Many of us have seen the recent headlines and outrage spilling through all social media outlets over the recent rape case at Stanford University. January of last year (2015), two graduate students riding their bikes caught who we now know was Brock Turner, sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. If that is not disturbing enough, he was later convicted of intent to commit rape of an intoxicated/unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person, and penetration of an unconscious person. He was sentenced to six months in county jail and probation. In the end he only served 3 months.
Sexual assault on college campuses is nothing new. St. Olaf University, a private liberal arts college of the Lutheran Church, has a standing reputation and testimony of sexual assaults not being handled since the ‘60s. They are far from the only campus that has chosen to ignore this problem for far too long. One good thing that has come from these despicable acts is that the cases that have recently made the news are ones that have created a broader conversation about the reality and magnitude of the problem all over the country. To truly understand the depth of the issue there are three things that must be addressed: rape culture, alcohol abuse, and policy reform.
Acknowledging Rape Culture
The term “rape culture” was coined in the late ‘70s and essentially encompasses all of the ways in which American culture blames the victim and normalizes male violence. It includes the images, language, laws and other everyday occurrences that are seen and heard often that validate rape like jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion a valid normal and “okay”. This creates a space for men and even women to assume that this is the way things are and that this treatment and rape is also “okay.” It creates a society where violence is perceived to be sexy and sexuality as violent.
More tangible descriptions of rape culture are instances like Canadian University’s student orientation chant, ““Y is for your sister. O is for oh-so-tight. U is for underage. N is for no consent. G is for grab that ass.” Rape culture is, a 50-year-old man getting away with 30 days in jail after raping a 14-year-old girl because the judge said she was “older than her chronological age,” the victim later committed suicide.
Rape culture is two boys being convicted of rape and going to prison for their crime and the news anchor mourning their lives and reflecting on how the guilty verdict has ruined their lives, with no mention of the life that these boys ruined. Rape culture is men of influence like U.S. Representative Todd Akin saying that “it is rare for someone to become pregnant from rape” because “if it is legitimate rape the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Rape culture is Idaho’s Sheriff saying that they don’t need to keep rape kits because “The majority of our rapes that are called in are actually consensual sex.” Rape culture is embedded into our very media with Bloomingdale’s advertisements saying things like, “Spike your friends eggnog when they are not looking,” condoning date rape. Rape culture is teaching women how not to get raped instead of teaching men not to rape.
It is things like Brock Turner’s judge saying that a prison sentence would have “a severe impact” and “adverse collateral consequences” on the rapist, negating the “severe impact” and “adverse collateral consequences” his actions had on the victim. It is Brock Turner’s father saying that prison time is a large price to pay for “20 minutes of action.” It is Brock Turner attributing his actions to alcohol and his victim being held accountable for his actions because she was drinking.
Addressing these things when they happen is the beginning of creating a new outlook on the detriment to the victim and highlighting the seriousness of sexual assault. In many cases it is shrugged off or made light of. The terms “prude” or “kill joy” when referring to men and women who speak out about instances like these have to end. Understanding what consent means and pointing blame at the perpetrator not the victim are all necessary steps to shedding the umbrella of rape culture and creating a space where women and their voices are valued in our culture.
How Alcohol Abuse Contributes to the Problem
Alcohol abuse is the scapegoat for a tremendous amount of sexual assaults at universities. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence even lists sexual assault in its list of “consequences to college drinking.” This kind of backward thinking contributes to the above mentioned rape culture. Drinking does not equate to rape. There is no mention of the third-party, the predator. Alcohol does not turn men into insatiable rapists.
There are many misconceptions about the fine line between alcoholism and alcohol abuse and what it really means to be dependent and how the culture of binge drinking at universities contributes to the acceptance of the prior. For many fraternities, sororities and other collective groups on university campuses drinking becomes a weekend norm. This can lead to alcohol dependency which then can continue into adulthood. Addressing the very real issue of alcohol abuse and the very real issue of consent and rape on campuses are two separate issues that should be addressed as such.
We Need Policy Reform
Current policies and administrative measures vary state to state and university to university. Examples of this are things like the revolting reality that in 31 states when rape ends in pregnancy, the rapist has parental rights. Another example is the 2014 legislature that was passed in Michigan banning coverage for abortion in private health plans, even in cases of rape or incest.
Women must now purchase additional insurance if they think they might need an abortion in the future. Now being called the “rape insurance” this is a dangerous example of the current stance on women’s rights and rape culture. In 2010, Illinois was under extreme scrutiny because of its lack of investigation into 80 percent of their rape cases, where the rape kits had never been examined. This reflected how little a priority the crime of raping a woman was in the state of Illinois.
Since light was shed on the state’s failure to provide justice for the victims and the facts were disclosed, Attorney General Lisa Madigan made Illinois the first state in the U.S. that requires every rape kit to be booked into evidence by law enforcement and sent to the crime lab for testing within 10 days of its collection. Without the study done by Human Rights Watch, would this new legislation have occurred? Probably not, and how many other states are backlogged and have all but forgotten about the thousands of rape cases and the victims that still have not seen justice.
The most important and effective way of addressing sexual assault on and off campus is policy reform. Without cohesive ideas and definitions about what a crime is there is room for error and confusion. Universities who are consistent with the state and federal laws will help create a better understanding of the issue. Once policies and procedures are determined all staff must be informed and the policies be made widely available often.
Having cohesive policies is not enough though. Those policies need to be concise, clear and easily understood with descriptive definitions of sexual assault, rape and other forms of sexual violence so that there is no room for interpretation.
There should also be very clearly laid out descriptions of the consequences (both on and off campus) if found guilty of these crimes creating an ongoing network with off-campus law enforcement to help with the reporting process. Also, ideally, due to the fact that the number of offenders and victims are so high there should be an office or official that handles these cases.
This person would handle the reports and oversee the many responsibilities associated with a report of this manner and help facilitate things like resources for counseling. Another portion of this position would be prevention programs directed not only at women but for men as well, beginning to create a space not of teaching our women not to be raped but our men not to rape.
One person in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every few minutes, according to the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network. Of 100 reported rapes, only three lead to jail time, and two out of three rape victims do not report the incident. This is an outrage and largely contributed to by the lack of knowledge about the issue and seriousness taken by the authorities when it happens.
Currently there are umbrella policies and acts in place like Title IX and the Campus SaVE Act, but universities are still not creating a space where victims know their rights, are utilizing the tools at their disposal, and are following the guidelines of these new expectations. Like with most of the fundamentally ethical changes that need to happen in America, there has to be a movement of people to push action.
Keep the Conversation Going
The media storm that the recent rape cases caused has created a platform for the conversation and proper changes that need to be made. There have been some needed policies put into motion by Congress, now it is time for them to trickle down and for universities to be held accountable. That is where all of us come into play.
All of the survivors, women, mothers, students, people with a conscience – silence doesn’t suit us. It is way past the time of accountability for both the predator and the universities that condone their actions. Reach out to your local universities and ask questions, create (support) groups and organize.
Several studies show that one in five women are sexually assaulted in college. Chances are you or someone you know have dealt with sexual assault. This is not a “feminist” issue. This is a human issue. Stand up for those whose claims have been ignored or forgotten. Stand up for your rights as a human being. Stand up and have a voice so that things like the Stanford rapist and the sentence he received are no longer the norm.