Acad. Quest. (2015) 28:40–47 DOI 10.1007/s12129-015-9482-3 R A P E C U LT U R E O N C A M P U S ?
The Unsayable Cathy Young
Published online: 7 February 2015 # Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015
In November 2013, the Badger Herald, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, published a column by editor-in-chief Katherine Krueger explaining her decision to run a letter expressing opinions that she variously described as “morally repugnant,” “offensive,” “horrifically misguided,” “repellent,” “hateful,” “ugly,” and “reprehensible.” Krueger assured her readers that the letter was published “after careful deliberation and debate” with other editors, in order to shine the light of day on such horrific ideas and allow them to be, as she rather alarmingly put it, “torn limb from limb.”1 One may wonder what awful viewpoint prompted such a denunciation. Holocaust denial? An apologia for slavery or Jim Crow laws? A defense of the death penalty for homosexuals? Nothing of the sort. The offending letter, by junior David Hookstead, was titled, “‘Rape Culture’ Does Not Exist.” Among its arguments: rape happens because “bad people exist,” not because our culture condones it; song lyrics that sexually degrade women do not prove the existence of a “rape culture” in America any more than lyrics glorifying killers prove the existence of a “murder culture”; slogans such as “we must teach our sons not to rape” disregard that everyone knows rape is illegal and that people, despite being taught not to, also rob and steal; and women who regret
Katherine Krueger, “Letter Serves as Ugly Reminder of Rape Culture on Campus,” Badger Herald, November 5, 2013, http://badgerherald.com/oped/2013/11/05/letter-serves-ugly-reminder-rape-culture-campus/.
Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com and a contributing editor to Reason; [email protected]
having drunken sex sometimes claim they were too drunk to remember what happened.2 This letter, Krueger asserted, is an object lesson in “rape culture” itself—irrefutable evidence that “rape culture is alive, well and thriving on the University of Wisconsin campus.”3 This is standard rhetoric on today’s college campus, where one can find such edifying events as the University of Ohio’s annual “F**k Rape Culture” march4 and where protesters carrying mattresses as a symbol of their battle against rape is the latest vogue.5 The vision of modern-day American and, by extension, Western civilization as a “rape culture” has migrated from the fringes of activist and academic feminism to mainstream discourse. On college campuses, it is informing a government-backed crusade that promotes not only paranoia between the sexes but coercive sexual reeducation. The concept of “rape culture” goes back to the mid-1970s. Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, portrayed rape as the ultimate act of male terror against women. Brownmiller argued that rape had played a “critical function” in patriarchal history: “It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”6 The same year, a small outfit called Cambridge Documentary Films, run by activist filmmakers Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich, released a thirty-five-minute film titled Rape Culture. Among other things, it featured radical feminist theologian Mary Daly—somewhat notorious a quarter-century later for choosing to retire from her post at Boston College rather than admit male students to her classes7—discussing America’s “rapism,” “phallocentric society,” and “unholy trinity of rape, genocide and war.” Reviewing the documentary for the journal Women & Health, Judy Norsigian of the Boston Women’s Health Collective summed up its message as follows: In a society where men are taught to be sexually active and aggressive, while women are taught to be sexually passive, it comes as no surprise that 2 David Hookstead, “‘Rape Culture’ Does Not Exist,” letter to the editor, Badger Herald, November 4, 2013, http://badgerherald.com/oped/2013/11/04/rape-culture-does-not-exist/.
Tristen Phipps, “F**k Rape Culture Marches to Bring Awareness,” Speakeasy Magazine, October 12, 2014, http://speakeasyohiou.com/2014/10/12/fuck-rape-culture-marches-to-bring-awareness/. 4
Katie Van Sickle and Amy Lombard, “Mattress-Carrying Rape Protesters Take Columbia by Storm,” New York, October 30, 2014, http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/10/mattress-rape-protesters-take-columbia-by-storm.html.
Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1975; repr., New York: 1st Ballantine Books, 1993), 15.
See Margalit Fox, “Mary Daly, a Leader in Feminist Theology, Dies at 81,” New York Times, January 6, 2010, B20.
rape is a problem. Rape is almost the logical consequence of the extreme acting out of these split sexual roles. We need to learn and re-learn that rape is not primarily the act of an aberrant individual who is behaving in conflict with the predominant values of society. Rape is a pervasive cultural problem, a social ideology regularly sustained and perpetuated by the TV-movie-radio-newspaper-popular culture network.8 The feminist critique of attitudes toward rape had some resonance in part because there is no question that the abhorrence of rape in Western society coexisted, for a very long time, with undeniably ugly attitudes. We react with horror to stories of young women in Third World countries being pressured or even forced to marry their rapists; but similar practices once existed across Europe, and survived into the 1970s in Italy.9 And in the United States, as recently as forty years ago, juries could be formally instructed to consider evidence of a woman’s “unchaste character”—from extramarital liaisons to the use of birth control—as detracting from her credibility as the complainant in a rape case, and the failure to fight back in a demonstrably threatening situation was not uncommonly treated as consent.10 Some of these practices were related to the legitimate difficulty in sorting out the facts in cases based on conflicting accounts, with little or no physical evidence of force; but they also reflected a degree of prejudice against women who were sometimes seen as less trustworthy. Yet even in that era, the claim that rape was “a social ideology” is absurd. And arguments intended to demonstrate a pervasive “rape culture” in twenty-first-century America typically rely either on dubious assertions (for instance, that the slangy use of “raped” as a synonym for “defeated” reflects tolerance of rape, as if words like “kill” and “slaughter” were not widely used in a figurative sense as well) or on distorted and out-of-context facts. Feminist pundit Jessica Valenti, for example, has written that “we live in a country where politicians call rape ‘a gift from God.’”11 This is a reference to the 8
Judy Norsigian, review of Rape Culture, by Cambridge Documentary Films, Women & Health 1, no. 1 (1975): 29–30, accessible at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J013v01n01_07#preview.
See Mario B. Mignone, Italy Today: Facing the Challenges of the New Millennium (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008), 238. See, for example, Vivian Berger, “Man’s Trial, Woman’s Tribulation: Rape Cases in the Courtroom,” Columbia Law Review 77, no. 1 (January 1977): 1–103, and Susan Estrich, “Rape,” Yale Law Journal 95, no. 6 (May 1986): 1087–1184.
Jessica Valenti, “America’s Rape Problem: We Refuse to Admit That There Is One” Jessica Valenti (blog), Nation, January 4, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/blog/172024/americas-rape-problem-we-refuse-admitthere-one.
much-publicized comment of 2012 United States Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who said, in explaining his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape, that “life is [a] gift from God…even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape.” Not only does Valenti misrepresent Mourdock’s statement, she also fails to mention that his remarks sparked general outrage and probably cost him the election in a heavily Republican district.12 Another writer and activist, Soraya Chemaly, points to the alleged fact that thirty-one states allow a rapist who impregnates his victim to sue for custody or visitation if his victim carries the pregnancy to term.13 The reality is that these states simply don’t have laws on the books explicitly barring such suits. Even attorney Shauna Pruitt, an activist fighting for such legislation, writes that this is not because anyone believes rapist fathers should have parental rights, but because there is no awareness that such a problem exists. (The general assumption is that rape victims who conceive are likely to terminate the pregnancy and that even if they carry the child to term, the rapist is extremely unlikely to seek custody.)14 Also marshaled are the shocking statistics demonstrating the pervasiveness of rape, especially on college campuses. “Is 1 in 5 American women surviving rape or attempted rape a cultural norm?” asks feminist writer Zerlina Maxwell, responding to a column by American Enterprise Institute researcher Caroline Kitchens that challenged the notion of an American “rape culture.”15 Of course, in her very next line, Maxwell asserts that one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of eighteen, which raises many confusing questions about the feminist thesis: Why would a culture that feminists regard as a deeply homophobic patriarchy promote the sexual abuse of male children, mostly by other males? That peculiar logic aside, the one-in-five figure for women is based on a 2011 Centers for Disease Control survey See Kim Geiger, “Joe Donnelly Triumphs over Richard Mourdock in Indiana Senate Race,” Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/06/news/la-pn-indiana-senate-result20121106. 12
Soraya Chemaly, “Number of States in Which Rapists Can Sue for Custody and Visitation Rights—31—and Other Shocking Rape Facts,” AlterNet.org, Gender, October 28, 2012, http://www.alternet.org/gender/numberstates-which-rapists-can-sue-custody-and-visitation-rights-31-and-other-shocking-rape.
Shauna R. Prewitt, “Giving Birth to a ‘Rapist’s Child’: A Discussion and Analysis of the Limited Legal Protections Afforded to Women Who Become Mothers Through Rape,” Georgetown Law Journal 98, no. 3 (2010): 828–62, http://georgetownlawjournal.org/files/pdf/98-3/Prewitt.PDF. Whether the problem actually exists is unclear: Prewitt mentions several women who have written to her about having to share custody with men who raped them (832–33), but it appears that none of these examples involves convicted rapists.
Zerlina Maxwell, “Rape Culture Is Real,” Time, March 27, 2014, http://time.com/40110/rape-culture-is-real/. See also, Caroline Kitchens, “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria,” Time, March 20, 2014, http://time.com/30545/its-time-to-end-rape-culture-hysteria/. 15
loaded with leading questions so shoddily worded that they are very likely to elicit responses based on consensual drunken sex.16 Ironically, based on the same questions, men report being “forced to penetrate” a woman during the past twelve months as frequently as women report being raped by a man.17 Either the CDC numbers considerably overstate sexual violence, or “rape culture” is a two-way street. Unfazed by these logical failings, feminists are pressing forward with their crusade to combat “rape culture” through law and reeducation. Thus, writer and Humanist Society activist Ashley Jordan tells readers that to end “rape culture,” they must not only “stop laughing at rape jokes” but “stop wondering if a victim is telling the truth or not.” (“Victim,” obviously, designates anyone claiming to have been raped.)18 Also to be eradicated is “victim-blaming”—far beyond the idea that a woman is inviting rape if she dresses too sexily or leads a man on. Thought crime now includes any notion that a woman bears at least partial responsibility for an unwanted sexual encounter when she does nothing to stop it, even in the absence of any force or threat and even if she gives mixed signals—or when she is too drunk to think rationally, even if her intoxication falls far short of being incapacitated. Merely pointing out that getting blackout-drunk puts a woman at risk for sexual assault has been equated with “victim-blaming,” on the grounds that telling women to take precautions against rape takes the onus off the rapist.19 What better laboratory for a crusade against “rape culture” than colleges, with their power to regulate campus conduct and require students complete programs that promote “correct” social attitudes—and with their cadre of feminist professors and administrators? Current campus policies, backed by federal initiatives from the Department of Education, the Justice Department, and the White House, are rooted in feminist dogma: the principle that one must “believe the survivor”; the idea that a woman claiming to have been raped should never be questioned about behavior that seems inconsistent with rape, such as sending 16
Matthew Breiding et al., Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization—National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 63 (SS08) (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014), http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6308a1.htm.
17 For a detailed analysis, see Cathy Young, “The CDC’s Rape Numbers Are Misleading,” Time, September 17, 2014, http://time.com/3393442/cdc-rape-numbers/.
Ashley Jordan, “TIME Magazine Is Wrong. Rape Culture Does Exist,” TheHumanist.com, April 3, 2014, http://thehumanist.com/commentary/time-magazine-is-wrong-rape-culture-does-exist. 18
See, for example, Katie McDonough, “Sorry, Emily Yoffe: Blaming Assault on Women’s Drinking Is Wrong, Dangerous and Tired,” Salon.com, October 16, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/10/16/blaming_assault_on_ womens_drinking_is_tired_dangerous_rape_apology/.
the alleged perpetrator friendly messages or even continuing a relationship; and a redefinition of rape that includes not only regretted intoxicated sex but going along with non-forcible sexual advances. One example of the climate created by this crusade is a bizarre case that unfolded at Ohio University (OU) in 2013. During Homecoming Weekend in October 2013, two inebriated students who had left an off-campus bar at closing time began kissing in the street and then proceeded to engage in a public sexual act: the man performed oral sex on the woman and penetrated her with his fingers while she sat on the ledge of a bank window. A small crowd gathered to watch them and shout ribald encouragement; inevitably, some of the onlookers used their cell phone cameras to photograph and film the spectacle, and a few hours later the photos and video were circulating on the Internet.20 The next day, the young woman went to the local police to report the encounter as a rape, claiming she had no memory of the night’s events. Video and eyewitness testimony showed that, while inebriated (just like her male partner), the young woman was a fully conscious and even enthusiastic participant in the sexual activity; at one point, the young man apparently asked her if she wanted to stop since a crowd was gathering around them, and she encouraged him to continue. She also walked away with the man, unassisted, afterwards. In view of these facts, the grand jury brought no indictment.21 Nonetheless, campus activists rallied passionately to support the woman. Some attached Post-its on the bank window where the alleged crime took place bearing such messages as “You are brave,” “Never again,” “We support you,” and “Blame the system, not the victim.”22 OU held student/faculty “conversations” discussing such topics as “healthy sexualities…victim blaming, sexual assault, masculinity/ power, consent, bystander intervention and outreach to the community.”23 Predictably, several months later, a letter published in OU’s student newspaper cited the incident as evidence of “rape culture” and “glamorization of sexual violence”: “Students immediately jumped to slut-shaming, survivor-blaming, [and] refusal to take rape accusations seriously.”24 Allan Smith, “Onlookers Detail Alleged Court Street Rape,” Post (Athens, OH), October 17, 2013, http://www.thepostathens.com/news/local/article_48c7494f-655b-580c-ada5-69dbd198a8db.html.
Jim Phillips, “Grand Jury Says No Charges Warranted in Controversial Uptown Public Sex Incident,” Athens News (Athens, OH), October 28, 2013, http://www.athensnews.com/ohio/article-40973-grand-jury-says-nocharges-warranted-in-controversial-uptown-public-sex-incident.html.
22 Allan Smith, “Notes Left on Bank Lead to Complaint against APD Officer,” Post, October 28, 2013, http://www.thepostathens.com/news/article_006953af-f6eb-5399-8a10-835729f054d4.html.
“Ohio Community Embraces Campus Conversation,” Ohio University, Compass, October 28, 2013, http://www.ohio.edu/compass/stories/13-14/10/campus-conversation-sexual-assault.cfm.
Molly Risola, “‘Rape Culture’ Term Does Apply to OU,” letter to the editor, Post, January 28, 2014, http://www.thepostathens.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/article_ed3412a1-db0a-549f-a8f3-0b66008811d3.html.
Some commentators such as Heather McDonald have suggested that the campus rebellion against “rape culture” is actually a rejection of the “hookup culture” and of the ethos of unbridled sexual liberation, and as such has elements conservatives should welcome.25 But as the OU incident abundantly demonstrates, the campus crusade against rape is not fostering traditional values of any kind. It simply transforms what should be treated as bad behavior on both sides into a male atrocity against women while refusing to assign any responsibility to the female participant. Enthusiastically embraced despite its excesses and contradictions, the “rape culture” crusade has led not only to capricious punishments by campus kangaroo courts but by the de facto vigilantism of campus graffiti naming men accused of rape.26 Among its other deplorable effects has been to limit campus debate further. One of the tenets of “rape culture” ideology, after all, is that the denial of “rape culture” itself contributes to “rape culture.” In the aftermath of the OU “rape” in October 2013, one letter-writer to the student newspaper, journalism major Tom Pernecker, had the audacity to question the existence of a prevalent “culture of rape” and to suggest that a drunken hookup is not rape.27 A response from another student was quick to follow: “You question whether rape culture is a problem. You’re perpetuating it now, Tom. You’re a part of it.”28 In this atmosphere, it’s hardly surprising that a debate held at Brown University in November 2014 between feminist author Jessica Valenti and individualist feminist Wendy McElroy, who is critical of the concept of “rape culture,” drew impassioned protests from students aghast that McElroy would be allowed to present her point of view. Brown president Christina Paxson sent out an e-mail to the university community before the event stating her disagreement with McElroy’s position; Brown also scheduled an alternative lecture on “the rape culture” in the same time slot and provided a “safe space” counseling session for students who might be traumatized by the debate. Even so, many were displeased. “Having this event now might seem like backtracking from the forward direction that we’ve been moving in,” Heather Mac Donald, “Neo-Victorianism on Campus: Is This the End of the Collegiate Bacchanal?” Weekly Standard, October 20, 2014, http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/neo-victorianism-campus_810871.html.
See, for example, Joe Coscarelli, “Columbia University Vigilantes Are Naming ‘Rapists on Campus’ in Bathroom Graffiti,” Daily Intelligencer, New York, May 13, 2014, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/ 05/columbia-graffiti-names-rapists-on-campus.html.
Tom Pernecker, “Rape Culture Not Prevalent on OU Campus,” letter to the editor, Post, October 16, 2013, http://www.thepostathens.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/article_57cc3882-35f9-58e5-925d-617ddbba2885. html.
28 Ashley Labaki, “Rape Culture Is Certainly Prevalent,” letter to the editor, Post, October 16, 2013, http://www. thepostathens.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/article_60fd99c0-85fd-508b-b19c-e1fd43395b7d.html.
Undergraduate Council of Students president Maahika Srinivasan told the Brown Daily Herald.29 When the debate proceeded, it turned out that Valenti was more or less in solidarity with those who had wanted it banned. A liveblog of the panel quoted Valenti as saying that she was “tired of talking about rape culture in a context that assumes the existence of rape culture is up for debate.” When, during the question and answer period, a student voiced that a person could be labeled “a rapist” merely for questioning the existence of rape culture, Valenti was glibly dismissive: “I think when people get raped less, they’ll be a little less touchy about it.” She was equally dismissive of a question about weighing the cost of failing victims versus victimizing the innocent, “I don’t really understand the cost-benefit analysis.” Later, when another audience member brought up the need to support both accuser and accused, Valenti responded, “In an ideal world, absolutely. But in the society we live in now, we need to side with the survivors. That might not be a fair and equal thing, but that’s how I think it has to be.”30 From the liveblog account of the debate, it is fairly clear that ending “rape culture” according to Valenti requires uncritically accepting any claim of rape, wholly supporting the “survivor,” and dismissing concern with fairness for the accused until such time as we have achieved “an ideal world.” This mindset is all too typical among advocates. In December 2014, even as a sensational Rolling Stone magazine account of a brutal fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia was exposed as a likely hoax, writer and speaker Zerlina Maxwell penned a Washington Post op-ed asserting that “we should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says” and repeating the mantra that “‘rape culture’…is real.”31 There is unquestionably a need for a better response to real sexual violence on college campuses. There is, as well, an urgent need for an honest discussion of campus sexual culture. But for such discussion to take place, the “rape culture” myth must be challenged and dismantled. In the current campus climate where such challenges are viewed as an affront, it will not be easy. Camilla Brandfield-Harvey and Caroline Kelly, “Janus Forum Sexual Assault Event Sparks Controversy,” Brown Daily Herald, November 17, 2014, http://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/11/17/janus-forum-sexualassault-event-sparks-controversy/.
30 Cathy Young, “The Debate at Brown,” Minding the Campus, November 24, 2014, http://www. mindingthecampus.com/2014/11/the-debate-at-brown/. 31 Zerlina Maxwell, “No Matter What Jackie Said, We Should Generally Believe Rape Claims,” op-ed, Washington Post, December 6, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/06/no-matter-what-jackie-said-we-should-automatically-believe-rape-claims. For more on the University of Virginia case and the Rolling Stone story, see Cathy Young, “The UVA Story Unravels: Feminist Agitprop and Rape-Hoax Denialism,” RealClearPolitics, December 8, 2014, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2014/12/08/the_ uva_story_unravels_feminist_agitprop_and_rape-hoax_denialism_124891.html.