A few weeks ago, Northwestern University responded to a student’s federal lawsuit against school officials for mishandling her compliant that a professor sexually attacked her in 2012. The college where I teach said the student was drunk and therefore could not consent, and that it disciplined the professor adequately, though he walked away with impunity.
But the trouble is that while campus rape policies urge victims to come forward, they lack effective ways to investigate crimes, punish perpetrators, and educate students. As a victim of a campus date rape in 1982, I know this reality all too well.
The problem with campus rape policies, and the problem with the handling of the assault claim at Northwestern, is that they hinge on a victim’s inability to give “meaningful consent.” That meaningful consent is expected to prove or disprove rape is deeply rooted in our societal inability to bear witness to everyday rape. Unlike violent rape, everyday rape is more fluid and tricky to pin down. It is, by definition, the inability to give meaningful consent to sex.
The rift between violent and everyday rape is starkly addressed in a recent episode of the television drama Downton Abbey. When a female housemaid is raped violently, her rape is acknowledged. But when the widower Tom is targeted by another maid, Edna, few viewers called the incident rape. That Tom’s rape was seen by viewers and social media fans as him being “seduced” speaks to the steep challenge of premising a legal framework for campus rape on “meaningful consent.”
As a victim of date rape on campus, I immediately felt a connection to Tom’s experience. The incident forever shaped my life, yet, absent social conventions that recognized my experience as a rape, let alone a legal framework, like Tom, I never felt entitled to even call my experience a rape. I was a new freshman at Brandeis, it was orientation week, and one of the seniors responsible for introducing new freshman to activities on campus took me to an off campus party, pressured me into drinking and drinking more. He drove me back, followed me into my room and raped me. I was a virgin. I did have to go to the health clinic due to complications from the incident, but not being sensitized, they did not inquire into what had happened. Ashamed and afraid, I told no one.
Whereas law can define the elements of criminal rape, interpretation of “meaningful consent” is predicated on understanding gender roles and power dynamics. Counter intuitively, the very setting where crimes can occur contribute to the problem. Women and men are perhaps more equal on American college campuses than in any other setting, where gender roles do not mirror those in the home or office. Sexuality on college campuses is flowing, stretched and twisted, with men and women interacting in complex ways.
Ultimately, rape cases hinge on the credibility of the victims. Numerous studies, including my own, have found that testimony of rape suffers from a “culture of disbelief” and wrongful assumptions about what constitutes a credible claim. Especially when perpetrator and victim know each other, meaningful consent is often called into question.
It is the divide between legal definitions and social understandings that makes simply prosecuting sex crimes a difficult solution to combating campus rape. There remains confusion on campuses about what actually constitutes a sex crime, as well as misunderstanding about what meaningful consent is, according to the American Association of University professors. Even the Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which mandates sex crimes be cited in campus crime statistics, hinges on the fuzzy concept of consent. In the U.S. we have our own social myths. Former NFL star Darren Sharper is accused of raping seven women, but last week during his court appearance social media defenders claimed he is too attractive to commit such a crime.
When I studied everyday rape for three years in Eastern Congo, the rape capital of the world, many of the Congolose women I interviewed had experienced violent rape, but they were most concerned about everyday rape. Everyday rape was not a one-time event, but rather a part of a woman’s daily life often beginning in childhood. Everyday rape, I learned, is premised on the inequality between men and women and social injustice that makes meaningful consent impossible. There, I learned to call my own rape what it was, and that as a community we can do better to bear witness to everyday rape.
Implementing a “meaningful consent” policy on college campuses without having the proper conversations and sensitization programs is leading to a new misogyny where college men feel that women hold all the cards in every sexual encounter. It’s not, as President Barack Obama stated, a matter of teaching our boys to “feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women.” This directive is backward looking and misguided, and does not address the tricky issue of consent, most present in everyday rape.
On campuses where men see women as high achievers, most men believe they treat women properly. Gender awareness programs exist in high schools, but more forward-looking programs are needed to sensitize men and women to becoming adults, and address what constitutes everyday rape.
Just as there was a proliferation of women’s studies programs following the women’s liberation movement in the ’70s and ’80s, women should be advocating for men’s studies programs. Women have spent years learning about themselves and expanding what it means to be a woman, now it’s time for men to do the same.
Galya Benarieh Ruffer, Faculty Director of International studies and founding director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at the Buffett Center for International and Area Studies at Northwestern University, is author of “Testimony of Sexual Violence in the DR Congo and the Injustice of Rape: Moral Outrage, Epistemic Injustice and the Failures of Bearing Witness,”Oregon Review of International Law, co-editor of the forthcoming book, Adjudicating Refugee and Asylum Status: The Role of Witness, Expertise, and Testimony (Cambridge Univ. Press) and a public voices faculty fellow with the OpEd Project.