By Patricia Yancey Martin
We know far more about rape and sexual assault on campus than we used to. Yet too often, young women are raped in their first few weeks away at college and fraternity men and athletes brag about not just blow jobs and intercourse but also anal sex, as in the chant, “No means yes, yes means anal!” Why do such egregious practices persist? The answer is this—the “rape-prone” culture of academic institutions has changed little over the years. Yes, today most colleges have a victim-advocacy program but the institutional contexts that tolerate and facilitate, and indeed celebrate the sexualization of women students continue to thrive. Both the wider institution as well as men’s social fraternities and big-time athletic programs constitute socio-cultural contexts that facilitate rather than prevent sexual assault.
Can our colleges improve? Possibly but doing so will require major changes in the overall institution, including the management of the Greek fraternity system and high stakes athletic programs. What can be done? First, the institutions’ presidents (or their top officials) must be educated about the connection between their practices, such as fund-raising, winning sports contests, cow-towing to public opinion, sports boosters and powerful alumni, and the prevalence and forms of sexual assault on campus. Even when they want women students to be safe from sexual assault, their concern with such issues makes them inattentive to women’s well-being. Second, when problematic behavior occurs, presidents should ensure swift enforcement of firm disciplinary policies with real consequences, such as expulsion from school and loss of scholarships. Exceptions should not be made for members of winning teams or sons of influential alumni, and disciplinary action should not depend upon formal legal proceedings. Third, presidents should consult women students for advice on eliminating the rape-prone culture characterizing their institutions. This step requires “aware” women—and men—to step up and become proactive—like two women recently did at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill in founding the organization, End Rape on Campus.
Since publication of Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will (in 1975), feminists have demanded change. We challenged the legal system and helped eliminate laws that require a third-party witness, evidence of victims’ resistance, and other victim-blaming criteria. Under pressure, the legal system broadened the definition of rape (penetration of a female vagina by a male penis with use of force) to that of sexual assault which is far more inclusive. Rape-shield laws prohibiting evidence of a victim’s prior sexual history were adopted. Law enforcement, prosecutors, and hospitals improved their treatment of victims and “date rape” or acquaintance rape were (and are) found to be far more prevalent than “stranger” rape. Despite all this, as CNN reporter Moni Basu notes, colleges and universities did not really change. In late 2015, she wrote: “Rape [on campuses] was a serious problem then [in 1988] and is one now. One in five college women said they were sexually assaulted according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll.”
The rape-prone culture of U. S. campuses is as strong as ever, perhaps stronger. Women who accept invitations to a “fun” fraternity party or apartment of a star athlete may unwittingly embark on a nightmare. A better strategy is to align with others to eliminate the rape-prone culture that sullies our campuses and to create a culture that respects women and treats them as valued friends and acquaintances.
Patricia Yancey Martin, Daisy Parker Flory Professor of Sociology Emerita (Florida State University), has lectured and published extensively on rape/sexual assault with a focus on organizations and workers–police, rape crisis staff, hospital personnel, judicial officials–who process victims. Her book, Rape Work: Victims, Gender, and Emotions in Organization and Community Context (Routledge, 2005), shows that organizational mandates prompt “rape workers” to be unresponsive to rape victims’ needs even when they are inclined to behave otherwise. Her 1989 article in Gender & Society on fraternities and rape on U. S. campuses is widely cited and led to her recent participation in a CNN special report on the gang rape victim that was the inspiration for the article. A former Fulbright fellowship recipient, Martin had lectured across the US and Europe on rape and other issues. She received the Jessie Bernard Award from the American Sociological Association in 2007 and was named to the Roll of Honor Award by the Southern Sociological Society in 2008. The full article can be found in Gender & Society‘s February 2016 30 (1) issue.
Next week: look for Nicola Henry’s discussion: Violence Prevention as a Form of Justice.