Sounding the Alarm on Campus Rape

Bloomberg News took the campus sexual assault backlash to a new low last week with a piece describing how “hook-up culture” is on the decline at elite colleges now that there’s a heightened awareness of sexual assault on campuses. The focus of the article is the “burden” male students carry as a result of new interest in the campus rape epidemic. So what is the burden that is so heavy it warrants an entire article?

  • Having to be more cautious about gauging the interest of a romantic pursuit
  • Having to avoid making romantic pursuits “feel uncomfortable”
  • Having to learn what constitutes consent
  • Having to be more cautious about making decisions while drunk
  • Having to be more cognizant of how social media comments may appear to others

In other words, the new campus anti-rape movement has made male students more thoughtful and less predatory, but journalist John Lauerman and former Bloomberg intern Jennifer Surane frame this in negative terms.

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The authors indulge in gross victim-blaming throughout the piece and reinforce the notion that women are responsible for not getting raped. One example is this lengthy quote from Chris Herries, a 22-year-old Stanford student:

Some men feel that too much responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been put on their shoulders. While everyone condemns sexual assault, there seems to be an assumption among female students that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves by avoiding drunkenness and other risky behaviors. Do I deserve to have my bike stolen if I leave it unlocked on the quad? We have to encourage people not to take on undue risk.

Herries could not have said it more clearly—women who get drunk or engage in other “risky” behaviors “deserve” to be raped—and the authors made the decision to print this without exposing it as a rape myth.

Lauerman and Surane also mischaracterize the campus rape epidemic as a muddy miscommunication problem, effectively portraying rape as difficult for men to avoid. For example, in a passage describing a male student having to think twice about whether he should offer a coed a beer, they use this quote from a 20-year-old economics major: “I don’t want to look like a predator … It’s a little bit of a blurred line.”

In case there was any doubt, Lauerman and Surane wrap up their piece by overtly portraying male college students as victims. In a section titled “Witch Hunt,” they quote liberally from William Pollack, a Harvard psychologist and head of the Centers for Men and Young Men: “While sexual assault is undoubtedly a real problem, heightened attention in the media has created a ‘witch-hunt’ environment. Most males would never do anything to harm a young woman. We’re starting to scare the heck out of the wrong people.”

Articles that perpetuate rape myths matter because they shape public opinion, and this is not Lauerman’s first time making harmful claims. He previously wrote about the “hardships” men face when they are found responsible for rape on campus, arguing that alleged male perpetrators face bias in campus adjudication processes (despite overwhelming bias in the opposite direction that leads to about 2 percent of campus rapists being held accountable). I’ve worked with Lauerman in the past but stopped after getting into an argument over whether or not opening an article about a survivor by saying she was drunk framed the assault in victim-blaming terms. When I told him the feminist blogosphere would call him out on it, he had a good long laugh. I hope that the feminist blogosphere has the last laugh by holding Lauerman and other irresponsible reporters responsible for promoting dangerous rape myths.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Wolfram Burner licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Dr. Caroline Heldman is the Executive Director of The Representation Project, Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Senior Research Advisor for the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. She also co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, End Rape on Campus, Faculty Against Rape and End Rape Statute of Limitations. Her books include Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House?, Protest Politics in the Marketplace: Consumer Activism in the Corporate Age), Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States, The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement and Sex and Gender in the 2016 Presidential Election. Her research has been featured in top academic journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, Political Psychology and Political Communications; and her work has also been featured in the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.