Rape Myths Lead to No Justice for Sexual Assault Victims on College Campuses

Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence and rape apologism.

You have quite likely read on other blogs about part two of the Center for Public Integrity’s report into sexual violence on U.S. college and university campuses. I wrote about part one of the report, A Culture of Secrecy, back when it was released. And A Culture of Indifference is no less brilliant, distressing and enraging. You can check out all the different sections here: A Lack of Consequences for Sexual Assault, An Uncommon Outcome at Holy CrossLax Enforcement of Title IX in Sexual Assault Cases, and ‘Undetected Rapists’ on Campus: A Troubling Plague of Repeat Offenders. Be forewarned, however, that it may be particularly upsetting or triggering. After merely reading the first section, I was personally so filled with rage that my vision actually blurred for several minutes.

Plenty of bloggers have already written about the general findings, the enormous problem of on-campus violence, and the downright insulting (lack of) response from the institutions where they occur. One particularly great piece was written by Sarah from SAFER, over at RH Reality Check, with my favorite small excerpt reprinted below:

Clearly school administrations do not have the same powers as law enforcement, and as such they cannot technically “prosecute a crime.” But students who choose to use the campus disciplinary system realize the difference. What they expect, and rightly so, is that their school is invested in upholding standards of acceptable and unacceptable student conduct, as they often do when passing judgment in a host of other misconduct cases. Students are routinely dismissed from schools for drug charges and plagiarism. Why should a charge of sexual assault be different? Students are betrayed by their schools not because the school is unable to mirror the criminal justice system, but because the refusal to treat sexual assault as a serious breach of student conduct amounts to entirely dismissing the severity of the crime and the trauma undergone by the survivor.

But as I find myself generally compelled to do when presented with the enormity of rape culture, I want to focus on a few specific, small sections from the report’s findings — aspects of the rape culture CPI exposes which I find to be particularly troubling.

In the first section of the report, a school administrator explains the lack of harsh punishment for those found responsible for sexual violence, and why most are allowed to continue as students:

Not every sexual offense deserves the harshest penalty, they argue; not every culpable student is a hardened criminal. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all in these cases,” contends Rick Olshak, associate dean of students at Illinois State University. He says schools are more likely to expel in cases involving penetration without consent, and clear intent. “It’s the cases in the middle” — involving miscommunication and mutual intoxication — “that are more difficult and that will result in less than expulsion,” Olshak adds.

Yes, it looks as though schools are being particularly strict in their criteria — in the third section of the report, one investigating officer actually explains that she did not pursue charges because there were no eye-witnesses to the assault.

But I’m more interested in this broad idea about “cases in the middle.” As if there is a “middle” when you’re talking about rape.

This idea that some rapes are Really Bad Rapes, and other rapes are Eh, Not That Big of a Deal Rapes, is incredibly damaging — especially when the only kinds of rapes that count as Really Bad Rapes are the kinds that are the least common — and also incredibly pervasive. Some rapes are more violent than others, but the bottom line is that rape is rape.

Saying that there are “middle” rape cases, that involve miscommunication and mutual intoxication, first of all, is patently false. Rape does not occur because of “miscommunication” — it just doesn’t. It occurs because of one party’s decision to ignore, disengage from, and/or reject communication. The idea that there are hoards of rapists out there “accidentally” raping is absurd on its face. But even if it was true, it results in a no less responsible rapist. If you don’t want to rape someone, you make sure that the other party is enthusiastically and meaningfully consenting. If you fail to do that and rape someone, there was no accident involved — just the likely and logical outcome of a conscious choice to disregard the bodily autonomy and safety of another person.

Secondly, the criteria expressed so-called “middle” rapes is inherently shaming and blaming towards the victim. Hidden not-so-subtly into the idea that a rape occurred because of “miscommunication” is the idea that a rape wouldn’t have been committed if only the victim had communicated better. When it comes to intoxication, we’re also presented with the paradox that a perpetrator is less responsible for his behavior if he’s intoxicated, while a victim is of course more to blame for hers.

The above statement also suggests that a perpetrator’s “intent” materially matters — that what was in a rapist’s heart is more important than what the rapist did to another person. Even worse, it further divides the hierarchy of Really Bad Rapes and Eh, Not That Big of a Deal Rapes by confirming that the criteria for Really Bad Rape involves penetration — one can presume, from the overarching cultural narrative from which this entire justification draws, that “penetration” in this context means “penetration of the vagina (or maybe anus) with a penis.” Removed from the definition of Really Bad Rape are other non-consensual sexual acts performed on a variety of genitals and other body parts, likely as well as penetration with fingers or objects.

Most likely to be classified as a rape in the “middle” are also those cases that involve the most marginalized victims, whether they be trans*, of color, disabled, poor, etc. Because the number one cultural criteria for classification as a Really Bad Rape is a perfect victim. And in our society, the only perfect victim can be a straight, cis, able-bodied, middle-class, virginal white girl.

A Really Bad Rape also needs a perfect perpetrator — someone ideally the absolute opposite of everything the perfect victim is not. And those who don’t fit the mold of the perfect perpetrator rarely get classified as perpetrators at all, including by schools and their disciplinary procedures:

For instance, IU officials have expelled only one of 12 students found responsible for alleged sexual assaults in the past four years, as compared to seven suspensions and four probations or reprimands. “Our basic philosophy is not to expel,” confirms Freeman. The university will kick out a student believed to be a threat, she says, yet “that does not mean that every single person found responsible for sexual assault gets expelled. They’re not all predators.”

Of course, the fact of the matter is that research shows most rapists are serial rapists. The idea that rape is a one time “mistake” is not only false because rape is a whole lot more than a mistake, but also because rapists usually rape a whole lot more than once.

But even if they didn’t, it would be irrelevant to the larger issue here. Because raping someone automatically makes you someone who preys on other people — a predator — no matter how many times you do it. And because even if the rapist will never, ever rape again, that doesn’t change a damn thing for the victim.

This is the problem with centering perpetrators. Not only do we start wondering what their “intent” was and start howling about “miscommunication” and “mutual intoxication,” we also completely erase the experience of the victim. There’s a reason that, as the report found, so many rape victims leave campuses when their rapists stay. It’s because no matter who else their rapist may or may not rape, that rapist still raped them. Because whether or not the rapist is generally a “predator” is irrelevant when the rapist preyed on them. Because while some victims may be able to tolerate the threat of running into their rapist, of living in the same general area as their rapist, of knowing people who are friends with their rapist, no one should ever have to.

The threat that a rapist poses to a community at large is certainly an issue, and reason enough for expulsion. But it’s not the only reason, nor should it even necessarily be considered the ultimate reason. The threat that a rapist poses to those already assaulted, whether physical or emotional, is just as real, just as serious, just as valid a justification. No, just as valid an imperative.

Here is where the overarching problem with schools’ disciplinary procedures, as well as the problem with how we as a society evaluate rape in general, comes to light. We spend more time looking at how the rapist thought about the event, rather than what the rapist actually did. We spend more time thinking about how the rapist might have meant things differently, rather than looking at the violence and oppression the rapist actually enacted. And we give more credence to the rapist’s intent than to the victim’s trauma and sense of violation.

And there can simply be no justice for rape victims when the first order of business is always to consider how the rapist feels.

0 thoughts on “Rape Myths Lead to No Justice for Sexual Assault Victims on College Campuses

  1. Talix

    My rape occurred because I was too drunk to drive home. At some point I blacked out and came too with his penis in my mouth. I could barely breathe and couldn’t push him off of me, so I just held on until he was finished.

    I know that, in previous blackouts, I had participated in what was going on around me. One night in particular, I went from a bar to a ballgame to another bar and drove most of the way home. Most of it happened in a black-out.

    How can I possibly know that I didn’t indicate consent and just don’t remember it. (Putting aside, of course, the fact that my being too drunk to drive should have been his clue that I was too drunk to consent. What if the question of driving had never been part of the equation?)

    Reply
  2. abyss2hope

    Excellent points, Cara. What makes all this worse is the very reasons a college or university will deny that a rapist is a rapist or will let a rapist stay are the reasons most frequently used to blame that rapist’s victim or to call her (or him) a false accuser.

    When a rapist stays, many people who know about the report will assume this proves the allegation is false which can result in widespread harassment from fellow students and possibly from employees. So a rape survivor has to deal with an ineffective official response which may include overt victim blaming, the rapist still on campus and much more.

    Reply
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  6. Genevieve

    The “mutual intoxication defense” pisses me off. I’ve been really really drunk many times. But when drinking, I keep track of how far along I am–am I okay, am I too drunk to drive, drunk enough that I need to drink water NOW or I’ll end up puking, drunk enough that it’s time to pass out on the couch, et cetera. I think the same is true for most people–they know how drunk they are.

    Now, there is a point when my own drunkenness becomes so severe that I cannot judge how intoxicated other people are. However, by this point I’m generally acting like an idiot and I’m way past the point where I could drive home safely that night. What I don’t get is why these rapist dudes don’t set themselves a limit where, after X number of drinks, they no longer pursue sexual interactions beyond maybe basic making out. So that they don’t “accidentally” rape anyone.

    Why doesn’t this happen? Probably because the rapes aren’t accidental, the dudes know what’s going on, and they proceed anyway.

    Reply
  7. geri

    rapes dont happen because of being drunk, i did not drink anything at all and i wanted to be with him, these rapists know how to get away with it because they plan it out ahead of time and set the victim up to frame herself. most rapes are aquaintance so that is how the victim gets raped. the rape counseler told me that iscalled being “TRICKED”

    Reply
  8. jennie

    An i invited a guy to my home, i let him in TO TALK, next thing i’m overpowered. Must be my fault as its happened to me before…..I’m utterly sober….I don’t struggle….i pretend its good…..i talk incessently….after an hour and 12 minutes he’s gone. I feel utterly filthy but am “unharmed” and my flat is untouched. There is no point going to the Police because i let him in an he had no weapon, sort of like pigeon up against eagle, and i am a woman so of course its my fault.

    Reply

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