Acquaintance Rape Grows Along With Society's Violence

Susan Ervin-Tripp, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, specializes in language, communication and affirmative-action issues.

At a recent women's self-defense class, participants were asked what they would do if they were attacked. The responses: "I'd freeze." "I'd be petrified, too scared to scream." If it was one of their children who was attacked? The women said that they would "fight like tigers, tear them apart." The difference is that women are brought up ill prepared psychologically to defend themselves against assault.

A recent acquaintance-rape charge at UC Berkeley, in which a student said that she was assaulted in a dormitory by four football players, has sparked considerable debate on this issue. The case has raised a number of questions concerning why acquaintance rape is such a common phenomenon (experts on sexual assault say that complaints are increasing) and what the appropriate role of colleges should be regarding the moral behavior of their students. On campuses across the country, 18-year-old men and women of very diverse backgrounds, sexual values and experience now live in co-ed dorms.

Alcohol and illegal drugs are readily available. There are no longer parietal rules. Young people receive no orientation as to the communication and restraint required to function successfully in this type of complex living environment. Yet colleges are the last chance that we have to educate young men and women about human relations, living together, competition and fair play. Thus far, however, colleges have done little to deal with many of the more pressing problems, such as rape and related issues, that result from modern campus life .

About a third of female students and faculty members say that they have been victims of sexual harassment. On some campuses, workshops and training to clearly define proper standards of faculty and professional behavior have reduced sexual intimidation. Now what is needed is honest discussion regarding the ambiguity about what constitutes an offense and what it means to victims.

There are many misconceptions about male-female sexuality. Men often are trained to think in terms of "scoring,"to treat sex as a test of prowess. No wonder that harassers think of themselves not as threatening but as attractive males making an offer that is too good to refuse; nor do acquaintance rapists think of their coercion as force.

The type of education that has worked in reducing sexual harassment could work to enlighten men--and women--about sexual coercion. Colleges should not just do the minimum necessary to avoid a lawsuit in these kinds of cases. To deal effectively with the problem, university officials must make clear that they are concerned about the moral environment on campus, that there are regulations governing student behavior and that those regulations will be stringently enforced.

Acquaintance rape is not new to college campuses. Rapes have been occurring at fraternity parties for more than 40 years, and probably for as long as there have been fraternities. Women then were even less assertive than now, but they had two other defenses. One was environmental: They had separate dorms with parietal rule. The other was social: Most college men knew that most college women were not readily available sexually.

What needs to be examined now is why acquaintance rape appears to be on the rise in an era when sexual license is generally accepted. If sexual liaisons are easy to arrange, why do men rape? And if women can say yes, why aren't they believed when they say no? Rape assumes that a man's yes prevails over a woman's no. It assumes that pleasure is in overpowering rather than in sharing, that violence is acceptable and masculine.

Some might say that this is a classic instance of miscommunication. After all, women are more direct than men, especially with respect to sexual desires. To refuse a man's sexual overtures is considered such a blow to his ego that one must be subtle. There also are major cultural differences between people, not just in sexual mores but also in how to express them appropriately. Surely this is even more of a problem today because of the diverse student population--but it also is an opportunity for learning.

Trying to get social support in the abolishing of rape is incredibly difficult. Women who report acquaintance rape are not believed. Yet what possible advantage is there now to a woman's inventing a rape? Reporting a rape leads to embarrassment, potential humiliation on the witness stand, self-doubt. If the report exacerbates the trauma without resulting in penalty and deterrence to others, why report it?

Our society's view of rape still is colored by a "she-asked-for-it" mentality, as illustrated by such odd ideas as: If a woman has ever said yes to a man, she can never say no to him, or if yes to one man, as alleged in the UC Berkeley incident, it means yes to a lineup of his friends. If you are too drunk to make a choice or to defend yourself, you are assumed to have chosen whatever the man wants. Women are believed only if they were physically beaten or if they fought their assailant sufficiently to prove physical rather than mental duress.

The burden of proof still lies with the victim, and rape continues to be regarded as a woman's problem. Yet rape is not just a women's issue, because the problem will not stop until men stop raping. Men can have an effect on other men: They can find ways to make unacceptable the view that sex is competition, an expression of power, and that a sexual assault is a score.

Rape is a crime of violence, not lust. Rape by strangers is paralleled by a rise in general violence in our society. The rise in date rape is said to have been accompanied by reports of physical abuse on dates. It's bad enough that women cannot walk home anymore without being escorted like children. Now we must be on guard even with people whom we know. The violence of our society has infected friendships between men and women. This is a very high price to pay--for both sexes.

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