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Inside the Red Zone: The College Rape Season

July 13, 2014, 3:49 pm

backtoschoolIt seems that we are once again talking about rape in the United States. For the first time since the 1970s, when radical feminist Susan Brownmiller published her blockbuster Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975), public discussions about rape are moving to calls for action. I doubt that we will see the comprehensive attention to all forms of sexual violence, everywhere, that we saw forty years ago. We are, for example, seeing precious little analysis that links actually occurring sexual violence (as opposed to conservative pundit Christina Hoff Summers’ assertion that sexual assault is a problem manufactured by feminists) to larger forms of institutional violence, discrimination and exploitation.

Nevertheless, where there is talk, there is hope. In 2013, private colleges and universities were put on notice that tolerating dangerous student behavior has consequences when Wesleyan University settled a civil lawsuit for an undisclosed sum. The Obama Administration has announced a task force on campus rape (which will probably create some way of punishing institutions that do not pull themselves together to hide sexual assault on campus competently) and has named 55 colleges and universities that it plans to investigate. How they chose the top offenders is hard to say: Harvard has the distinction of appearing twice on the list; Yale and Wesleyan, which have been repeatedly in the news for sexual assault and possible Title IX violations, are missing; Sarah Lawrence, which has a 3-1 ratio of women to men, is on the list.

What is really interesting is that the people who create and sustain the conditions for sexual assault on campus — whether administrators, faculty, coaches, or students — consistently present themselves as normal, caring human beings. There is not a college president in the United States who does not insist indignantly how much he or she cares about the “victims” of rape. You would think, listening to this genuine outrage, that the entire mechanism of a college comes to a halt and the calendar of every administrator is cleared until they get to the bottom of things (in the rare event that someone is actually raped on their campuses). All college presidents “take rape very seriously;” but almost none seem to think these rapes have anything to do with their own failed student life and disciplinary policies.

Today,  The New York Times has published a story by Walt Bogdanich about Anna, a female first year student at Hobart and William Smith, who had medically documented injuries consistent with having been anally and vaginally raped. She charged several football players with this rape. There were witnesses. A friend, who had been searching for her after he received text messages indicating she was in distress, finally located Anna at what seems to have been the second of at least two locations where she was raped. According to Bogdanich, she was “bent over a pool table as a football player appeared to be sexually assaulting her from behind in a darkened dance hall with six or seven people watching and laughing. Some had their cellphones out, apparently taking pictures, he said.”

Go on: read the story and weep.

I do learn something new about rape every day: most of us in higher education are aware that the weeks between a woman first setting foot on campus and Thanksgiving are when she is most likely to be raped. What I did not know is that this period of time is known by college administrators as “the Red Zone.” Football fans will also be aware that the twenty yards prior to the goal line, in which the offense is expected to “assert its will” over the defense and “score” is also called “the Red Zone.”

The Hobart and William Smith story is horrifying on many levels. One is the so-called investigation by campus authorities, who proceeded with their hearings prior to obtaining any physical or medical evidence. They also questioned Anna and others incompetently and rudely: one witness was asked whether he actually saw an accused rapist’s penis in Anna’s vagina, a feat that would only be possible for Superman. The football players accused of the rape were absolved of any wrongdoing: one said he was far too tired from the game that day to have an erection, which strikes me as a medically unproven assertion. If they did not rape Anna, someone did: who? Apparently the school does not care.

What I want to take on briefly in the rest of this post are some things that this story, with its high focus on the multiple assaults on Anna — sexual and institutional — misses. Or maybe these are the kinds of things you simply can’t say in a national newspaper. But here goes.

What’s up with the headline? I’m sure Anna is sorry she reported her assault to the administration. She went through the looking glass and found out what ridiculous people are in charge of her dream college, and what horrible people attend it. However, is it really the point that students should assume incompetence and deal with this kind of harm themselves? It seems to me that the college’s coverup of this heinous crime is the point that ought to be emphasized. How about a headline that says something educational like “Colleges Consistently Drop the Ball. Report Campus Rapes to Police.” This leads me to:

Characterizing raped women as “victims” and “survivors” who need to have their “emotional needs” prioritized by the institution gets everyone off the hook, even though it is perfectly apparent that raped women get minimal attention and poor care. Who benefits from this false assertion? The college administration, the fraternities, the alumni who support fraternity autonomy, and the rapists. Let’s not forget the other students whose right to party is inviolable, and who seem to think it is appropriate to watch women be raped, take pictures of them, tweet them all over God’s green earth, and then bully women who report the crimes.

Rape on college campuses is not an accident or an aberration. It isn’t the result of an impulse or a misunderstanding: it is as premeditated as rape in any other location. Treating campus rape as so unique that it must be dealt with outside the criminal justice system also allows campus authorities to “forget” what research on rape shows: that rapists usually plan the crime, that most rapes are perpetrated by serial rapists and that first time rapists nearly always fantasize about and plan the crime well in advance. At campus parties the plan can include some combination of the following: a room in a frat house that locks from the outside (sometimes called “the rape room”); accomplices who help to lure an inebriated or naive young woman to the room, and who guard the rapist from interference until he is done; and passive accomplices who know what is going on, but reassure each other that the assault is due to the “slutty behavior” or stupidity of the woman being raped. The Hobart and William Smith events also suggest that, although campus authorities are freshly shocked, shocked, by each rape, the potential rapists may themselves develop an explanatory narrative or group alibi in advance of the rape.

No one wants to talk about the men who are being raped on campus. There is one exception to this rule. If you are in a conversation with an administrator and you dare to use female pronouns when talking about rape, you will be repeatedly interrupted by those administrators, who will tell you (as if you hatched yesterday) that men are raped too. Then they forget about it completely. I welcome comments below (with links) from anyone whose campus anti-rape strategies actually address the sexual assault of male students.

Women currently play a prominent role in creating sexually unsafe spaces, excusing guys who rape, and slut-shaming women who have been raped. Rape is not a man vs. woman thing anymore; it is a man + his friends + all their girlfriends + all the girlfriends’ girlfriends vs. the raped woman thing. Sure, it’s easy to blame the people with the penises, but how about all those women who are at parties and not stepping forward to stop rapes? Then there are the women who need to be cool so badly that they participate vigorously in slut-shaming and reassuring the campus on Anonymous Confession Boards that “my boyfriend is a member of (name frat/team) and they are all really good guys who would never do something like this. This is just a bad breakup and she is a big lying beyotch.”

College authorities all care very deeply about the emotional needs of the victims. So much do they care about these needs that they do not attend to:

  • a vigorous prevention program that educates men about sexual assault;
  • warning first-year women that their greatest risk of being sexually assaulted is in the first few weeks of school;
  • mandating drug and alcohol counseling on a mass scale;
  • the fact that the few administrative resources allocated to sexual assault are almost exclusively focused on giving women helpful advice on how not to get raped;
  • the widespread emotional support by male and female students for rapists and for institutionalized sexual harassment practices within student organizations and teams. Read this story, in which a woman was publicly raped in a common room, as a frat party raged around her. Bad enough? There’s more. Just prior to the rape, a male pledge class was forced to strip naked in front of the party. Anybody at the same college being sued for the rape have issues with bullying a group of teenage boys into getting nude in a room of drunk strangers? 

OK: I’ll say it. It is complete horse shit that these college actually care about real rape victims, or the depths of the violence that is occurring under their noses. You know when colleges would start to care? If they had to automatically pay a very large fine, separate from any civil penalty awarded to the person who was raped, every time a campus rape was documented and proven.

The venality and cynicism of college administrations can obscure a second problem: after all, it is the students who are raping each other, tolerating rapists and documenting rape on social media as if it were just another party trick. One of the things that I am increasingly concerned about is that sexual cultures on campus are so violent and impersonal that a great many young men and women may not actually be able to distinguish between rape and consensual sex, whether they are having it, watching it, or listening to a friend or roommate describe it.

A significant number of women who reported rapes to me when I worked at a residential college would say that they were not sure that they had been raped. They were genuinely confused on this point, although the acts –as they narrated the story — were clearly acts of force, usually coupled with other violence: slapping, pinching, biting, physical restraint, threats and choking. This led me to wonder about the role that coercion, as well as untutored forms of dominance and submission, plays more generally in youth sex cultures.

I have also wondered — this is a connected, but separate thought — how many young women may be participating in sex as a social thing, without any real expectation that it will be pleasurable, with or without intoxicants. They may think that “normal sex” often hurts. I say this as someone who truly believes that the possibilities for sexual pleasure are limitless, but that for both parties it requires alertness, eagerness, skill, sobriety, self-knowledge and physical care for the other person.  Without these elements, intercourse is likely to be disappointing at best and painful at worst. Add a lot of booze (and perhaps a drug cocktail) to the mix, and the chances of having what any experienced lover would call “good sex” diminish rapidly.

And yet, the conditions I described above do seem to be the normal, and highly unsafe, conditions for sex at college: getting really plastered three to four evenings a week, and participating some kind of insertive sexual act. Do we need a sexual revolution that addresses this? Yes, I think so: and that will never happen, on or off campus, until we start caring about young people as erotic beings long before they become “victims.”

Update: HWS president Mark Geary has issued a public statement that can be found here. The letter contains a link to  this website that includes information that Geary claims “was provided to the Times reporter” and “is largely missing from the article,” and conveys “the significant plans we have moving forward to address this national and very personal issue.” It isn’t clear to me that either of these documents illuminates much, but my readers should judge for themselves. For example, the second document asserts that “in the past two years, the Colleges have adjudicated seven sexual misconduct cases resulting in four students being permanently separated from the Colleges.” Note the use of the phrase “sexual misconduct,” which colleges use to suggest that they punish sexual harm more, rather than less, rigorously, than the judicial system does. It also allows them to be unclear about what kinds of sexual assaults are occurring.

But HWS should also know that it has an abnormally low reporting rate, even in a higher education industry that does everything it can to discourage reporting, and there may be a reason for that. According to the National Institute for Justice, slightly more than a third of campus rapes are ever reported, but NIJ data shows that 3% of  college women do report. As of 2014, there will be 1259 women on campus at HWS, which would round out to 17 rape reports annually. This site also notes that 3% of college men also report having been raped as a child or adult.

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