Rethinking Our Response to Rape

Rethinking Our Response to Rape

Encouraging students to blame themselves for not preventing a horrific personal attack creates a culture where rape and rapists can thrive.


 This article was originally published in the Cornell Daily Sun.

There were recently some new signs on the Arts Quad. With the tagline “Love your body. Defend yourself;” they tell students how to protect themselves from rapists: Don’t wear headphones at night, speak up, fight back, report assault. While I’m sure their creators have good intentions, the signs and the message they send are morally reprehensible.

Take, for instance, that tagline. Its implicit message is that if you don’t defend yourself, then you clearly don’t love your body enough. If you don’t defend yourself, you must not mind very much. If you don’t defend yourself, you deserve to be raped. Maybe you weren’t really raped at all. I’m sure this isn’t the message the signs mean to send. They merely want to warn people of potentially dangerous behaviors.

But when I read “alcohol is the most common date rape drug,” I hear the message loud and clear that I should never drink. If I ever do, someone might take advantage of me, and those signs will judge me complicit. Drinking can be dangerous, yes, but it doesn’t have to be. Whether it is or not, it doesn’t cause rape. Encouraging people to blame themselves for not preventing a horrific personal attack, on the other hand, creates a culture where rape and rapists can thrive.

Not only do such messages fail to address the root cause of rape, they have serious consequences. Do we tell cashiers held at gunpoint that if they truly cared about their stores, they would “fight back” against robbers? No, of course not, because defying a dangerous and malicious individual like a robber, or a rapist, is not going to help your situation. It might escalate it, get you beaten up and maybe killed. But if that happens, at least no one will blame you for “asking for it.”

Almost all the other signs on the Arts Quad similarly blame the victim, while refusing to acknowledge the serious and potentially fatal results of their admonishments. Speak up if you’re uncomfortable? And be socially ostracized for being too sensitive, hurt for resisting or simply ignored? Report your assault? And go through the brutal cross-examination of the police and campus community who refuse to believe you while blaming you for your dress, your intoxication, your gender, your lifestyle and your previous acquaintance with the rapist? (The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports that 73 percent of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger.) Your rapist won’t even spend a day in jail. (RAINN estimates that out of every 100 rapes, only 3 rapists will spend even a single day in prison.)

The most insidious implication of the Arts Quad signs, however, is what they say about Cornell’s attitude towards rape victims. Why are these signs here now? Because of the attempted rapes and assaults two weeks ago. The response of many has, at best, been one of shock and horror. Rapes occurring here? How unprecedented! (RAINN says that 1 in 6 American women, and 1 in 33 American men are victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. The numbers are higher for college students.)

Certainly, these two reports are unusual: The assaulter was a stranger, and they were reported to the community at large. Most rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, and most rapes go unreported. To react to the recent incidents on campus the way Cornell has done sends the message that those other rapes don’t matter. That if you were raped while drunk, by your girlfriend, you don’t count. If you were raped before Sept. 2, we don’t care about you. If you were raped and you didn’t fight back, or you were listening to music, you deserve it. How repulsive.

According to that message, once this particular rapist is caught, the problem is solved. Once that rapist is in jail, rape will no longer be a problem on campus. People who feel unsafe now will go back to their oblivious late night walks. But that message is a lie. Rape was not newly introduced to Cornell on Sept. 2. It will not leave Cornell if and when the Sept. 2 rapist is caught.

So how do we stop rape on campus? At an absolute minimum we should have required sexual consent training for entering freshmen. We already have Alcohol-Wise and Tapestry, not to mention several groups on campus already focused on sexual health and education. When entering freshmen don’t know that “having ‘sex’ with a blackout drunk girl” is rape, when “forcible touching” becomes an amusing phrase instead of a serious, horrifying crime, our campus has a problem.

Cornell already lags behind many other universities in not requiring students learn such basic information. That it took a highly publicized assault for sexual assault to be addressed is embarrassing. That Cornell’s response thus far has been to tell victims to better protect themselves is shameful.

The bare statistics say that 4.8-14.9 percent of men will admit to having raped or attempted to rape someone. Of those men, 63 percent were serial rapists. Instead of telling people not to get themselves raped, Cornell should tell people not to rape others. Rape is unacceptable. It’s time our college made that clear.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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