Why is There a Rape Culture on Campus?

By Timothy Hayes on September 11, 2015

Rape culture. The very name bears an ominous gloom.

First described in the 1970s by feminists, the term has since sparked debate after debate about sex, rights, crime, and culture. Some would seek to deny that the U.S. has a rape culture citing our high Human Development Index or the number of rape cases in our judicial system. Feminists and scholars disagree with this idea, citing more accurate representations of the pervasiveness of rape as a cultural phenomenon.

Rape is defined by the FBI as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim. Attempts or assaults to commit rape are also included [.]” That’s pretty straightforward and no nonsense. What gets weird is when people use the words “rape culture.”

Rape culture is not as clearly defined by one organization. Instead multiple groups have definitions of their own. For instance, Marshall University defines rape culture as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.”

The Huffington Post defined rape culture as “a culture in which dominant cultural ideologies, media images, social practices, and societal institutions support and condone sexual abuse by normalizing, trivializing and eroticizing male violence against women and blaming victims for their own abuse.”

Both definitions agree that the rape culture normalizes – but perhaps not consciously – rape and sexual assault. Both definitions take note that rape is prevalent. They also make special note of how the media and pop culture treats women.

From all these definitions, it might be hard to sort out real-world meanings. Some doubt the existence of a rape culture in the U.S., let alone on university campuses, places of distinguished learning and scholarly distinction.

That was new pledges at Yale fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” If you think there isn’t a rape culture on campus, there’s more. The U.S. Justice Department reported that 293,066 rapes occur annually. This absurdly high measure is more than double the rate in the United Kingdom and it gets worse.

According to the FBI crime clock, a rape occurs every 6.2 minutes in the U.S. The rate of reporting in the U.S. is abysmally low — not even half, suggesting that reports of rape may be far too conservative. The worst of it is that on college campuses, it is even lower at about 10 percent.

Why, one must ask, is this such a pervasive problem? Rape culture.

The definitions laid out above both say that rape is prevalent and that can and has been demonstrated as above. The second issue is that rape is either accepted or normalized. This issue is of course something absolutely absurd. Right?

To give you some idea of how accepted or rather, blatantly ignored sexual assault is, an amazing 106 colleges and universities across the country are under investigation by the federal government for underreporting cases of rape and sexual assault to federal authorities and failing to take steps to correct these problems.

(image courtesy of www.dayofthegirl.com)

These infamous Title IX violations are part of the 1990 Clery Act that requires campuses to report sexual crimes to the federal government. Since 2011, the number of schools under heavy scrutiny has ballooned from a handful to the present number. A few schools are under extreme examination by the Civil Rights Authority in so called case reviews with the possibility of losing federal funding.

Although the anecdote of the story was false, the Rolling Stones story of a gang-rape at the University of Virginia served to expose UVA’s extremely sexualized culture, federal case review, and pervasive choice of inaction on the part of students and faculty.

So rape happens, it happens a lot, it’s not reported enough especially on campuses, and many universities are under review for failing to take action, but why; why is all of this happening?

This is where the longer Huffington Post definition is very useful. They make sure to point out that the idea is pervasive in the culture’s images and media. These in turn influence the people who grow up in these cultures who further influence how the media markets itself. This causes the problem to pervade society without become heinous because this has been spoon-fed to people since childhood.

Consider that the average age to view pornography is now 11. The primary consumers of pornography are men and boys. Men and boys make up most of the demographic of rapists. The problem with pornography is that it is designed to get someone off. That’s it. It doesn’t teach respect. In many cases it depraves women and ignores them when they say “no.” Rape is supposedly never shown in legal pornography and all participants are consenting adults, but the problem is that porn blurs lines.

Now consider the sexualized content on television, the internet, even billboard advertisements that create the image of a sexy woman. These images surround the boys and men that grow up nowadays. They are saturated in sex.

This, coupled with false messages surrounding them in advertising that they deserve something can detrimentally affect men’s perceptions of women and what to expect from them and how to treat them. Music too has been slowly building up in sexual tension as each generation grows up in increasingly sexual surroundings, but with little instruction into genuine sex.

The last crucial piece of the puzzle is sex education. Sex education is rarely that. Anatomy, biology, and some basics of pathology are taught, but more often kids are left with little knowledge of intimacy, how to ask questions, or what constitutes sex and consent.

My own sex education in high school has not impacted me in any meaningful way. Most information aside from mechanics and components of sex has come from peers or the internet, two notoriously unreliable resources. It was not until college that I fully understood what consent was.

This can only scratch the surface of the large problem that rape culture presents on college campuses today. Thankfully, we have reached a tipping point when people have had enough. Infamous cases headline the news about college rape and assault every week. New outrage is raised and people are being heard. Victims are getting help and the law is stepping in. Now, perhaps knowing some of these problems we can advance towards long-term solutions culturally and legally.

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