‘Rape culture’ or just ‘culture’ part II

The meaning of Spartan life

On Dec. 7, 2014, Slate published an article entitled “The College Rape Overcorrection,” by Emily Yoffe. Its abstract read, “Sexual assault on campus is a serious problem. But efforts to protect women from a putative epidemic of violence have led to misguided policies that infringe on the civil rights of men.”

The article goes on to outline the case of a University of Michigan freshman who was accused of sexual assault and—despite the presence of contrary facts—was found to have engaged in sexual intercourse with the complainant without her consent, and he was suspended until after she graduated. Obviously, if someone is found responsible of any violation, justice should be administered. The real problem lies in the serious lack of due process for the accused.

According to The Boston Globe, 28 members of Harvard Law School issued a statement condemning the university’s new sexual harassment policy, which was released in July, declaring it would do Harvard more harm than good. They claimed the adopted procedures “lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation.”

Case Western Reserve University has encountered similar problems recently. On Dec. 11, 2014, Cleveland.com reported a medical student was suing CWRU for “violating due process rights and contractual obligations outlined in student handbooks.”

Whatever the merits of that case, what is going on with sex and the way it manifests within academia across the United States?

In the 1970s, a number of books were written by established feminists who began to use the term “rape culture” to push toward a goal of eliminating rape within society. However, since then, the term has been used broadly to encapsulate any number of behaviors, mindsets and statements that have nothing to do with rape itself.

Whatever your position on the prevalence of an American rape culture, the major problem with the debate over “rape culture” is the explicitly precise term and the explicitly imprecise correlating definition(s).

Rape, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is committed when sexual intercourse occurs without consent, by force or threat, under significantly impaired judgment or when the victim is unconscious. Rape culture on the other hand can include an unlimited number of things related to sex and not limited to the prongs of the legal definition.

A number of heavy-hitting publications have recently weighed in on America’s proposed rape culture, including Time, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Salon and Slate. In all cases, the opinion is essentially that rape culture as a phenomenon is either running rampant or blown way out of proportion.

With government crackdown on sexual misconduct, harsh university responses and such a pervasive media presence, perhaps we live in a hyperactive rape culture.

Or, perhaps we do not.

Taken strictly in conjunction with the legal definition of rape, I do not believe calling our culture a rape culture is fully appropriate. This semantic issue gives rise to a chicken-and-egg problem here: Do individuals and their actions give rise to a cultural norm of rape, or do cultural factors give rise to individual behaviors?

It seems disgusting to consider rape as a cultural norm, but suggesting we have a rape culture does just that. In fact, declaring rape a cultural norm that needs to be fixed detracts from the individual responsibility of rape, and I don’t think that rape is a cultural norm condoned by society.

In terms of colleges, there seems to be a double standard. Our legal system explicitly looks at rape as a behavior committed by an autonomous individual. Punishment is based on due process, hard evidence and a trial by jury. Universities appear to be looking at it more like a cultural imposition needed to be dealt with by properly harsh but debatably unfair policies.

Rape is inexcusable and utterly, sickeningly deplorable, but calling our culture a rape culture seems to me a misappropriation. Furthermore, the sheer amount of progressive motions towards eradicating rape from society both institutionally and discursively suggests our culture abhors rape and refuses to accept or even see it as a normative concept.

While rape no doubt occurs on and off college campuses, we need to address the real question regarding rape culture—is it a cultural norm? All other questions are unimportant to the debate. Is sexual intercourse without consent, when forced or significantly impaired, a cultural norm?

I can anticipate the outrage at this point, but we can’t have it both ways. The prevalence of rape is either the product of autonomous individuals’ behaviors or the imposition of rape as a societal norm of cultural factors on the entire population.

We need to make a distinction between college culture and the larger society within which college culture exists. College is a subculture by definition. The conscious rekindling of the term “rape culture” has come about surrounding this subculture within which we students live, not necessarily culture at large, and the backlash is correctly pointed at more than just rape.

We need to be more vigilant with our diction and more honest with our rhetoric. Do we have a culture of sexism, chauvinism, misogyny and objectification? Absolutely; I think such terms are perfectly on point. But declaring that the act of rape is a culturally accepted thing is problematic and actually does injustice to victims.

Jacob Martin is a weekly opinion columnist. The final sentence of his bio last week never made it to print. It read, “Stay tuned for part two [this] week.” He apologizes for his error.