Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Let's Talk About Rape Culture

By Delphi CleavelandPublished November 9, 2014

null
Phrases and concepts such as "party culture" and "blackout drinking" have normalized a culture of sexual violence on college campuses. What is worse, rape culture leads victims to feel too intimidated or silenced to report sexual assault to their own bodies.
By Delphi Cleaveland, 11/9/2014


One in four women falls victim to attempted or completed rape while in college. What is worse, these numbers have remained consistently high over the past two decades, despite the passage of laws aimed to reduce such incidences. Legislation passed to address the issue was signed in 1990, following the rape and murder of Jeanne Clery, a student at Lehigh University. "The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act" -- nicknamed the Clery Act -- requires that all colleges and institutions that receive federal financial aid publish and distribute an Annual Campus Security Report to all current and prospective students and employees. Although these reports contain significant levels of detail, great discrepancies have been revealed between published results and the reports from counseling and advocacy programs at the respective institutions; the numbers don't add up. The differences in results often have plausible explanations, but nonetheless, they reflect a need for alternative methodology to not only monitor but also to address the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. 

MIT was recently acclaimed for a survey they conducted of their undergraduate students investigating the prominence and causes of sexual violence. The survey was well received among advocates working against sexual assault, and MIT was commended both for its thoroughness and transparency in making available the entirety of the survey's results. found that nearly 20 percent of women and at least 7 percent of men had experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact. Activists working against sexual assault have argued that campus "climate" surveys, such as MIT's, are crucial for exposing the extent of the problem. MIT is doing what the Clery Act was intended to do, so why isn't this enough?

Security Reports suggest that small liberal arts schools have significantly higher incidences of sexual assault cases per capita than other types of institutions. Some argue, however, that in reality, these statistics reflect colleges' success at cultivating an environment in which victims are not afraid to report assault. In contrast, larger schools lack individual agency and even promote a normalization of what  Elizabeth Armstrong refers to as "party culture" in her publication "Sexual Assault on College Campuses: a Multilevel, Integrative Approach to Party Culture." She uses the phrase to explain high levels of intoxication and sex in unsupervised environments, such as fraternities, "party dorms," and bars, centers for social activity on most college campuses. Perhaps the normalization of such public/private spaces and the culture they engender contribute to students' reluctance to seek justice / pursue either justice or necessary self-care after such incidents.  MIT found, for example, that of those individuals who had experienced unwanted sexual contact, most had told a friend, but only 5 percent had reported the violation to a campus official.

A further flaw in the Clery Act is its unrealistic expectation that institutions will honestly publish their findings without fear of repercussions. Dartmouth College experienced a 14 percent drop in applications last year after students began protesting on campus and online about excessive drinking and "rape problems" on campus. In response, the college held a summit this past summer in which representatives discussed steps to decrease sexual assault, as well as reassert their reputation as a top-tier institution. The summit's focus was largely directed towards the two broader contexts within which schools operate, these being federal regulations and the cultural normalization of gender violence. Further such summits similar will take place with relative regularity in the coming months to monitor the progress and assess new methods.

Women in college remain the demographic at greatest risk of being sexually assaulted even after the Clery Act. Although the persistence of this phenomenon can be explained in many ways, the most obvious is that the legislation did not accomplish what it set out to do. Dartmouth faculty overwhelmingly vote to end Greek Life, last week. And campaigns such as "Yes Means Yes" and those focusing on the development of "victim centered" responses, are created, education institutions to end sexual assault and provide victims, both female and male, with the comfort and resources to be helped.