This week presented two stories of special interest to those of us who track rape culture on campus.
First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of a survey indicating that nearly one in five women in the U.S. have been raped or experienced an attempted rape, and one in four have been beaten by an intimate partner.
On the same day that the New York Times published this story, it reported that the University of Vermont and the national Sigma Phi Epsilon organization had moved to suspend the UV chapter of the fraternity after it circulated a survey that included a question about whom the respondent would most like to rape.
Neither of these stories is, unfortunately, particularly shocking in itself. As a therapist who works primarily with women, I am painfully aware that a history of sexual assault underlies many presenting symptoms; and as a person with degrees from three institutions of higher education, I have few illusions about the attitudes of some fraternity members. What I found most disturbing were the reactions both stories evoked.
The Times coverage of the CDC study was followed by what I can only describe as hate mail directed at women: diatribes about false accusations of rape; claims that unwanted groping (which was presented in a separate category from rape in the survey) should not be considered sexual assault; and expressed concern about how unattached men can get their sexual needs met if all forms of sexual assault are taboo.
The Times story about the SPE survey did not, perhaps fortunately, invite comments. However, even at a prominent feminist blog, the comments section quickly derailed into a discussion of whether the university was violating the first amendment rights of the students who wrote and circulated the survey.
The erosion of free speech is an important issue. Some women have made false rape claims. And, yes, I’m aware that men are raped too.
But it saddens me that it seems so difficult for so many to take a moment out of their arguments about pressing issues to acknowledge the likelihood that twenty percent of the women we know and interact with every day have been sexually assaulted, and that a quarter of these women have been beaten. Why is this so hard?