What’s Really Behind College 'Rape Culture'?


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A Tennessee jury on Tuesday found two former Vanderbilt University students and football players guilty of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery.

The case against the Vanderbilt students was reminiscent of the many stories of alleged sexual assault, the majority of which rarely get a trial, on college campuses nationwide — from Florida State University to the arrest on Wednesday of a former Stanford University student and swimmer who was charged with raping an unconscious woman.

Much is made of the role of “college culture” when it comes to pinning the blame on what seems to be a campus rape epidemic. Even at the University of Virginia, where there was great controversy over rape allegations made by a student to Rolling Stone magazine this fall, sorority members are being encouraged to stay in this Saturday night when the school’s fraternities celebrate their new members, as a way to reduce potential sexual assault.

In the Vanderbilt case, the defense attorneys claimed that the culture of college campuses, with their binge drinking and sexual promiscuity, was to blame for their clients’ actions, and not their clients’ decisions themselves. The jury nonetheless found the former students guilty, but it begs the question: What is fueling rape on campus?

Rape On Campus Is Nothing New

While the prevalence of these stories of campus assault have been dominating the news cycle of late, “it’s wrong to suggest that this is all so new — it’s not so new,” says Michael Kimmel, PhD, the distinguished professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook(SUNY) and the executive director of the university’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities.

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“The number of women who are coming forward and are recognizing that what happened to them is wrong is new,” he adds. It is cultural changes in women receiving the support of their peers and the legislative changes that have given women “the ability to name it and do something about it” when rape or sexual assault occurs, he says.

Most Men Are Not Predators

“What we’re talking about here is not 70 percent of men as marauding predators,” Kimmel says, but rather “a fairly small number of men who are serial predators who feel entitled to sexual assault.”

Dana Bolger, co-founder of Know Your IX, agrees. “While it is true that rape is normalized in our culture, it is also true that the vast majority of people do not choose to drug and rape their girlfriends.”

‘Bystander Culture’ Shares Blame

Perhaps the defining aspect of what we think of as contemporary “rape culture” is the lack of bystander action, Kimmel says. When the Vanderbilt rape was occurring, for instance, “the roommate turns over and says, in essence, ‘Could you keep it down – I’m trying to sleep?’ instead of doing anything,” he says. “He picks up his pillow and goes into another room to sleep. It is bystanders who facilitate the behavior of this 5-6 percent of men who are predators.”

Sharyn Potter, MPH, PhD, an associate professor of sociology and the co-director of Prevention Innovations at the University of New Hampshire, agrees. “It’s hard to intervene in a gang rape, to fly in as Superman in the middle of an incident,” she says. “But there are so many other points where bystanders could have come in: When they saw this woman being served alcohol, when they saw her being led away. They could have turned the lights on, pulled the music, and said, ‘Don’t give her any more to drink.’” 

“Never Betray The Brotherhood”

Kimmel also points to the role that cell phone video and pictures often play in the kinds of violence that occurred at both Vanderbilt and in the high school rape case in Steubenville, Ohio. “The documentation is casual male bonding banter,” he says, “It’s a kind of currency among men.” Kimmel says that men choose to shoot photos and videos of their friends “having sex” — thinking of it as sex and not rape — because they think it’s funny, something they can later send around to other friends and laugh about. And it is because they see it as sex and not rape that they find the incidents to be something funny to begin with. In these situations, which they perceive as just casual, late-night drinking antics, Kimmel says many men think, “This is just harmless fun — not rape.”

“What happens in guyland stays in guyland,” says Kimmel of the power of masculinity and bystander culture, noting that men are socialized to “never betray the brotherhood.”

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However, the Vanderbilt case points to an especially chilling facet of this aspect of masculinity. “You have to think about what it takes to think that this is all just harmless fun in this case since the woman was unconscious. Having sex, even on their terms [that is, seeing such assaults as “just sex” as opposed to rape] — just having sex with and not even raping someone who is unconscious — that is closer to necrophilia than making love.” In instances such as this when the victim is unconscious, Kimmel implies, the assailants no longer see a living person on the other end of their actions, but just a lifeless body there to serve their needs.

“I do think colleges, particularly ‘elite’ institutions like Vanderbilt, attract some of the most privileged students in the country,” says Bolger. “That privilege sometimes breeds a certain arrogance and entitlement, whether to a desired grade in the classroom, or to women’s bodies.”

And what is it about an unconscious, unresponsive woman’s body that proves to be attractive to men? “She is the vehicle by which these men get to bond with each other,” says Kimmel. “It’s not even about her.”

Colleges Need To Re-Think Sexual Misconduct Education

Potter notes that colleges are missing a real opportunity to change bystander culture, “We have these students for four, five years as they intellectually and cognitively develop,” Potter says. “Eventually, we’re going to put them in the workforce and they’re going to be parents. As a campus community, we could do so much to address this issue and change the next generation.”

The trick, she adds, is for colleges to rethink the ways they talk about assault and consent with their students. “Talking to students about sexual misconduct during the first week of orientation when they’re trying to figure out where the dining hall is and how to get their library card isn’t effective,” Potter says.

Sexual Misconduct Education Needs To Begin Earlier

And yet, the issue of consent and what it means to be a responsible bystander “can’t only be left to colleges during orientation. We can be talking to students of all ages with age-appropriate messages,”Potter says. “There are all sorts of ways to teach about respect in elementary school, which is when you can really lay the foundation regarding how do we treat each other and how do we work together as a community.”

Potter points to the bystander social marketing campaign that Prevention Innovations has created, in which intervention is modeled in different types of situations. She notes that it’s important for there to be media images of not only “the situation when rape is occurring, but also the situations after — the bragging in a locker room,” for example. She adds that greater emphasis needs to be placed on “teaching people to identify the spectrum of the crime” — which, when it comes to sexual assault, involves community behaviors both before and after the act itself.

“We’re not talking about men assaulting women, but the silence of some men enabling the predatory behavior of others,” agrees Kimmel. He compares the way that many men wrongly interpret the absence of “no” as assent in incidences of sexual assault, to the way the absence of a man saying something when witnessing an act of sexual assault can also be seen as silent assent.

It Needs To Be Easier For Victims To Come Forward

“One reason there are so many rapes is that not nearly enough get prosecuted — we need to do more to make victims feel comfortable” about coming forward and reporting crimes, says Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse, & Incest, National Network (RAINN).

It’s not always that simple, however. “This is a very brave woman who came forward,” says Kimmel, noting that the guilty verdict speaks less of a tide-change in the cultural decision to believe victims, but rather how almost impossibly high the bar is to be able to bring a case to trial and get a guilty verdict.

Potter also points out, “When a victim comes forward, 90 percent of the time he or she will come forward to their friends first.” How a victim’s friends react to hearing a friend say that he or she has been assaulted has “huge implications for how a crime is then processed” by law enforcement, she says.

"If a friend as a bystander says, ‘I believe you, let’s get you help,’ versus saying, ‘Well, what did you think was going to happen, you had 14 beers,’ the victim is then given the power to report," Potter says. "The support makes the victim even more likely to come forward to police” so that a formal investigation can begin.

The Vanderbilt ruling, Kimmel says, sends a message that “if you’re sexually assaulted, you better be a credible witness, have video footage, and have someone go on the witness stand and admit to what happened.”

But Can Any Of This Really Be Blamed for Rape?

The defense attorneys in the Vanderbilt case claimed that the college culture of binge drinking and sexual promiscuity was to blame for their clients’ actions, and not their clients’ decisions themselves. But “the only thing that causes rape is the decision of a criminal to commit a violent act,” Berkowitz says. “To blame culture for violent crime is absurd and I’m glad the jury saw through that.” 

“Conjuring the specter of alcohol-fueled ‘mistakes’ is a time-tested strategy to displace perpetrators’ culpability onto their victims or, alternately, onto campus as a whole,” Bolger adds. “It’s important to remember that rape has been prevalent all through the ages — before colleges went co-ed, before women’s lib, and certainly before binge drinking became a norm on campus.”

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