A Rape Culture on Campus?

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The stunning disavowal by Rolling Stone magazine of an article accusing fraternity members at the University of Virginia of gang rape should give all of us pause about our prejudices and assumptions.

Far from questioning the alleged victim with a critical eye, the reporters and many others, myself included, were quick to judge and assume. The most damaging assumption made was that gang rape is a commonplace phenomenon at fraternity parties.

As an ardent feminist, I have almost always erred on the side on women and the many struggles, prejudices, and discrimination they have historically faced in America. However, this case has made me reflect on my attitude toward men and their sexuality.

The quickness to judge seems to stem from a willingness to paint young adult males as ruthless sexual aggressors who, given half a chance, will have sex with any unconscious female who crosses their paths. In point of fact, however, I don’t know any men who would commit such a heinous act.

Rape is not an act of sex but of power and violence. Although date or acquaintance rape is more difficult to prove due to the possible consensual actions that may have preceded it, the act of forcing a woman (or a man) into sex is still an act of violence. Do we really want to presume that all the men around us are potentially violent predators?

This attitude strikes me as little better than the all too prevalent opinion that women who dress or act provocatively are “asking for it” – that is, bringing sexual violence upon themselves.

As a society, we need to stop conflating sex with violence. This is the problem with the recent film Fifty Shades of Grey. While I am all for people’s freedom to do what they choose in the privacy of their bedroom, I think popularizing sadomasochism with a blockbuster “chick flick” is a bad idea. It gives people the idea that only through violence or the hint of violence can sex be exciting. A recent case at the University of Illinois, in which a student was accused of sexually assaulting a female student during a Fifty Shades– inspired encounter, bolsters my argument.

I was saddened when I saw the most recent attempt by colleges to deal with sexual assault on campus. Ads feature college students and celebrities holding up signs that say, “It’s on us.” But what, exactly, is “on us”? Holding up standards of common human decency? Rape is not a norm anywhere, including on college campuses. I fear the belief that it is normal will only breed a climate of fear and alienation.

I have two daughters and two sons. I hope I have raised them all to be respectful and kind – and certainly nonviolent. Let’s expect that of our young men and women in college. They may just rise to our expectations.

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