We Need to Talk about Campus Rape Culture

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Our society encourages rape. This might sound like a bold claim, but consider it for a second. “Rape culture has pieces to it, and one of the pieces is the script we’ve been handed down as males and females,” Director of Victim Witness Services at the Office of the State Attorney Gretchen Casey said.

We can’t deem gender roles the sole cause of rape culture (it has no one definitive cause), but they do perpetuate issues of female insecurity, a disparity in power between the sexes, a lack of respect for women, cat calling, sexual harassment, sexual assault and a general pattern of male violence. In cases of sexual assault, we see perpetrators exert power over their victims by violating them in the most personal way. This should be enough to make people stand up and take notice. Unfortunately, we’ve numbed ourselves to sexual violence. Even worse, we take part in victim-blaming which helps normalize rape culture.

What is rape? Somehow the disturbing debate still rages on about the semantics of sexual violence. So, for the sake of clarification, let’s take a look at this Florida State Statute on rape. It defines sexual battery (rape) as: “Oral, anal, or vaginal penetration by, or union with, the sexual organ of another or the anal or vaginal penetration of another by any other object; however, sexual battery does not include an act done for a bona fide medical purpose.”

We need to make this clarification because not only do we as a society not always understand what constitutes rape, but we cannot even agree on a definition as a nation. State laws regarding rape vary, which makes standing up to rape culture from a legal standpoint difficult and incredibly uneven.

What sort of person would engage in this type of behavior then and why? “Rape culture is fostered and perpetuated by a lack of understanding around sexual assault as a whole,” said UFPD Victim Advocate Annie Carper. “[We don’t understand] the character of perpetrators, the character of victims, the way trauma presents itself. Rape culture is perpetuated by people’s ignorance and naivety about what sexual assault is.”

Rape culture becomes perpetuated in part by society’s blind acceptance of objectifying behaviors like cat calling and sexual harassment. In turn, our world becomes so dangerous that we become unwilling to blame a perpetrator for a rape or support the survivors of these crimes.

So how do we talk about the alarming number of rape cases occurring not only on college campuses, but everywhere? It comes down to what collegiate culture deems normal or acceptable, which in this case means “drunken hookups” or “drunken mistakes.”

Take the Stanford case, for example. Brock Turner received a guilty verdict, but the sentencing for the sentence turned out disgustingly lax. Why? The judge concerned himself more with how a “drunken mistake” would impact the life of a perpetrator. To be clear, spilling your drink is a “drunken mistake.” Sexual assault is a criminal act worthy of punishment to the fullest extent of the law.

“In sexual violence cases, especially at a college level, we still look at it as a drunken mistake,” said Carper. “When we talk about the character of perpetrators, it’s not just someone who made a mistake. It’s a predatory behavior. The vast majority of perpetrators are repeat offenders.”

In college we normalize the idea of a drunken hookup, but people often fail to recognize the point past when it stops being a hookup due to the participants’ inability to consent. “The idea about a culture is what does it normalize? So if it normalizes getting a person wasted to the point that they can’t consent so you can rape them, that’s embedded in the culture, but those aren’t the words they use,” said Debra Weiss, a licensed mental health advocate with the University of Florida.

The problem, however, lies here: If a person is intoxicated, he or she cannot consent. If a person cannot consent and you have sex with them, it’s rape. Period. End of story.

“You don’t need to use a sledgehammer,” said Casey. “You don’t need to use force. Alcohol is the sledgehammer.” While drugs and alcohol help facilitate sexual assault, we cannot blame substances for the perpetrator’s actions. Unfortunately, the law cannot always distinguish between what actually happened and what gets said in a courtroom. It comes down to what can be proven. “Especially with campus sexual violence, a lot of the problem with cases being prosecutable is that it’s usually a word against word crime. Consent is usually the issue,” said Carper.

So how do we stop sexual assault? First, we need to identify the problem. Clearly, some people feel the urge to commit acts of sexual violence, but why does it happen on such a large scale? “You could point to things like porn. You could point to the lack of male role models in the home. You could point to a million reasons why sexuality has been so broken that our society doesn’t hold accountable perpetrators of sexual violence and sexual battery,” said Carper. “I think we all have a responsibility. Whether it’s as a victim advocate, as a woman, as a wife, to push back against rape culture because it’s not just one person’s responsibility. It’s not just one group’s responsibility.”

We live in a world that created cultures of male violence and victim blaming, but we also hold out hope for the future. Given the recent cases in the media, we recognize rape culture more than ever before, which is the first step to reversing those behaviors. “It can be learned, and it can be unlearned,” said Casey.

Until we unlearn the horrors of rape culture, however, survivors need resources. “It think it’s really important in our community that there are helping resources. We have a campus of 50,000 students. If we know that one in five women deals with sexual violence in her time here, we should be helping 10,000 students,” said Carper. “We do handle things in a way that can support and walk alongside survivors in a way that is comfortable to them, as long as they reach out and say that they need help.”

If you’re a victim of sexual assault, know that resources exist to support you. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to connect with supportive resources in your area.

Kelly is a senior at the University of Florida majoring in English and Anthropology. She is highly prone to feminist rants and has an unhealthy obsession with books.

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