This week, as colleges across the nation hold commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2014, Time Magazine’s cover story takes on a topic relevant to college students nationwide: the campus rape crisis. Approximately 20% of college women in the U.S. are victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault, making college campuses one of the most dangerous places for 18- to 21-year-old women.
The fact that one in five college women are sexually assaulted is both devastating and a call to action. If 1 in 5 college students were routinely the victims of some other crime—ranging from violent muggings to “white-collar” crimes like identity theft—we would find a way to end it; and yet campus sexual assault is an epidemic that rages on unchecked.
I believe campus rape is an epidemic first and foremost because the U.S. is infested by rape culture. In rape culture, sexual violence against women is seen as normal and easily excused. In media and in everyday life, rape culture teaches our young men—smart men, college-bound men, men who should know better—that they will face few consequences for sexual predation.
Here are a few things we do wrong in the lead-up to the college years (and beyond), which we must change to put an end to rape culture:
- When we caution young girls that they need to dress modestly to keep boys’ thoughts pure, that wrongly teaches all our children that boys can’t control themselves—which fosters rape culture.
- When we excuse high school boys’ sexual aggression by saying “boys will be boys,” we wrongly suggest that boys’ behaviors are inevitable, rather than something they can take responsibility for. In so doing, we perpetuate rape culture.
- When we focus rape prevention efforts on policing girls’ behaviors—advising them on where to go, with whom, when and how—we are throwing our hands in the air and saying, “Ah, yes, rape is an inevitable part of our culture. Pity, that,” rather than taking action to end it. This, too, perpetuates rape culture.
- When we place the onus of responsibility on girls not to be raped, we bolster a social and legal system in which rape victims’ actions are wrongfully scrutinized to determine whether the rapist is truly guilty—something that rarely happens with other crimes. Think of the usual questions: Was the girl wearing something provocative? Did she dance provocatively? Did she drink alcohol? Has she (gasp) slept with other boys before? These inquisitions into a victim’s background and actions imply that it’s sometimes understandable that a man would rape. They suggest if a girl is deemed to have been “asking for it,” the man was utterly helpless. It’s as though no red-blooded American man has the wherewithal to tell himself, “Hm, I think she’s asking for it, but as she hasn’t consented to sex, I guess I’m going to have to tell myself ‘No.'” The fact that rape can be seen as a reasonable consequence for a woman’s choices is, in fact, the foundation of rape culture.
In short, we don’t expect enough of boys and men regarding their self-control and their personal responsibility for their actions towards women. Using the four items above as a starting point, we can shift our attention and efforts away from policing girls’ behaviors (which some call “rape prevention,” though it’s a complete misnomer to do so) and instead raise the bar for boys.
By putting an end to the normalization of rape culture once and for all, we will be better poised to end sexual assault on college campuses and beyond.
Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Her book, The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, is now available for pre-order from Amazon.