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Challenging rape myths on campus

A new book looks at higher education’s poor track record in confronting sexual assault
University Business, November 2015

A study released in September by the Association of American Universities found that 12 percent of students across 27 universities had experienced sexual assault by force or incapacitation since enrollment, and that 17 percent of seniors had experienced this type of sexual assault while at college.

Sara Carrigan Wooten, a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Research at Louisiana State University, says the report comes as no surprise, as she has been researching the issue for a number of years.

Her new book, The Crisis of Campus Sexual Violence: Critical Perspectives on Prevention and Response (Routledge, 2015), co-edited by Roland W. Mitchell, an associate director and associate professor in LSU’s School of Education, offers a holistic understanding of the challenges colleges and universities face in implementing adequate and effective sexual assault prevention and response practices.

In fact, says Wooten, the problem is so extensive and rapidly changing that a follow-on volume is already in the works.

You say we’re using outdated definitions when discussing sexual violence.

I believe we are. When we say campus sexual violence, the image that snaps into our collective conscious is generally a white woman who has been assaulted, maybe at a fraternity or a party where there was lots of drinking and maybe drug use. Sexual violence in college is much broader than that and it’s much more complex.

So, while we are still not doing as well as we must for straight white women, we also need to be thinking more expansively about who is affected by this. If we flip the script and we say any student—or even faculty member—can be impacted by campus sexual violence, then that changes the entire conversation.

You note that there was little acknowledgment of LGBT sexual assault before the AAU study.

I was happy that the AAU study asked questions of gender nonconforming, transgender students, and so on. But I would characterize it as a special interest focus of mainstream campus sexual assault research rather than being centered and normalized within that conversation.

I don’t think we know nearly enough about how gay men and lesbian women are experiencing campus sexual violence, about how gender nonconforming students are experiencing campus sexual violence. There’s still so much work to do there.

At one point you discuss rape myths. Can you explain what is meant by that?

Let me give you some examples. The predominant rape myth for campus sexual assault issues is that the victim was responsible in some way for their own assault. It is oftentimes what leads students to feel that they should not report their assault.

A student goes to a party and drinks or maybe does drugs, or they accept a drink from someone that contains a date rape drug put in it. They drink it, they pass out. They wake up in the morning and they know something happened.

But they feel that they were responsible because—and I’m putting this in extreme air quotes—they put themselves in that situation.

It is their fault that they were assaulted, and if they had not done any of those things, they would not have been assaulted. This is a really pervasive idea. It’s a horrible rape myth because it functions to absolve any responsibility from the perpetrator of the actual sexual assault.

This idea that if victims just change their behavior that they wouldn’t get assaulted is ludicrous.

And we can see that from a number of different angles. Another rape myth is women who wear short skirts are inviting rape, or women who go to parties alone are inviting rape, or women who binge drink in college are inviting rape. Those are all rape myths.

Every semester I have these conversations with my students. I say if you think that only attractive women in short skirts get sexually assaulted, then you are basically saying that rape is a compliment or it’s flattering. And that’s really dangerous, particularly when we know that women in sweatpants get raped, too.

LGBT students buy into these rape myths as well. And they have some unique myths to their own communities that straight white women don’t have. But this idea of victim blaming and self-blame for the assault of responsibility is substantial.

When it comes to administrators, you say that protecting institutional reputation and prestige means, essentially, turning a blind eye to the problem.

This is a truth that we in higher education are not comfortable with and we don’t really like to talk about. But there have historically been terrible and tremendous barriers for survivors of rape and sexual assault on their campuses when seeking justice within their institution after those assaults. It’s really tragic.

The nature of the beast is that higher education institutions are being increasingly treated as a capitalist business model. And that means that they have a number of competing interests in terms of funding, donors, and institutional prestige and reputation.

How does that manifest in reporting crimes?

Let’s say we have a call to campus police saying a woman has been sexually assaulted. Police arrive on the scene. That woman is intoxicated. With university police coding of what is going on at this crime scene, effectively, the responding officer can check off that this is an alcohol violation and not a sexual assault violation.

So it manipulates the number. It’s a way to manipulate the numbers and hide sexual assault that is happening. We consistently have extremely low number of reports of rape and sexual assault within institutions.

I was looking into various universities sexual violence report numbers and sometimes it would be one, or two, or even zero, which is ludicrous when you know statistically what’s going on. The reason we know the extent of the problem is due to anonymous surveys.

Rolling Stone magazine retracted a story earlier this year about sexual assault at University of Virginia. Admittedly, there were many problems with the story, but in the aftermath the attitude seemed to be, “Nothing to see here. Move along.”

The real tragedy of that whole situation was the impact on survivors. All the research that we have points to that culture being very violent, misogynistic and dangerous for women in particular.

Then, through the course of investigation, there appear to be problems with the story. Suddenly we are able to easily discredit the victims, and that very dangerous culture is then completely absolved of its real dangerous dynamics. And the perpetrators are heralded as the true victims in this situation.

The problem is that it buys into the typical narrative that students who come forward and report assault are lying. The Rolling Stone article validates that scenario. It says, “See? Women lie. These poor boys almost had their lives completely ruined by this lying, manipulative person, and they are the ones who we should really trust and they are the ones who we should really believe.” That was a painful thing to watch unfold.

You argue that Title IX is a toothless regulation, and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) recently suggested The Clery Act should be scrapped. Why are they ineffective?

The financial penalties in the Clery Act are so low that universities aren’t super moved by them. I don’t think they find them particularly threatening. And with Title IX, it’s important to keep in mind that the biggest tool in The Department of Justice’s toolbox in terms of these violations is threatening to strip financial aid funding from a university that is not in compliance.

That’s never happened, even though we’ve had some pretty egregious situations with universities and colleges. It has never happened.

The relationship between The Department of Justice and most institutions is usually cordial. It’s like, “OK, so you’ve made a few violations and we are going to help you come into compliance.” Of course we want those institutions to come into compliance. But we also want them to be held accountable for sometimes horrifying violations against student rights.

The problem, as we argue in the book, is that we don’t sit with the questions long enough before running to find solutions for them. We’re just looking for solutions to “what,” but we’re not asking “why.”

So this problem runs deeper than just higher ed?

Yes. Part of it goes back to before students enter higher education.

We live in a county that has been overly reliant on abstinence-only education instead of healthy sexuality education. Even when we have sex ed that isn’t abstinence-only, it’s fear-based, driven by scary pictures of STDs and the outcomes of getting pregnant. We’re not even teaching our children how to have healthy sexuality, and that’s a component.

So we can’t even think about this as just being contained to higher education. It’s not. We have to think about it as being broader. And what are the connections that we can make to how students are experiencing these things before they enter higher education and how are they experiencing them when they leave?

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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