This student chalking on the University of Oregon campus last year sends a clear message. Photo source.
Last week, Camille Paglia wrote an article for Time that argues that colleges pay too much attention to rape culture. The day after Paglia’s article was published, Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, where I’m a sophomore, published a report finding that one in five of my fellow female students had experienced rape or attempted rape during their time at the school. The report was shocking, especially considering the fallout over a sexual assault case involving three student athletes that came out last spring.
According to Paglia, this is just another of the “wildly overblown claims about an epidemic of sexual assaults on American campuses.” But I beg to differ. In her Time piece, Paglia advocates that colleges should focus less on preventing non-felonious rape, (which sounds a whole lot like Congressman Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape”) in favor of spending more resources on preventing abduction and murder. These crimes are serious issues, specifically considering the recent death of Elizabeth Thomas and disappearance of Hannah Graham. But Paglia takes it a step farther by arguing that “hysterical propaganda about our ‘rape culture’” not only detracts from preventing this supposed “ancient sex crime” of abduction and murder, but take attention away from academics.
It is true that certain high profile sexual assault cases have been in the news lately, such as Emma Sulkowicz’s Carry the Weight project at Columbia University, but to say that rape culture doesn’t exist and that it’s taking away attention from other issues is poor thinking at best.
Certain schools, such as Reed College in Portland, Oregon, have taken strides to create a safer campus community. In 2011, students advocated reforming the College’s policy on sexual assault, which was found to not be in compliance with federal laws. Some people were surprised earlier this year when a report from the U.S. Department of Education found that Reed ranked third nationally in the number of assaults per 1,000 students. While on the surface, this might seem like a step backwards, the changes Reed made in their policy have arguably made more victims feel comfortable coming forward and reporting the crime.
A protest in Boston against rape culture and gender inequiality in 2012. Photo by Chase Carter.
Paglia does admit that many universities don’t have the proper training or systems in place to deal with sexual assault cases. This is backed by a recent congressional report that found that many college institutions are failing to comply with the laws and best practices in how they handle sexual violence among students. But the solution is not to start talking less about rape on campus—the solution is to create significantly better systems for colleges to deal with this epidemic.
Conversely, Paglia goes on to argue that it is not the universities, but “young middleclass women, raised far from the urban streets” who are to blame for the high rates of sexual assault on college campuses. She writes that because of the strides made toward gender equality, including the fact that at many universities women make up at least 50 percent of students, women have to face the cost of the “big bad world.” What is this big bad world? The intrinsic evil nature of men. It is this “atavistic hunting reflex,” acccording to Paglia, that makes man “a predator precisely because he turns his victims into prey,” not rape culture perpetuating violence through news, film, TV, video games, and other media. For Paglia, her idea of sexual assault is a mysterious stranger with “animal eyes glowing… in the dark.” In reality, two-thirds of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.
By putting the blame on the victim for their “bared flesh and sexy clothes,” Paglia not only takes away the ramifications of a crime from these supposed random men, but also ignores the fact that women are not the only victims of sexual assault. The survey at the University of Oregon also found that 14 percent of male participants reported having at least one nonconsensual sexual experience while at the University. The voices and experiences of these men, as well as those who do not fit into the moniker of the “young middle-class women” are ignored by Paglia.
Sex is confusing, especially when you live in a society in which abstinence education is still the prominent model used in schools, but consent is not the “war between the forces of darkness and light” that Paglia thinks it is. By arguing that rape is an inherent part of human nature, Paglia does nothing to solve the real problem of sexual assault not only on college campuses, but also as a prevalent global issue. Believing that there is nothing that I as a woman can do to feel safer walking home at night does not create a safer campus. Perpetuating rape culture not only creates a hostile environment for female students, but all members of the campus community. Certain universities like Reed have proven that strides can be taken to establish systems that help students feel their voices are being heard and can focus on all the other important things in their lives. Like our homework.
Related Listening: Our podcast episode Feminism on Campus highlights student activism around sexual assault.
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a former Bitch Editorial Intern who likes to write about girl groups, her favorite 2000s TV shows, and sometimes college. See the bands she loves on Twitter @hsteinkopffrank.