Rape on campus: a cultural phenomenon

by Sallie Carter

Campus rape and sexual assault, while shockingly common, have not been widely discussed at Sewanee in the past. These things do exist here, though, and while they are beginning to receive the increased attention they deserve, it does not seem that they are being addressed as well as they might be. Rape and sexual assault are problems here because they are a problem everywhere—these are not things that crop up occasionally in certain communities, and so we must look at them as national and even global issues as we consider how to correct them.

Of course, specific communities do have their specific variations on these problems. At Sewanee, it seems that one of the largest issues is the relationship between sexual assault and alcohol consumption. The number of stories about people blacking out and then coming to unsure of whether they’ve been assaulted, or in fact sure that they have been, is chilling. Unfortunately, the involvement of alcohol in many of these cases does not seem to remind people that consent was not given (and in fact could not have been), it often seems to double the deluge of victim-blaming comments. ‘Does she drink regularly? How much does she drink? Does she get drunk at parties or with friends, or does she regularly pass out, or make out with guys when she’s drunk?’ In asking these questions, we shift blame to the victim, making her actions become the problem rather than the actions of the person who raped her.

We do this for a number of reasons. For some, it is a way to distance themselves from the idea that they too might be raped in a similar situation. Others are looking for proof of the consequences for engaging in “immoral” behavior. In the end, though, all of this blaming behavior contributes to the over-arching problem with the way we regard sexual assault. The thing that links assault at Sewanee to assault all over the country, on and off of college campuses, is rape culture, and, more generally, attitudes towards women as objects rather than people.

Rape culture is a culture in which the presence of rape and sexual assault is so pervasive that it becomes normalized and, further, trivialized. It inderlies the frequent use of rape jokes, contributes to victim blaming and ‘slut- shaming.’ It teaches women to be ever aware of the threat of rape, constantly prepared to defend themselves, rather than teaching consent to all people, and supports the notion that women exist primarily for male interest and entertainment. It fills pages on pages with stories of assault, harassment, and more at sites like the Everyday Sexism Project or Hollaback. Rape and sexual assault are local issues, yes. But they are also national and global issues, and ones that we can’t hope to effectively address without first addressing or acknowledging, the pervasive influence of rape culture that leads us to dismiss or downplay sexual assault, or to displace blame.

Certainly, the university has taken a step in the right direction by asking students to think specifically about consent, reminding us to “Ask for consent, respect the reply, and honor each other.” Yet this still strikes me as a way to avoid the topic, in that it refuses to directly mention sexual assault. I don’t doubt this was done as a way to diminish a lot of the awkwardness that seems to surround discussions of sexual subjects, or perhaps to encourage students to take it more seriously rather than giggling to themselves. I do not think it was phrased this way out of deliberate intent to hide the issue. Even so, anything that reduces visibility of sexual assault contributes to the problem, no matter what the intentions were.

In the extreme, it’s the USC administration dismissing a claim of rape despite a recorded confession. At Sewanee, it is a problem of not always tackling issues directly, in plain language. If we can’t discuss rape and sexual assault frankly, we cannot begin to effectively discuss ways to combat them, and so perpetuate the problem whether this is our goal or not.

The way to combat rape culture is not to ignore it and hope that, by taking attention away, it will disappear. One would hope that, going forward, the university takes further steps to educate and appropriately communicate with the student body about campus rape and sexual assault as it reconsiders and reforms its approach to these issue.

If you need to speak to someone about sexual assault, please call the crisis response team at 931-636-4887.