The Campus Rape Problem Doesn't Begin, or End, on Campus
Recently, a friend told me about a campus rape case that actually ended well. The victim, who didn't want to pursue the case with law enforcement, went to the college's administrators. They investigated, began proceedings against the accused, and generally made all the right moves. The accused attacker didn't admit to anything, but withdrew from school rather than be found guilty – and the campus now feels like a safe place for his victim.
As for the rest of the world, well: it just gained a sexual predator with no record to speak of.
Rape on college campuses is finally getting the attention it deserves – a White House task force, increased activism, an ongoing wave of media attention – and the concentration on such high rates of campus sexual assault as well as administrations' typically poor response is especially needed.
But we can't allow the renewed focus on campus rape to blind us to the broader culture that enables rapists to target victims – often without serious legal or social repercussions. And I mean everywhere, not just at college.
In many ways, it makes sense that the national conversation about rape is mostly concerned with college campuses. Young women are disproportionately vulnerable to rape and sexual assault – according to the US Department of Justice, the majority of women who are attacked are 16 to 24 years old at the time. The abysmal campus adjudication process, combined with close living quarters, the prevalence of alcohol – which rapists often use to incapacitate (or pick incapacitated) victims or create doubt about their stories – and class dynamics in schools ... all of these factors are almost tailor-made to make life easier for predators.
But the truth is that we're doing all women a disservice if we don't broaden our focus. More than half of sexual assault victims are under 18 when they're attacked, which means programs to curb violence need to start way before young people get to college, especially if we want to have any effect on those who never do: over 34% of US high school graduates did not go on to college in 2013. Who is protecting those young people and thinking about the ways to end violence in their communities? The most marginalized victims – immigrant women, Native women, low-income women, those in the LGBT community and very young children – also get lost in the conversation when it focuses almost exclusively on college women.
Still, I understand why there is such an interest in college rape. In some way, campus rape feels like a smaller and more fixable problem, in a way that rape culture never will. Taking on college rape allows us to point to tangible problems – ineffective administrations, ill-informed disciplinary boards, antiquated college policies – and give the impression that rape can be somehow solved if we put back together our broken systems.
In part that's true: creating avenues for justice at college will help curb assaults and get victims more support and respect. But fixing the way college respond to rape won't stop rape itself – it's just what we do afterward. And focusing on how to get rapists out of college doesn't help the women they could hurt – most rapists are serial attackers – once they're let loose on the public. A rapist is a rapist, on or off campus.
There is something naively irresistible about the notion that we can stop sexual assault simply by changing certain enforcement policies, or upending the administrative status quo on campus. But narrowing the national conversation about sexual assault to address only campus rape is just another way to compartmentalize the tremendous national sickness around women and sexuality. Words on paper – even widespread expulsions – won't make rape go away. But a shift in power dynamics in society at large – and a recognition of structural inequalities – just might.
College campuses are simply a microcosm of the larger social problems of misogyny, male entitlement and structural victim-blaming – issues that make rape cases hard to handle everywhere and actively create and support rapists themselves. We can't start to make a real dent in sexual assault – even on campus – until we deal with just how diseased our culture is about women.
So if we want to stop rape, we can certainly start with colleges, but we can't end there. We need comprehensive sex education that starts before high school and that covers enthusiastic consent; we have to stop focusing on girls' virginity and sexuality as a marker of their morality; and lose the framework of sexuality that paints men as uncontrollable animals and women as prizes to be won.
There's a lot more to do. The old college try is just that: out of date.