of 2.4 percent.” If rape on campus was replaced by murder on campus, with one fifth to one fourth of students being murdered during their time at college, I am inclined to believe extensive prevention education would be mandatory for all campus constituents. The simple fact that the crime which is most prevalent on college campuses is rape is why it is not being taken more seriously. Rape culture continues to cover up the need for prevention education. Rape is still regarded by many as something which is not really that big of a problem, and which does not actually need to be talked about or addressed.

The topic of rape is a sensitive one, very emotionally-charged, and loaded with controversy. It’s daunting to imagine the majority of the college population being aware of the regularity of the incidence of rape and actively fighting against it. Doing so means speaking out about a certain population of male college students’ violent actions and justly disciplining them. It means supporting female survivors in something which is commonly minimized and silenced. Educating college students about rape is an act of rebellion against the oppression established by sexual violence and rape culture. Taking part in such a rebellion on a campus-wide scale is intimidating, but critical. Too often in the past, instead of facing the ugly realities of rape on college campuses and taking action to educate students on what they can do to stop it, the issue of college rape has been swept under the rug; the only “education” students seemed to be acquiring were the harmful and false messages sent to young women by campus police forces and security companies, that female students need to be more aware of their safety and avoid situations in which they are at risk for being raped. What is problematic about this type of approach to ending rape on campus is that it puts the responsibility of rape on the potential victim, rather than the potential perpetrator. Instead of teaching women how to “avoid being raped,” we need to be teaching men not to rape. If men were not raping women, women would not feel the need to adjust their schedules, social lives, wardrobes, or consensual sexual interactions in order to “prevent” themselves from being raped. Taking those precautions are false securities. The bottom line is that a woman can do all of the recommended things and still be raped because rape has nothing to do with the woman’s behaviors, and everything to do with the man who is raping her. If colleges truly want to end the rape epidemic, men need to be changing their behavior, not women. The minimal amount of education that has been available until now to students about sexual violence, prior to the review of over sixty institutions by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights regarding the handling and processing of incidents of sexual assault on campus, is another way that rape culture has been perpetuated on college campuses.

The main opposition I have encountered against the arguments I have presented is that rape culture on college campuses is nonexistent because in fact, rape on college campuses is not really happening as much as it seems. Some refuters claim that the statistics portraying the occurrence of rape on campus are skewed by false accusations. A researcher for the American Enterprise Institute, Caroline Kitchens, wrote an article for the U.S. News and World Report in which she stated, “They [universities] must stop responding to questionable statistics and abstract claims about a rape culture and instead focus on ensuring basic fairness for all students.” While Kitchens makes a valid argument that universities should not base their entire reaction to campus rape based upon statistics, because in some cases rape accusations are false, it also needs to be noted that the number of false accusations is minuscule. According to Lonsway and colleagues, “When…methodologically rigorous research has been conducted, estimates for the percentage of false reports begin to converge around 2-8%.” The theory that rape statistics are skewed by false accusations is not necessarily untrue, but irrelevant. The rate of false accusations is so low that it would not distort the statistics enough to prove that college rape is simply nonexistent. The fact of the matter is, that even if a smaller percentage of college women are raped than statistics might suggest, women in college are still being raped, and the issue is still not being properly addressed. The “basic fairness” which Kitchens references will not be achieved unless universities nationwide begin acknowledging and acting against rape culture on campus, whether or not statistics accurately represent it.

All complex arguments aside, the existence of rape culture on college campuses is evident simply by the fact that rape continues to happen on a large scale at colleges and universities. In any society or community in which rape is occurring, some sort of rape culture must exist in order for the assaults to continue. Awareness of sexual violence on campus is spread by educating students and faculty about the reality of rape. Students who are brave enough to speak out against the sexual violence they experienced need to be encouraged, believed, and supported. Perpetrators need to be dealt with in a just, fair way and disciplined accordingly. Until concrete steps are made towards the elimination of rape culture on college campuses, sexual violence will continue to go unnoticed, unaddressed, and seemingly unstoppable. However, rape culture is not inevitable; it is not an incurable epidemic. Rape in and of itself may never stop occurring, but the culture surrounding it can be transformed. A culture of peace, support, and compassion surrounding sexual violence on college campuses is possible, real, and something worth fighting for.

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4 thoughts on “Rape Culture on College Campuses

  1. I was in college/law school at a major sec school from 1995 through 2002 and didnt come across one female friend who alleged being raped or a male friend who was accused of raping. But I guess a lots changed seems like now every college is rape town.

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  2. Wilson, in response to your comment, I would say that maybe you were among lucky company; perhaps your friends or acquaintances never experienced sexual violence. However, maybe you had friends who did experience assault, but because of the silencing which occurs due to rape culture, they were never able to speak out. Most victims don’t tell anyone about their assault. Just some food for thought.

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  3. Great post, Monica! Rape culture was indeed thriving at Idaho while I attended school there, and sadly permeates into my Facebook feed to this day. One thing that I found to be equally pervasive and damaging within the culture of Idaho was the faith-based chastity/abstinence culture that while (surprisingly) supportive of sexual assault victims, was mostly concerned with keeping the women of campus chaste (and therefore marriage material) rather than fighting for their right to be autonomous with their body and make sexual decisions for themselves. The expectation of abstinence further objectifies women as the sexual property of a future husband (note the assumption of heterosexuality). And on that note, a wonderful commentary on objectification by Laci Green: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_4dPB9MVS8

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  4. Reblogged this on mceahlvomm and commented:
    I (Monica) wrote this article about a year and three months ago while I was living in Moscow, ID. I got involved with the Women’s Center because, at the time, my boyfriend was going to school there and he was involved in the Green Dot program there. Anyways, here it is.

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