Defining Rape Culture

Should colleges include the term and talk about the concept in sexual misconduct policies? Few, if any, actually do so.

November 7, 2016
 
Chase Carter | Flickr

An attempt to update an Ontario university’s sexual assault policy has led to a months-long debate between administrators, faculty and students over whether the new policy should acknowledge that a rape culture exists on campus.

If Carleton University, the institution at the center of the debate, were to include the reference to rape culture in its policy, it would be one of just a handful of institutions in Canada to do so. In the United States, such policies may be even rarer. While many colleges do define the term in their educational and prevention efforts, a review by Inside Higher Ed of sexual misconduct policies at more than 60 U.S. colleges and universities found no references to rape culture, and researchers and advocates interviewed for this article said they could not recall any colleges defining rape culture in their policies.

“The definition needs to be there,” Anna Voremberg, managing director of End Rape On Campus, said. “It helps to have parameters for the conversation you’re having on campus, so defining rape culture is important.”

The movement in recent years -- in both the United States and Canada -- to hold colleges more accountable for how they investigate and adjudicate allegations of sexual assault has led to many changes on campuses. Most of these changes have been on the policy front, with institutions adopting affirmative consent policies, changing the standard of proof they use in campus hearings and pledging to complete sexual assault investigations within a 60-day time frame.

But advocates have also asked for changes more symbolic in nature that, they say, would signal to victims of sexual assault that colleges are taking the matter seriously and acknowledging the broader social issues that surround sexual violence both on and off campus.

Rape culture has existed as a concept since the 1970s, though it remains a contentious term. Some, especially those who question the prevalence of campus sexual assault, dismiss the idea outright. For those who study and subscribe to the concept, rape culture is the setting that allows sexual assault and rape to be so prevalent. Rape culture may refer to the country, or even world, at large, or to segments within a society, such as the behaviors and attitudes of many straight men, athletes or fraternity members. Rape culture is commonly associated with victim blaming, denial of widespread sexual assault, objectification of women and the trivialization of rape, such as in college party themes, stand-up comedy routines or films.

When an off-campus fraternity sends a party invitation to female freshmen, telling them to wear tight clothes and to “fuck off” if they're “a tease,” that’s rape culture. When a university’s men’s soccer team creates a “scouting report” that makes sexist and demeaning rankings of the physical attributes of the women’s soccer team, that’s rape culture. When institutions allow star football players found responsible of sexual assault to easily transfer from program to program, that’s rape culture.

“Rape culture is the idea that women and other people’s bodies are for the taking and that conquest is the key to sexuality,” Voremberg said. “Campus sexual assault is because of rape culture.”

Voremberg said she knows concept can be contentious, however, adding that the term has "unfortunately joined that legion of buzz words that when someone liberal says it, they've lost the attention of a certain group of people." 

In March, an Ontario bill called the Sexual Violence and Workplace Harassment Action Plan became law, and it requires all colleges in the province to rewrite their sexual assault polices. At Carleton University, students demanded that a definition of rape culture be included in the new policy, a request backed by the university’s faculty union. Nearby Ryerson University had already acknowledged rape culture in its policy. At first, the university included the term in a list of definitions that were listed within the new policy. Then, at a meeting in March, university administrators voted to remove the term from the policy completely.

After months of back-and-forth, the term reappeared in the newest draft of the policy released in October. “‘Rape culture’ means a culture in which dominant ideas, social practices, media images and societal institutions implicitly or explicitly condone sexual assault by normalizing or trivializing sexual violence and by blaming survivors for their own abuse,” the policy’s preamble states.

The debate has not ended, however. The faculty union at Carleton has since said the debate around including the term in the policy has become a distraction from improving the policy in more concrete ways. Student activists and members of the union that represents the university’s 3,000 teaching assistants say the policy does not go far enough. It must do more than just acknowledge that rape culture exists, they argue, and acknowledge that rape culture exists specifically at Carleton.

“Students, advocates and activists aren’t asking Carleton for a lot,” Madeline Ashby, a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen, wrote. “What they’re asking for is an admission that this is the culture we all live in, and that it’s our responsibility to change it. Part of that responsibility is first acknowledging that there is a problem with campus rape, both in Ontario and elsewhere, and that problem grows in a culture -- just like strains of a virus need a hospitable growth culture to flourish in.”

The university declined to comment for this article.

In the United States, there continues to be disagreement, even among victims’ advocates, over how best to recognize and acknowledge rape culture, on campus or elsewhere. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an overemphasis on the concept of rape culture in prevention efforts can be problematic.

“In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses,” RAINN said in a report it prepared for the White House about campus sexual assault in 2014. “While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a single fact: rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime. This trend has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions."

The debate over rape culture, RAINN wrote, “has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., ‘masculinity’), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape.”

Samantha Harris, director of policy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said colleges are well within their rights to educate students about the concept of rape culture in their prevention efforts, but she would be concerned if an institution explicitly defined the term in an official code of conduct. While advocates have not asked colleges to ban outright all behavior related to rape culture, Harris said such policies’ references to “media images,” if adopted by an American college, would be troubling.

“The point of a policy is to regulate conduct and not to adopt a specific and highly idealistic view of student relationships,” Harris said. “Even if they’re not actually banning specific media or behavior related to rape culture, referencing those in a policy that is designed to regulate conduct could have a chilling effect on speech. A code of conduct should not be about pressuring students to adopt a certain ideological outlook.”

Gary Pavela, a national consultant on legal issues in higher education and editor of the Association of Student Conduct Administration Law and Policy Report, said he doesn't "see anything generically wrong" with including definitions of rape culture in a campus sexual misconduct policy, but suggests "they be associated with policy categories or subtitles like 'prevention' or 'education,'" similar to the current draft of the policy at Carelton. "Definitions of rape culture are more likely to be influential if they're persuasive rather than coercive," Pavela said. 

Many U.S. colleges already include references to rape culture in their prevention efforts, and have done so for decades.

At Marshall University, for example, there’s a webpage devoted to answering the question “What is the rape culture?” The page defines the term in a way similar to the Carleton policy and lists several examples of the concept. It also tells students “how men and women can combat rape culture,” instructing them to “not let stereotypes shape [their] actions” and to “speak out if [they] hear someone else making an offensive joke or trivializing rape.”

Colorado State University has a similar webpage, as do Cornell, Saint John’s and Southern Connecticut State Universities. Emory University prominently includes a section on “Understanding Rape Culture” on its health center’s website, and so does Harvard University.

“Rape culture promotes sexual objectification and coercion, lack of agency over one’s body, and dismissal of feminine-presenting or gender-nonconforming individuals as not ‘fully human,’” Harvard University’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response states on its webpage. “Consider the violent metaphors used for sex or those that present it as a sport, conquest or game: ‘hit that,’ ‘banging,’ ‘screwing,’ ‘slaying,’ ‘railing,’ ‘nailing,’ ‘scoring.’ These metaphors represent sex as one directional instead of a mutual process requiring consent and respect.”

Few, if any, U.S. colleges include such definitions directly in their sexual misconduct policies, however. Mary P. Koss, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona and a pioneering researcher on the prevalence of campus sexual assault, said she understands why students may want to see such a definition codified in an official policy, but she’s not convinced doing so makes sense.

“My major concern is that simply saying or defining rape culture isn’t sufficient to communicate the levels of causation of sexual assault on campuses,” Koss said. “Policies should be about things that can be changed. Colleges can look at their alcohol policy, their party policy, they can require mandatory training to increase knowledge, provide better sex education. There are lots of things universities can do that maybe wouldn’t immediately come to mind as being a part of rape culture.”

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