This side of the overpass

October 12, 2010

Years ago, when I was applying for a job at a local nonprofit, one of the members of the hiring committee pulled out a column I had written for this newspaper and asked me if I really believed that we lived in a rape culture. "Well, yes," I stammered, "men rape women in order to demonstrate how easily women can be controlled." I tried to tie my analysis of rape to the social justice concerns of the non-profit. "The threat of rape is not unlike the threat of nuclear weapons," I suggested. "A man doesn’t have to actually rape for the weapon to have its desired effect. Women just have to know that he can rape and they’ll back off." The interviewer couldn’t see the connection. "What about your work with volunteers?" asked another member of the committee, vainly attempting to steer the conversation in a different direction. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get the job.

The term "rape culture" is vague by design. Feminists use it to open up a conversation about sexualized violence that doesn’t put the onus on victims to educate the rest of us. When the conversation is about rape culture and not specific acts of rape, it is less easy to blame the individual victim or excuse the individual perpetrator. "Let’s look at how our society allows for aggressive intrusion on those with less power," is a very different conversation than "How could she let that happen?" With the former, there’s some hope that we might form different social habits. In the latter, we’re constrained to talk about a past event.

The downside of using a term like "rape culture" is that it raises the specter of criminal prosecution. In the last twenty years, the consequences attached to a conviction for a sex crime have outpaced the consequences attached to a conviction for homicide. Sex offenders are placed on registries, are prohibited from living near schools, are banned from participating in many re-entry programs. Once a man is labeled a sex offender, he is banished to the periphery of civil rights. News reports describe a cluster of sex-offenders living in a hotel in Iowa, just off the highway, the only place that conformed to their conditions of release. In one part of Florida, the only spot on the map that complied with probation requirements was under an overpass outside of town.

For those of us working in coeducation, the problem of rape and its consequences presents a very difficult challenge. On the one hand, young women want to talk about the problem of sexualized violence without having to talk about a traumatic experience. On the other hand, young men don’t want to acknowledge any yearning that might banish them to life on the outside of town. The very idea that there is a rape culture is essential to one group and threatening to the other. "Don’t make us talk about rape in concrete terms," says one group. "Don’t accuse of something that will ruin our lives," responds the other.

Rather than tackle this problem directly, some colleges have taken to hiring outside help. Hamilton College, for instance, required all first-year males to attend a program named "She Fears You," presented by an expert on diversity. This got the attention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which warned the freshman that they would be "pressed to acknowledge their personal complicity in a ‘rape culture’ on Hamilton’s campus and to change their ‘rape-supportive’ beliefs."

FIRE’s argument against "She Fears You" was based on the fundamental principle of the assumption of innocence. Why assume that all male first-years are potential rapists? Why treat them as if they are in need of reform? "Rape culture", says FIRE, hasn’t been proved. If Hamilton does have a rape culture, shouldn’t that be listed in their admissions material so that women can choose to go somewhere else? According to FIRE, efforts to address sexualized violence need to happen on a case-by-case basis, after the fact, and not through some mandated intervention by the administration.

Personally, I still find the term helpful, if for no other reason than it makes us aware that our most intimate relationships can easily become very, very harmful. "Rape culture" reminds students on these college campuses, with tended lawns and quiet reading rooms, that sex and sexuality comprise a terrain with as many land mines as lovely views. Most importantly, "rape culture" tells all of us that the space between us, the place where culture makes its home, needs our attention.

That said, I don’t think we improve the space between us through prosecution or indoctrination. Indeed, one might make the argument that rape culture harms women by turning them into victims and men by turning them into perpetrators. In that sense, "rape culture," as a concept, need not work for women at the expense of men. Under the vagueness of the term, men could talk about the threat of being prosecuted without having to expose a specific humiliating incident.

At Hamilton, when it became clear that the identification cards would not be swiped and that attendance was, in effect, optional, a mass exodus ensued. That moment made visible the ways that rape culture asserts itself on public discussions: the women were never invited, and most of the men left on principle.

"Rape culture" is an intellectual tool that can help us see how our lives are diminished by violent relationships. When it starts being used as a weapon to bludgeon one another, it loses its transformational quality. But if young men and women were to gather together to study the effect rape culture has on human development, they might discover how all of them are terribly harmed. Once the common harm is better understood, there’s a chance they might find a common solution. There’s nothing like the recognition of commonality to make rape, and nuclear weapons, a thing of the past.

Schools: Hamilton College Cases: Hamilton College: Thought Reform of ‘Pro-Rape’ Male Freshmen