A Rape Culture on Campus? Yes, But With Qualification

Since Rolling Stone embarrassed itself with its article last December, “A Rape on Campus,” the media has weighed in heavily on the subject. Many, who say that a rape culture exists, contend that it matters not that the article was fabricated, that its narrative gets to a deeper truth about what is happening to young women on campuses across the country. Against this position, others point out how far from the truth Rolling Stone strayed and how distant from legal definitions many campus rape accusations are. People on this side argue that claims of a rape culture are trumped up. Much as I hate to admit the existence of such a culture anywhere, my sympathies lie with the former group. I only object to how they have apportioned guilt, and before some leap to a conclusion, I have no intention of “blaming the victim.”

Because so many in this debate put words in other’s mouths and ascribe beliefs to them that they do not necessarily hold, let me make some of my beliefs on this subject clear. Rape, to my mind, is a terrible crime, in any form, worse than assault, second only to murder. Whether done at the point of a knife, the threat of other violence, or by incapacitating the victim, it comes to the same thing. People who do such things should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They deserve prison, not just expulsion from university life. A college or university administration, while pursuing its own investigations, has an obligation to society to get the authorities involved. If the standards of proof differ on campus from those used in court, that difference can stand on the record. It is nonetheless a dereliction of one’s duty as a citizen to believe that someone has raped another and not report it.

Many of those who argue that a rape culture exists implicitly contend that campuses are just full of bad boys who take what they want regardless of the pain it causes others. They want them either thrown off campus or cowed. I would contend that the problem is deeper and that it goes beyond a few or even many bad apples. I would argue that the milieu on campus positively encourages such behavior. It effectively converts many young men who otherwise would behave in other ways. It encourages young women to gratify such sometimes natural and sometimes manufactured male attitudes. It does so by characterizing sex as just one of many pleasant activities, much like enjoying a beer on a hot day, arguing that men and women alike can enjoy it in just this way, indeed should, and by mocking as unenlightened those who see things differently. This milieu exists in the general culture, too, but is that much more intense on campus. After all, a concentration of young people gather there and carry with them all the hormonal pressures typical of that stage in life, pressures that for time immemorial have pressured people to do things that they later regret, both men and women. What is more, campus has fewer voices than the larger society that dissent from the sex-is-a-harmless-pleasure-available-to-all view, at least that is the impression given by any number of course listings and orientation brochures.

It is then little wonder that young men feel freer there than elsewhere to indulge that age-old urge for casual sex and give less thought than otherwise to the feelings of others. It is also little wonder, then, that young women there face greater pressure than elsewhere to go along with things or, consistent with the cultural milieu on campus, act in this regard just like the men. And since many young people have not entirely bought into the precepts of that milieu, it is little wonder that the environment frequently produces regrets. Perhaps an inebriated young man who has sex with an inebriated young woman is more responsible for her regrets than she is. I am not chauvinist enough to buy that. But however one apportions guilt within the couple, however much some male supremacist insists that he must bear all the blame, the milieu surely also should carry some guilt. Of course, the milieu did not create itself. Its blame, then, would seem to carry over to the faculty and administration that have so actively promoted it, that implicitly gave the young man license and that shamed the young woman for any hesitations she might have had. Of course such accusations would not stand up in a court of law, but then, as the universities and the Department of Education have made clear, the courts’ standards of guilt need not always apply. There are other standards, and it is apparent who they would condemn.

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