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The Duke Case in Perspective

The Duke Case in Perspective

March 2, 2007

Roiling the blogosphere with opinion mostly favoring the Duke University lacrosse team players, the aftermath of the now notorious party has shaken up Duke with charges of sexism and racism on one side and outraged declarations calling for campus administrators to support "our students" on the other. The furor has distracted attention from the misogynist sexual culture on display at the party. Regardless of the outcome of the legal case against the indicted players, the question raised by an administrator regarding whether Duke intentionally or unintentionally promotes "a culture of crassness" remain.

In its coverage a Newsweek reporter wrote: "It is hard to know just how deep the culture of crassness runs at Duke, but one wonders after reading an e-mail sent from one of the lacrosse players' address an hour or so after the party." In this now infamous e-mail the author told his buddies that after the party he wanted to hire some strippers and skin them and kill them while he ejaculated in his Duke-issue spandex.

Leaving aside the question of whether a sexual assault took place at the party or whether the district attorney botched the investigation in ways that may have forever hurt both the accuser and the accused, there are some undisputed facts in the case that do not speak well for gender and racial parity in the Duke student culture. A large group of white male students at a wealthy prestigious university that claims to teach students to respect one another didn't give a moment's thought to hiring two minority "exotic dancers" to perform for them. One of the women attended the historically black college on the other side of town. The degrading e-mail message sent after the performance mirrors an evening of excess and debauchery. Based on my studies of gang rape on college campuses I suspect that there is a grain of truth in the messenger's fantasy about reliving the excitement of the evening.

The eye-witness accounts of campus gang rape I present in Fraternity Gang Rape and A Woman Scorned provide powerful testimony of the depth and breadth of the problem, including the degradation of women, the bragging, and the urge to make a record for future reference. The unfettered expression of male sexual dominance first came to my attention in the winter of 1983 when a student in one of my classes at the University of Pennsylvania who had a drinking problem went to a fraternity party where she was raped by a number of brothers in what they labeled an "express" in the minutes written for their next meeting, playing on the word "train" used for group sexual activity in which males mount a woman sequentially. According to various eyewitness and hearsay accounts of what happened that night, Laurel (pseudonym) was incapable of consent due to her drugged-drunk condition. The next day, based on what she had observed of Laurel's behavior at the party a woman friend of the brothers angrily told them that it was rape when they bragged to her about their sexual escapade the night before. The local DA for sex crimes came to the same conclusion after hearing the facts of the case.

Few of the males involved in this and the other cases that I have studied know or even care to know that legally if a woman cannot consent to sexual intercourse, it is rape. Males who feel sexually entitled see nothing wrong with taking advantage of a woman's physical helplessness or inability to consent.  A woman who gets drunk is "asking for it." This is true despite the fact that they may have made the woman's drinks "really strong to loosen up some of those inhibitions." Fraternity brothers have told me that the goal of their parties is to "get em drunk and go for it."

All of this would be classified as a felony in the Pennsylvania rape law, which states that a person who engages in sexual intercourse with a person "who is unconscious" or who "has substantially impaired the complainant's power to appraise or control his or her conduct by administering or employing, without the knowledge of the complainant, drugs, intoxicants or other means for the purpose of preventing resistance," commits a felony of the first degree.

Rape is not necessarily the only offense committed in the group sexual degradation of women. I know of cases in which there was no rape but there was sexual abuse. I am not surprised that the rape charges were dropped in the Duke case in light of the absence of DNA evidence. Indeed they should have been dropped much earlier. While rape is defined exclusively in terms of "vaginal intercourse" a sexual offense refers to everything else including touching, using objects, or anal intercourse. It is noteworthy that the sexual offense and kidnapping counts have not yet been dropped.

Another case I followed closely parallels the charges in the Duke case in that it also involved members of a lacrosse team, a black complainant, alcohol, kidnapping, and sexual offenses short of rape. This case was widely referred to in the news as the "St John's Lacrosse Team Sex Assault Case." Getting a woman drunk to have sex in a show staged for one's buddies was tragically evident in the testimony heard in a Queens courtroom in 1991-2 after indictments were issued against six members of the St. John's University lacrosse team for acts ranging from unlawful imprisonment and sexual abuse to sodomy. A seventh defendant pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for immunity.

The complainant was a young black student. I call her Angela in A Woman Scorned, a book devoted to the legal and cultural history of sexual culture in the United States. She had imigrated to the U.S. with her parents from Jamaica when she was in elementary school. A student at St. John's, she accepted a ride home from school from a male friend, Michael. On the way, he stopped at the house he shared with members of the St. John's lacrosse team, ostensibly to get gas money, and he invited her inside. At first she refused to go in but upon his insistence accepted the invitation. Inside she met his roommates. Left alone in a third floor bedroom, she accepted a drink from Michael. The drink tasted terrible. Based on the symptoms she displayed throughout the evening, many involved with the case suspected that the drink was spiked with ketamine, a drug that other rape cases demonstrated caused a separation of mind and body so that the ability to feel and control one's body is blocked, but this was never proved.

After Michael plied her with three drinks, which she could barely swallow, Angela passed out.  Testimony in the courtroom revealed that Michael then proceeded to engage in oral sodomy watched by three house members. After Michael finished, these three took their turns while visitors invited over from another lacrosse team house watched. Angela was unconscious through most of it.  When she awoke, it seemed like there were five or more boys in the room. She was propped in a sitting position, but her head wouldn't stay up. The leader, who was addressed as Walter and was later prosecuted as was Michael, held her cheeks to force her mouth open so his friends could slap their penises against her face or put it in her mouth. She tried to get up several times. Once, her nails scratched Walter. He slapped her hands. She passed out again. When she came to, she screamed.  When Walter put his hand on her neck, she knew that she had to be careful not to upset him. She didn't know what he might do to her. Dazed she fell back on the couch. She felt Walter pushing her down on the sofa. One of the guys in the room left and she heard someone say, "Her pupils are dilated. She doesn't know what's going on." She was then taken to another lacrosse team house. There, for the first time in the gruesome experience, one of the players challenged the others and told them to stop.

The steps taken by the St. John's administration after Angela went to a trusted member of the administration were unusual at the time. The university turned the matter over to the police and suspended the alleged abusers, pending the legal outcome of the case. At the end of the legal proceedings, which resulted in a number of convictions, St. John's took the additional step of expelling all but one of the students who asked for reinstatement, on the grounds that they had violated the student code and displayed, in the words of the university's president, "a serious lack of respect for others and even one another." The one student whose request for reinstatement was granted had cooperated with the authorities.

Although separated by more than a decade and differing in details the overarching commonality in these cases is the use of a visibly incapacitated woman as a tool for male bonding in a game of sexual dominance.  Alcohol played a central role in all three cases.  At the Duke lacrosse party both of the exotic dancers were given cups of "a drink" after they arrived at the house while they were in the bathroom getting ready for the strip show. Only one drank the contents. The other dancer gave the cup to her partner who began acting strangely soon after.  According to the dancer who did not take the drink the accuser was sober when she arrived at the house.  It was when they began their strip show that she "began having trouble," she later told the press.

The scenario is one of privileged males proving their manhood by staging live porno shows for one another involving a wounded young woman. She is the duck or the quail raised and put in place for the hunter. Who she is doesn't matter and she is quickly forgotten after it is all over – sloughed off like a used condom. The event operates to glue the male group as a unified entity; it establishes fraternal bonding and helps boys to make the transition to their vision of a powerful manhood -- in unity against women; one against the world. The patriarchal bonding functions a little like bonding in organized crime circles -- generating a sense of family and establishing mutual aid connections that will last a lifetime.

The gender picture that emerges from these cases mirrors the double standard of the 19th century: Nice women wait to get married and elite males sow their "wild oats" on party girls who are demeaned as the males demean their own sexuality. If the males are prosecuted they defend themselves saying "she asked for it;" "she is a woman scorned;" or "she wants money." Most commentators in the blogosphere, on news programs, and in the media are convinced that the latter motivated the actions of the Duke accuser. I'm not so certain. I am inclined to think that her impaired memory and immobility provides evidence that she was incapacitated.

It is a shame that the commentary focusing on the legal issues and the alleged ethical violations on the part of the DA has obscured the broader cultural issues such as the impact of alcohol in this case and more broadly on college campuses. It is now well known that there is a high correlation between campus rape and alcohol. The 2004 study by the Harvard School of Public Health involving 119 colleges and 23,000 students establishes this beyond a reasonable doubt.  Another important finding of this study indicated that the highest rates of rape are found on campuses with a lax alcohol policy.

In its report the faculty panel charged with reviewing the Duke lacrosse culture stated that "alcohol is the single greatest factor involved in the unacceptable behavior of Duke students in general and members of the lacrosse team specifically, both on-and off campus." The report indicated also that "the university's ability to deal fully with the problem of alcohol is undermined by its own ambivalence toward drinking and the conduct it spawns." The report expressed "deep concern" with this finding saying that by its "lack of leadership in this area" the university is "implicated in the alcohol excesses of lacrosse players and of Duke students more generally." This kind of honesty provides the sort of moral leadership that can turn the tide on campus from the culture of crassness into the culture of character and gender parity.

Bio

Peggy Reeves Sanday is a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. This week, New York University Press issued a new edition of her book Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus.

 

 

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