Wrong on rape

I was appalled this Sunday to see the headline “What campus rape crisis?” pop up on my newsfeed, especially when I realized it came from a major news source. I am grateful to The Times for the opportunity to respond to Heather MacDonald’s rehash of author Katie Roiphe’s discredited attacks on studies of rape on college campuses, although I question why such an outdated and deliberately misleading piece was published in the first place.

To refute MacDonald’s claims, I could dwell on her right-wing think tank credentials and the ideological biases that come with such funding sources. I could cite peer-reviewed academic sources, anecdotal student survivor sources or Department of Justice statistics, [pdf] all of which demonstrate that sexual assault is a common occurrence on college campuses. I could link to dozens of articles from the last month alone detailing students raped by friends, Resident assistants and ex-boyfriends. But MacDonald clearly does not care about such evidence, and my real concern is not with her. Instead, I want to reach out to the survivors, students, parents, administrators and lawmakers who might have read her opinion and been misled by her distortions and circular logic, and I want to discuss what is really happening on college campuses, from the perspective of those who graduated recently or are there now.

MacDonald gives herself away halfway through the article with her reference to what “students in the ‘60s demanded.” Apparently she is still fighting old battles, and her fear of women who drink, have sex and have orgasms is out of touch with the reality of young men and women today. Certainly there are problems with sex on college campuses, but I don’t think the solution is, as MacDonald seems to suggest, a return to the days when “fraternization” was prohibited by college administrations. (Just look at the recent statistics on rapes in the U.S. military and at military academies, which do have strict rules about fraternization.)

Along with MacDonald’s deep distrust of female sexuality, her lack of respect for men [pdf] is evident in her obsession with women’s actions, because the only excuse for focusing on the victim and not the perpetrator would be a belief that men are unable to control their behavior. But is that really a tenable position on which to base school policies or our lives? Most men are not rapists, and I believe that all men are capable of being responsible for their actions. I also believe fewer men would be rapists with better guidance on the definition of consensual sex and a decrease in the kind of victim-blaming in which people like MacDonald engage.

So what are the problems with sex and rape on college campuses? The biggest is many students’ lack of a clear understanding of the difference between the two. Students today are being inundated by two contradictory cultures, neither of them healthy. On the one hand, we have the continual commodification of sex in America. Women’s bodies are everywhere, selling cars, movies and pop stars in increasingly explicit terms, but with little focus on mutuality, emotions, knowledge, conversation or consent. On the other hand, we have abstinence-only education and MacDonald-like calls for chastity, which also focus very little on mutuality, emotions, knowledge, conversation or consent. So when it comes to an in-person sexual interaction between two students with these two cultures to draw on, is it any surprise that some men are picking the elements that justify forcing a woman to have sex or that some women are confused about what happened to them and whose fault it is? In all of America’s high-volume arguing about sex these days, why aren’t more people simply teaching our students to talk to each other, honestly and openly, before having sex?

In 2002, fewer than half of colleges and universities had sexual assault prevention programs, and the programs that did exist could have been as basic as a skit during orientation that half the freshmen slept through. This is an unacceptable failure to put resources into prevention, given the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. And sexual assault is a problem no matter what numbers you use - did MacDonald really mean to imply that rape isn’t a problem if it is only impacting one woman or two women or 10 women a month per campus? Multiply out those numbers, and I’d say that’s a pretty big problem.

The services available to survivors are often not much more extensive. Every week, the organization I work with, Students Active for Ending Rape, hears from students who feel re-victimized by the lack of services or by administrators who did not believe their accounts or blamed them for their assaults.

I work with SAFER because I feel that the voices that need to be heard are those of students, not those of writers bankrolled by conservative think tanks. Students are the ones surviving assault and committing assault, and colleges and universities need to turn their attention to what students want and need in terms of prevention programs, survivor services and disciplinary proceedings. The answers will be different for each campus, as each campus has a different culture and different students. The solution to the rape crisis on campus can only come from active responses to what college students say they need today, not from conservative ideologues 30 years out of college repeating tired stereotypes from their desks at the Manhattan Institute.

Nora Niedzielski-Eichner is a board member of Students Active for Ending Rape and a graduate student at Stanford University.