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Commentary

Is Challenging ‘Rape Culture’ Claims an Idea Too Dangerous for University Students?



Colleges across America are in political uproar over new federal policies on how to conduct campus rape hearings. Feminists and the left-leaning demand a halt to the “rape culture” which they claim has caused an “epidemic” of campus assault. Civil libertarians and conservatives see an hysteria that could ruin young lives by stripping away due process from accused students.

On November 18, I entered this melee by speaking at a Janus Forum event at Brown University. My counterpart was the politically correct feminist Jessica Valenti. At Valenti’s request and to my surprise, armed security guards were conspicuously present. Apparently, some students also feared an eruption of violence but informed the administration, rather than Janus, of their concern.

Eruptions arrived before the event, which was on a Tuesday. On the preceding Friday, Brown President Christina Paxson circulated a campus-wide email in which she disagreed with me by name. Specifically, Paxton rejected the argument that “sexual assault is the work of small numbers of predatory individuals whose behaviors are impervious to the culture and values of their communities.”

This misstates my argument. I acknowledge a person’s culture and values influence behavior. What Paxson and I disagree upon is whether North America is a “rape culture.” I agree with the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) which is the largest and most influential anti-sexual violent organization in America; it is hardly a voice of conservatism. On February 28, RAINN sent a 16-page letter to a newly formed White House task force that had the mission of reforming and standardizing campus rape hearings. RAINN stated,

There has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ’rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campus. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important not to lose sight of the simple fact: rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions of a small percentage of the community to commit a violent crime.

RAINN argued that a focus on the “rape culture” made it more difficult to prevent sexual violence because it “removed the focus from the individual at fault” and seemed to mitigate personal responsibility.

Paxson’s email expressed concern that my views on sexual assault could “trigger” memories in rape survivors or make them feel devalued. Accordingly, a “safe place” was set up for attending students who were traumatized as well as for those who did not attend but felt endangered by the existence of such a debate. The “BWell Safe Space” offered on-site peer counselors and a staff to provide support. Paxson also outlined an eleventh-hour “direct alternative event” that was schedule for the same time as the Janus one: a lecture entitled “Research on Rape Culture” by Lindsay Orchowski, assistant professor of psychiatry.

Through a Brown Daily Herald (Nov. 17) column, The Janus Forum responded, “We believe the alternative event promoted by the president...is an important event....Unfortunately, it was deliberately planned as an alternative to our own, forcing students to choose between two events, both of which we believe are worthy of their time. By endorsing Orchowski’s event, Paxson has denounced ours.” The next day, the Editorial Page Board of the Herald called for the Orchowski event to be “moved to a different time or repeated” so students could benefit from both events. Ultimately, both events were made available on line.

Against this backdrop, I arrived at Brown at the arranged time. I do not travel with electronic devices, which invite the TSA to trifle with my privacy. Thus, I did not receive alerting emails and was blissfully ignorant of how dangerous a woman I am.

Saloman 203 was the site of debate and I am told it is largest hall at Brown. It was filled. My presentation was first. The opening was intended to defuse a common attack on women who question the “rape culture.”

I am going to open in an unconventional manner with some personal background. I’ve experienced a great deal of violence in my life. When I was 16 years old, I ran away from home and lived on the streets. I was raped, and brutally so. Then and now, I do not blame the culture. I blame the man who attacked me.

I’ve had reason in my life to blame several specific men for violence. For example, as a result of domestic violence when I was a young woman, I experienced a hemorrhage in the center of vision of my right eye. I am legally blind in that eye. Every morning I wake up, I am reminded of violence against women because I now see only half the world because of it. Again, I don’t blame men or the culture; I blame one specific man. Most men I know would have put themselves at risk to protect me.

I bring up my background because my presentation may upset some people. And I look forward to a productive exchange...But please do not tell me that I do not understand the importance or pain of violence against women or that I trivialize rape. Such accusations are commonplace when a woman disagrees with the feminist orthodoxy and they shut down the one thing that is most needed: a real dialogue.

I divided what remained of my 20 to 25 minutes between discussing “the rape culture” and the conduct of campus rape hearings.

The Rape Culture

I deny it exists in North America. First, I defined the term and then pointed to a society embodying it. A rape culture is one in which the act of rape is so widely accepted as to be a cultural norm or defining feature. Rape is a core assumption of the society. Certain areas of Afghanistan are examples. Women are married against their will; they are arrested after being raped; they are murdered with impunity for men’s honor. North America does not resemble such a culture.

Second, I focused on a key statistic upon which the claims of a rape culture on campus are based; namely, 8 percent of college men have either attempted or successfully raped. I traced its roots to the book Body Wars by the clinical psychologist Margo Maine and did forensics on how Maine derived the data. (Much the same process is described in a National Post article entitled “Is there an epidemic of ’rape culture’ at Canadian universities?” I used the Maine statistic as an example of how investigation of “rape culture” claims usually reveals biased studies, badly flawed methodology or simply the absence of any evidence.

Campus Rape Hearings

I opened, “rape is a criminal matter that should be handled by the police not bureaucrats and students.” Nevertheless, there is an extreme political push for campus hearings that water down the due process rights of an accused who is almost always male.

Arguably, the federal push began in April 2011 when the Department of Education told campuses to comply with a new standard for adjudicating sexual assault if they wished to receive federal funds. The new standard deprived an accused of such legal protections as the presence of counsel and the right to cross examine an accuser. The criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” (99 percent certainty) was replaced by the civil standard of “a preponderance of the evidence” (51 percent certainty). A student could be found guilty of rape by the same standard of evidence used by traffic courts to adjudicate parking tickets.

A common rejoinder is that hearings are not legal proceedings. But the hearings actually operate in a legal gray zone. For example, the last campaign from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault includes improving cooperation with the police. Increasingly, the testimony an accused gives without due process can be turned over for use by the police and courts.

Moreover, the hearings impose penalties as draconian as a court. A student can be expelled with the word “rapist” permanently in his file. He may be tens of thousands of dollars in debt with no ability to obtain a license to practice his chosen profession. Many unlicensed professions will shun him as well. What university of quality will accept him? His reputation and belief in justice may be damaged beyond repair.

Having academics, university bureaucrats, and students adjudicate a criminal matter makes no sense. The hearings will not benefit genuine rape victims who are better served by reporting crime to the police. But the hearings will ruin the lives of innocent men, and do so in the name of justice.


Wendy McElroy is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. Her books include the Independent Institute volumes, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century, and Freedom, Feminism, and the State.


From Wendy McElroy
LIBERTY FOR WOMEN: Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century
With its vision of individualist feminism, Liberty for Women boldly explores a wide range of issues that confront the modern woman, including self-defense, economic well-being and employment, sex and abortion, the family, technology, and much more.







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