Why Colleges Won’t (Really) Address Rape Culture

One in five women and 6 percent of men will face sexual assault/rape during their time in college. But no college in the U.S. has come up with a plan to effectively shift rape culture on their campus. It’s not an impossible task, but it is fraught with competing political and economic pressures. Below, we share ways to effectively shift rape culture on college campuses, and expose how schools benefit from not shifting this culture.

Rape culture describes a society in which rape is common and normalized by societal attitudes and practices. In the U.S., rape is tacitly condoned through denial of the rape epidemic, denial of the harms of rape, not considering rape a “real” crime, victim-blaming, trivializing rape, and the normalization of female sexual objectification and rape eroticization in pop culture.

While the cultural knowledge, agreement and coordination it would require to shift rape culture will not materialize anytime soon, campuses can at least shift away from rape culture and better protect students by doing four things:

1) Establish a clear definition of consent.

Many schools have moved away from a verbal consent standard in favor of a verbal or physical consent standard, but physical consent is based on non-verbal cues that are often misread, the reading of which is particularly impaired by alcohol, and that some students on the autism spectrum cannot send or receive in an accurate way. If campus administrators cannot provide a clear definition and examples of “non-verbal consent,” then students cannot be asked to use this as the basis for determining whether sexual activities are consensual.

Another way consent has been clarified is by moving from a “no means no” standard to a “yes means yes” standard. California recently passed a “yes means yes” law requiring that parties give affirmative consent prior to engaging in sexual activities. According to this new law, “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.” This law effectively shifts the burden from survivors—who previously had to prove that they did not consent—to both parties proving they did consent, a clearer basis for determining whether a rape has occurred.

2) Educate students about sexual violence laws.

Rape culture involves a spectrum of violence, ranging from sexual harassment and sexual battery to sexual assault and rape. A key step in shifting campus rape culture is to educate students about what constitutes each form of sexual violence under state and federal law.

3) Send a clear message that sexual violence of any kind will not be tolerated on campus.

When students come to campus, most of them bring nearly two decades of attitudinal baggage that sexual violence is normal and is not really that bad. These beliefs are reinforced at campus functions that are rife with condoned sexual violence: “surprise” grinding at dances; non-consensual grabbing and fondling at parties; pledging and party rituals that include sexual battery and assault, etc. Survivor and federal complainant Rebecca Cooper notes that sexual violence is so commonplace that it is “widely regarded as a right of passage from high school to college.” To shift rape culture, officials have to send the clear message that no form of sexual violence will be tolerated on campus, or at campus-related or student events.

4) Establish, publish and enforce strong sanctions for sexual violence on campus.

All schools have a sanctioning scheme for sexual violence based on the type of offense and the perpetrator’s previous offenses. However, almost no schools publish specific sanctions for different types of sexual violence, and many schools apply sanctions on a case-by-case basis. Instead, most schools publish a range for punishments (e.g., from probation to expulsion), but this is analogous to expecting an armed robber to be deterred by knowing they will receive anywhere from probation to 10 years in prison. Ranges that include a slap on the wrist are not effective deterrents.

It seems like common sense that schools would have clear sanctions and publish them, like they do for plagiarism, theft and other violations of the student code of conduct. But officials are reluctant to develop standard sanctions and advertise them because they would lose the ability to apply sanctions in an individualized way that takes other factors into account, such as how much money the perpetrator’s family might contribute to the institution or the likelihood that the perpetrator will sue the institution.

That’s one reason so many schools reluctant to draw that line and enforce it. But here’s another ugly truth: schools benefit from not challenging rape culture.

Keeping rape culture under wraps means reported-rape numbers remain low. If more survivors spoke out, schools would have to provide more staff resources to handle the complaints and, at the same time, the allegations would threaten the school’s reputation and bottom line.

Schools also benefit from hazy definitions of consent and ad hoc sanctions because, as noted above, this creates unnecessary ambiguity that gives administrators the power to consider other factors when determining responsibility and sanctions. Title IX complaints filed with the Department of Education include claims of administrators conducting biased investigations and adjudication processes that resulted in light sanctions for athletes, student leaders, perpetrators with donor parents and perpetrators who threatened to sue the college.

To sum up, colleges cannot effectively shift broader rape culture because this would require multiple societal institutions working together to address deep-seated sexist beliefs upheld by men and women. But colleges can address the manifestations of rape culture on their campuses by establishing clear definitions of consent, sexual battery, sexual assault and rape, conveying these definitions to students and establishing and enforcing universal sanctions for different forms of sexual violence. It’s time for schools to step up.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons 2.0




About and

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.
Baillee Brown is a Politics senior at Occidental College.