As young women, there's a conversation many of us have with our parents before we head off to college about how to decrease the risk of being raped or assaulted. We are told things like, never walk alone at night, or have a buddy system with friends at parties. Most importantly, my mother wanted me to know that if something did happen, no matter what, I would be believed, and to take that trust very seriously. This conversation was not part of a feminist power grab or radical lefty ideology. It was about my mother trying to keep me safe.
I've thought about that conversation as the horrendous story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party first emerged and has since unraveled on a number of levels, particularly due to the outrageously irresponsible reporting by Rolling Stone. I've also thought about that conversation as right wing media have seized on the Rolling Stone debacle to dismiss the existence of rape culture, suggest that campus rape statistics are inflated, and blame feminism for inventing the term rape culture as some sort of ideological power grab on college campuses.
It was George Will whose column last summer -- long before the Rolling Stone story appeared but not long after a White House summit on the issue -- denounced a “supposed campus epidemic of rape.” Will suggested that the real issue is colleges have “become the victims of progressivism” -- in buying into the liberal trope about the existence of widespread rape on campus colleges are surrendering their freedom to the government.
Will's comments have been widely condemned, especially on college campuses. But that hasn't stopped his colleagues in the conservative media for pushing similar critiques, a trend exacerbated by the dissolution of Rolling Stone's story.
National Review's Jonah Goldberg took it a step further suggesting a much bigger plot in which the liberal media, in this case Rolling Stone, was looking for a story that would fit an ideological and political agenda, one that has created the myth of a rape epidemic on college campuses as part of a larger liberal power grab -- using Title IX as a scheme to “reorganize higher education to their ideological agenda.” And of course, it's the feminists who are pushing this ideology, even suggesting that in this awful case of journalistic malpractice, feminists don't care about the facts, just the preservation of the rape epidemic narrative.
Of course that's not at all what advocates, progressives and otherwise, are saying. The facts matter greatly. But, despite the emerging flaws in the UVA case, there is a larger picture and a larger set of facts, including estimates of FBI data that only 2-8 percent of rape allegations turn out to be false, that still matters.
Blaming the evils of feminism for just about everything, from the disintegration of families, to the wussification of football, to derailing infrastructure funding, to just “ruining women” altogether, is nothing new. And in the ideological battle against feminism, feminism created and is to blame for the suggestion that there is a rape culture in America. According to one conservative commentator:
“Modern feminism is completely dependent on, and defined by, the idea that there is an epidemic of sexual violence against women. Not only an epidemic, but a culture that condones and encourages rape.”
In other words, the idea that there is an epidemic, or a culture that still puts the burden of proof on the victim, questioning her behavior prior to the incident rather than the behavior of her assailant, and struggles to enact polices consistent with the dynamics of rape and survivors, that's all in our heads. Once again we are being asked to ignore the facts.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest Action Network (RAINN) estimates that every 2 minutes, someone is sexually assaulted -- an average of 237,868 people ages 12 and up each year. Yet only 3 percent of rapists will serve jail time. Some 60 percent of sexual assaults aren't reported to the police, and about 2/3 of these incidents involve someone the victim knows. In 31 states a convicted rapist can be eligible for custody and visitation rights.
Conservatives devote substantial time to quibbling over these and other statistics about the rate of sexual assault. During a recent appearance on Fox News, senior political analyst Brit Hume conflated two studies to baselessly dismiss the veracity of the often cited statistic that one in five “undergraduate women experience an attempted or completed sexual assault during their college years.” To the derision of his fellow guests on ABC's This Week, National Review editor Rich Lowry also mocked the statistics because they include “attempted forced kissing.” And yet a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control has consistent findings, noting that “Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.”
No matter what the final outcome in the UVA case, the right wing media's allegations and denials are compounding the damage done by Rolling Stone, feeding an already tough climate that makes it hard for rape survivors to come forward. The same Campus Sexual Assault Study mocked by many in the right wing media found that among the reasons rape survivors don't report what happened: they try to deny it, not wanting to believe that they could be raped; some fear shame, not being believed, humiliation and being ostracized by their friends, and some just can't believe that a guy they know could be a rapist.
The discussion about rape, culture and campus sexual assault should not be partisan or political. The apparent decline in sexual assault over the past decades may indicate how confronting these issues directly and more openly can have a positive impact by changing cultural attitudes about rape and how victims are treated. Shouldn't making an effort to reduce rape be something we can all support?