LGBTQ

Do Colleges Care More About Rapists Than About Rape Victims?

Officials seem more worried about shutting the victims up and not ruining the reputations of rapists than about making campuses safe for female students.

It doesn’t count as a rape unless the rapist has an orgasm: That’s what campus police at the University of Southern California reportedly told a rape victim who summoned them for help after being forcibly vaginally penetrated by another student.

The claim was part of a larger Title IX complaint filed by USC students at the Department of Education, accusing the university of not taking the problem of rape on campus seriously. Other accusations leveled at the university: That campus police dismissed a victim by saying she should expect to get raped if she got drunk at parties. A victim who was raped by her ex-boyfriend—notably, not by getting drunk at parties—was also reportedly ignored, even though she had an audio recording of the ex admitting to the rape. She was also scolded and told that the university didn’t want to “punish” the rapist, so much as offer an “educative” process, as if rapists rape because they don’t know that rape is wrong. (Research conclusively shows that rapists rape because they like feeling powerful and sadistic, not because they missed the “don’t rape people” memo.)

If you feel like you've heard this story before, well, that’s not a coincidence. The DOE’s Office for Civil Rights has been overrun with Title IX complaints recently, all telling similar stories: Widespread campus rape being met by officials who are more worried about shutting the victims up and not ruining the reputations of rapists than about making the campus safe for female students. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Swarthmore College, and Occidental College are all under investigation for similar offenses. The University of Montana recently wrapped up such an investigation and promised to clean up its act on the issue of sexual harassment and assault. Why does this keep happening over and over again?

Like with the military and its rape coverup problems, university responses to rape and other forms of sexual abuse stem from a larger overall cultural problem: People are afraid of confronting the rapist. It’s difficult for people to square away interpersonal violence with what we understand as “crime.” We imagine the criminal as an outsider or a rage-filled transgressor of social norms. But rapists are usually members of the community just like their victims are. It becomes easy for others in the community, therefore, to contextualize rape not as the violent crime that it is, but as interpersonal “drama.” That, in turn, makes it easier to be mad at the victim for outing the conflict and cause everyone to be uncomfortable than it is to be mad at the rapist for commiting the rape in the first place.

More simply put, it’s often easier to be mad at the person who draws attention to a problem than the person who wants to keep the problem underwraps, even if the latter is only doing so because they’re the ones causing the problem.

You see this dynamic come up again and again, with university officials more worried about how potentially disruptive it will be to eject the rapist from his community than about the damage he’s doing to the community by raping others in it. To make it worse, officials often worry about protecting the university’s reputation, and therefore see the people speaking out as more of a danger than the people committing the actual crimes. It becomes all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “If they just kept their mouths shut…."

The most recent obnoxious example of this happened at Dartmouth, where students alleged that the university cracked down much harder on anti-rape protesters than on actual rapists. One student, Karenina Rojas, described to Think Progress the social dynamics of this choice: “The fact is that Dartmouth is punishing protesters who are very visible, but won’t punish students who commit assaults.”

To make it worse, the rapist’s status as a member of the community causes many to go out of their way to protect and coddle him, and to treat the victim like she’s a meanie tattletale for alerting the community to the fact that they have a sexual predator in their midst. Many of the schools under investigation are being accused of treating rapists and harassers like they’re the victims for being outed, and the victims are being treated like the bad guys for not keeping the rapist’s secrets. All too often, the rapist is treated like a valuable member of the community who needs protection and care, while the victim is treated like a nuisance. Considering the fact that most rapists are male and most victims are female, it’s hard not to imagine that a knee-jerk preference for men over women plays a major role in this.

At Occidental, one student who was determined to be a rapist was let back into the student population (with its seas of potential future victims), on the condition that he write a five-page book report. At the University of North Carolina, a student filed a complaint about being beaten and raped by her ex-boyfriend, only to have the student-run honor court charge her for creating an “intimidating” environment for her ex. She hadn’t named him publicly, but apparently the unspoken expectation that girlfriends are expected to keep a man’s dirty little secrets—even if the secret is that he’s a rapist—was considered more important to the honor court than mere niceties like keeping rapists out of your general student population.

It’s not uncommon for schools to go out of their way to get the rapist back into the student population, even though it’s well-established by sociological research that most rapists will re-offend many times over.

The worst part of all of these stories is that none of this needs to happen. No one denies that we must protect the rights of the accused and go through the process of determining guilt before meting out punishment. However, the rights of the accused are not in danger if schools follow three basic steps:

1) Take rape accusations seriously. Do not immediately cast around for a reason to shrug them off or avoid summoning the authorities.

2) Treat the accuser like a valued member of the community. Do not engage in victim-blaming. Instead of being annoyed at her for not keeping a rapist’s secrets, respect her for taking the difficult steps to remove a person who is a danger to the community.

3) If the rapist is found guilty, prioritize the safety of the victim and the community over what the rapist wants. If there’s a conflict between his desire to go to your school and the community’s need to be safe from him, the community should come first.

With these three simple steps, you can largely avoid having a bunch of Title IX complaints filed against you. Even if your only goal is keeping the university’s reputation intact, it’s better to do that by dealing harshly with rapists instead of getting into the news for the Title IX investigation against you. Something to consider.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte. 

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