A Response to Pain:
Peer Reactions to Sexual Assault on College Campuses
College campuses are seen as a place for growth, exploration, and education in a nurturing and accepting environment. However, for many, it becomes a place of torment, pain, and humiliation. Sexual assaults on college campuses across the United States are committed at alarmingly high rates, and unfortunately, the treatment of victims after their assault only compounds their pain and trauma. The pervasiveness of these crimes and the negativity that victims are met with is due to the "rape culture" that so much of our society is steeped in.
On an average 10,000-student campus, between 300 and 350 people will become victims of sexual assault each academic year. These numbers are even higher when summer sessions and the full twelve-month calendar are accounted for (DOJ). These sexual assaults are not the products of girls walking alone on dark roads at night by themselves. The vast majority of campus sexual crimes are committed by a perpetrator that the victim knows. The grand majority of cases also involve alcohol. In one study conducted by a leading expert in the issue of sexual assault, Antonia Abbey, 97% of the respondents who had reports being sexually assaulted said that they had been drinking.
The use of alcohol by both parties is common in sexual assaults for many reasons. Alcohol can make someone more aggressive and more likely to commit sexual crimes. It can lead to misperceptions about sexual intent for the perpetrator early in the night, which leads to the perpetrator viewing non-consent later in the night as ambiguous, vague, or contrary--leading them to feel that their force was necessary and acceptable. The consumption of alcohol also makes victims more susceptible as it lowers their ability to assess and respond to situations (Abbey, 2002).
Sexual misconduct is also higher in particular sects of campus communities. Sexual assaults are committed at the highest rates by members of the Greek community and athletic teams. The issue of sexual assault in regard to these two particular groups of students is extremely troublesome. Not only do they in many ways promote and embody a 'rape culture' that creates sexual assault, but they are also the most likely to be shielded from punishment by the campus and their national organizations (Abbey, 2002).
These results are not surprising after my interviews with two different male members of the Greek community. Both expressed 'standard' views of sexual assault. They said that rape is a deplorable act and that there is no reason for it to happen. However, when they referred to sexual assaults they thought of stranger abductions and use of date-rape drugs such as Rohypnol. They did not see the more common forms of sexual assaults that are found on campus to be major problems. Both students felt that they probably only happened rarely and that "It probably was kind of a grey area type of thing. Like, they both drank too much and he probably did something he morally shouldn't have, but both of them kind of f***ed up and put themselves in that situation."
This statement was highly interesting and representative of what much of the other greek member had to say on the subject and rather indicative of their outlooks on sexual assault as a whole. Most of the sexual assaults that happen on campus are gray area moral infractions--not felonies. There was also a distinct idea that when girls begin drinking with guys they are entering into a type of contract. By their activity of drinking, they are fair sexual prey and there is nothing wrong with trying to "liquor girls up a little bit." There did seem to be a point of intoxication where it was no longer permissible to enter into sexual relations with a girl, but it seemed to be an undefined area and not very far removed from the point of incapacitation. It was clear from my interviews that Greek life is a sector of college life that is dangerously steeped in rape culture.
But what exactly is ‘rape culture’? Rape culture is comprised of everything in our current culture that creates, normalizes, and prevents justice in sexual assault cases. Rape culture does not simply victimize through the act of rape, but also through its creation of an environment that so strongly supports victim silence.
The way we talk, drink, dress, and act are all a part of rape culture.
Rape culture creates misperceptions and dangerous assumptions. A man who has had a tough week of classes my want to just head to the bar, have a few drinks, meet some new people, relax, and head home. This is easily comprehended and accepted. However, if it is a woman in this scenario, an entirely new situation is perceived. Her presence at the bar, casually and drinking, and not with a large group of her female friends makes her "fair game" and assuming the sexual advances of men. This is one of the many double standards of "sluts and studs."
Misperceptions and double standards of male and female roles contribute heavily to our current rape culture. Having lots of sex? Are you a guy? Nice, you are a stud! Having lots of sex as a girl? You are a slut!
This juxtaposition of studs and sluts, power and submission, control and emotional vulnerability leads to negative reactions to sexual assaults. People look at how a women was dressed, what she was drinking, or blame her emotionality as the causes of what she calls sexual assault-- rather than looking at the accused as a possible sexual predator (Ray, 2013).
The majority of respondents, both male and female viewed drinking differently for women and men. Heavy drinking for men was seen as 'bro activity' while it was seen as something a 'loose' girl is more likely to partake in. If this is the case, it makes sense that a drunk 'bro' would see a girl who is also drinking heavily and assume that she is looking for sexual contact.
Obviously, this is not the case. It is just one of many examples of the results of impaired judgment that comes from the combination of misperceptions and alcohol on college campuses. Compounding the problem, in the aftermath of a sexual assault, people look at the victim and think that she knows of these perceptions and double standards, and, like them or not, should understand the risk that is coming from her actions.
This culture of double standards and dangerous misperceptions promotes victim silence after an attack. She (or he) is made to feel as though they are in some way at fault and to blame. They get this message from a variety of sources. "She shouldn't have been dressed like that--she knows what that looks like", "She just got drunk and made a bad decision", "Why is she always so damned flirty? What does she think is going to happen when she acts like that with guys?” and so on. The aftermath of a rape is filled with downplay, skepticism, and dismissal.
This doubt and skepticism that allegations are met with often lead to the downplaying of the very serious crimes, or even outright dismissals. Students have learned this response not only from their peers and administration, but also from law enforcement and the whole of our 'rape culture' laden society (Frohman, 1991). Many people look for a variety of reasons to latch onto in order to downplay or dismiss the allegation. The story must be told repeatedly without any resemblance of an inconsistency (which, as one victim respondent reported, can be extremely difficult since the events were highly distressing and may have involved alcohol). Ulterior motives for the accusation are looked at. People even try to match what they see in the victim with what they believe are traits that a sexual assault victim would exhibit (Frohman, 1991). This doubt makes Sexual assault the only violent crime where victims are not assumed to be innocent (Ray, 2013).
This type of treatment is the largest factor in keeping students from reporting their assaults, and it is clear why that is. One of the respondents reported that this type of reception was as hurtful and disillusioning as the assault itself. She now feels that she had been naive to expect a more humane response, and though she has been indurated by the harsh reality of peer and administrative response to sexual assault victims, she is active in the movement to right these wrongs and create greater understanding and knowledge in order to prevent other victims from receiving the same treatment that she and so many others had, and to stop the occlusion of justice.
The other victim respondent said that fear of this kind of treatment is what prevented her from reporting her attack. The scars of the act itself were bad enough-- she did not want to add the damage of victim shaming. And it is hard to blame her. In my other interviews, it was clear that most felt that allegations were often overblown or contrived lies that were made up after a shameful or embarrassing act. Both victims acknowledged that this does happen and see it not only as an incredible insult to victims, but as one of the greatest dangers to advancements in sexual assault response. The small number of false reports overwhelm and weaken complaints of the actual, horrific crimes.
Through my interviews and research, it is clear that what is currently being done to create the best possible post-assault environment for victims is not enough. It was frightening to see the frequency with which the description of the post-assault process as a "second rape" was used. Both of the interviews of victims that I conducted yielded similar results to where the system failed and what the negative reactions that the experienced and feared were. Many of the problems and misperceptions that they mentioned aligned with the negative attitudes and ideas that I encountered with my interviews of bystander students and non-victims.
Misperceptions of intent, objectification, and a misunderstanding of sexual assault on campuses (from the administration down to the students) were pegged as the ingredients that fuel post-assault negativity. One respondent who reported her sexual assault to her administration was immensely frustrated with the way it was handled and feels that they botched and minimized the seriousness of the situation in a way that was "truly criminal." She feels that much of the negativity that is found in peer reactions to sexual assault is born in poor administrative reaction to sexual assault. Her point being that if students see the administration--those who are in charge--not taking the matter seriously, then why should they? Such blowback prevented another respondent from even reporting her assault, despite the mounting pressure to do so that some of her friends levied upon her.
The information I gained from interviews of male college students confirmed that the attitudes and ideas that the victims pointed to as the cause of their post-assault tribulations are highly pervasive. Most of these factors seemed deep-seated and have been little changed by programming and information that they have gained while at Emory. So what changes can be made to fix this? My research has showed that the most important steps to take are creating earlier prevention and awareness programs and more action to change our current view and message on rape.
Much of the 'rape culture' driven attitudes and misperceptions that I saw in my interviews and research seemed deeply imbedded in the respondents thinking and ideas. This makes sense as it has often been shown that many of the traits that are common in male perpetrators are developed early, well before the completion of adolescence (Abbey, 2004). Once established, it is very hard to curve these modes of thinking. From my interviews, it was clear that the programs that all of the respondents took part in during their respective college orientations had very little affect on their attitudes (whether negative or positive) and thoughts toward sexual assault.
For this reason, I feel that, from the information that I have attained, the best course of action looking forward is to start prevention and awareness programs much earlier, rather than waiting until student's are in their late teens. Jillian Ray has said that we need to change our current "don't get raped" message to a "don't rape" message. By establishing prevention and awareness programs that address the issue to younger students, we can cut out many of the traits and misperceptions that lead to young men (and women) committing sexual assault. It will also be necessary to put a greater emphasis on the punishments and criminal recourse that come with committing a sexual assault. As my interviews showed that many of the instances of sexual assault that I described were seen as moral gray areas by some of my male respondents, it seems highly necessary to not only show them that it is in fact sexual assault early on, but to teach them how severe the punishments are for such crimes and let them know that they will not have impunity.
As it has been shown that alcohol consumption prevents many perpetrators from considering the negative ramifications that they will experience from their actions (Abbey, 2002). Perhaps if there is greater knowledge of the potential prison terms and consequences of such an action, many will refrain from committing sexual assaults. Further, knowledge of how severely punishable these acts are and combined with a greater understanding of the problem gained from adolescent information programs will greatly change the role of the peer bystander in college sexual assaults. A fraternity brother will be more prone to stop his 'brother' from committing a sexual assault. Victim blaming will greatly decrease, which in turn will empower more victims to step forward and receive the help that they need.