Rape. Why is this term, formally recognized to encapsulate a range of situations, violations and perpetrators, so often thought of in a different context on college campuses? Many consider rape in a college setting to be perpetrated by ‘nice boys,’ who made poor judgement calls but should not suffer for the rest of their lives. It is often viewed as an ambiguous example of he-said-she-said, when the use of intoxicating substances blurs the line between yes and no. The academic David Lisak’s published study in Violence and Victims certainly challenge the notion that perpetrators on college campuses simply misjudge a situation and should be dealt with in a less serious manner. He found shocking parallels between male rapists on a college campus and incarcerated rapists, suggesting that the majority of college perpetrators are predators and often rape more than once. However, despite the growing evidence and changing mindsets among scholars, it is shocking how widespread and deeply-entrenched the assumptions and stigmas about rape have permeated into college society.
As an undergraduate student at Emory University, I have overheard and engaged in conversations about crimes that occur in our immediate community. The administration can pride itself on remaining transparent during the chaotic times when acts of violence have been reported. Title IX, a policy implemented by the US Department of Education, guarantees this response and ensures that school’s receiving Federal financial assistance properly investigate and resolve claims of alleged sexual discrimination. These colleges respond to instances of sexual violence with campus-wide announcements that state the location and approximate time of the reported crime. However, there are certainly repercussions when email alerts with vague descriptions are sent out to the entire student body. Rumors or misinformed facts spread about the incident, often making the healing and legal processes even more difficult for the survivor.
The seemingly obvious reaction for college students to discuss the incident occurring on or around their campus to try to learn what actually happened was not what surprised me about the email blasts that Emory students received on February 12, 2014. Rather, it was the way in which students discussed the emails. Although the rapes occurred only about two hours apart on the same night, they occurred in drastically different contexts and sparked various reactions among the student body.
The first email describes an incident in which a female student was raped in a wooded area at 11:15 PM. The perpetrator was said to be a “white male, mid-to-late 50’s” who was last seen running from campus. The second email involved “forcible fondling” at a campus fraternity house at 1:15 AM, perpetrated by an alleged Emory student. The female student then kicked the perpetrator and left the premises. Both occurrences demonstrate that sexual assault is most certainly an issue on college campuses. However, ‘stranger rapes,’ when the perpetrator is not an acquaintance of the victim, occur less often than ‘date rapes’ or non-stranger rapes, and are thus more shocking for many students to hear about. The conversations that took place after the emails were received took on decidedly different tones, with stronger and more fearful reactions involved in the dialogue about the stranger rape.
Sexual assault is defined by the Department of Justice as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Why should one example of sexual assault be taken more seriously than another? I believe many Emory students’ emotional and fearful reactions to the stranger rape are the indirect effects of a subtle and socially constructed “rape culture,” including a sense of victim-blaming that diminishes the guilt that should be placed on the perpetrator. However, victims of date rape and sexual assault by acquaintances are in no means responsible for their experiences and their trauma should not be trivialized.
The conversations I overheard following the email blasts support Lisak’s claim about the “continuing perception, both generally and within the criminal justice system, that rapes committed by undetected rapists – rape of acquaintances that typically go unreported – are somehow less serious than stranger rapes” (Lisak 74). Giving justice to the survivors of sexual assault, whether perpetrated by an acquaintance or a stranger, requires a changing mentality among the general public and legal administrators. Public discourse must recognize that non-stranger assaults are just as serious and traumatic for the survivors, and must be dealt with in the same manner.
Lisak, David. “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists.” Violence and Victims 17, no. 1 (2002). Accessed February 17, 2014. http://www.wcsap.org/sites/www.wcsap.org/files/uploads/webinars/SV%20on%20Campus/Repeat%20Rape.pdf.
“Title IX and Sex Discrimination.” Policy Guidance, June 18, 2012. Accessed February 17, 2014. http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html.
“USDOJ: Office on Violence Against Women: Crimes of Focus: Sexual Assault.” Accessed February 19, 2014. http://www.ovw.usdoj.gov/sexassault.htm.