This article was originally published in iPolitics.
Is there a festering ‘rape culture’ on our university campuses?
Plenty of people think so.
Anne-Marie Roy, the head of the University of Ottawa students’ union, used the term when she reacted to a Facebook exchange including several male student leaders, in which they fantasized about raping her and infecting her with venereal disease.
Michaëlle Jean, the former Governor General who is now chancellor of the U of O, went further. She said that rape culture is not only present but growing on campuses and in the community at large. (The university also suspended its entire men’s hockey team and coaching staff last week in connection with an allegation of sexual assault.)
Many of my female students at Carleton University believe there is a rape culture on campus and it worries them, maybe even terrifies a few.
Predictably, talk of rape culture has provoked a backlash among columnists such as Margaret Wente and Barbara Kay with their peculiar pre-occupation with protecting the honour of us menfolk against the ravages of feminism.
So what is rape culture?
The term was coined by American feminists in the 1970s. It has been used in many various ways, but at its core is a belief that rape and other forms of sexual assault are not simply the acts of isolated deviants. Rather, they’re seen as part of cultural continuum in which women are objectified and demeaned, and in which rape is encouraged, excused, condoned and covered up. Women may even internalize norms that say they “asked for it” or that “boys will be boys.”
It isn’t hard to identify examples of rape culture in history. The respected British scholar Anthony Beevor has suggested the number of women raped by the Soviet Red Army in the conquest of Poland and Germany in 1945 was likely in the millions; sickeningly, the victims included women just freed from concentration camps. It occurred with the knowledge, even the encouragement, of the chain of command.
But the evidence for a rape culture on modern Canadian campuses is much more ambiguous, and the debate is occurring in a virtual fact-free zone.
What do we actually know?
The rate of reported sexual assaults has been falling in Canada, as has violent crime in general.
But we know that only a small fraction of sexual assaults are ever reported.
Still, it is well established that college-age women are by far the most likely to suffer a sexual assault.
In sum, it’s extremely difficult to say with any precision what is happening on campuses in terms of the sexual assault rate, much less anything about any culture nurturing it.
For one thing, the definition of what constitutes sexual assault has quite rightly been expanding, both legally and culturally. Prior to a reform of Canada’s laws in 1983, trials for rape frequently turned on whether there had been ejaculation as evidence of penetration. Today the notions of marital rape and date rape are commonplace, and it is generally understood that sexual assault is a crime even where it does not meet the old definition of rape.
Nonetheless, one difficulty in the reporting of sexual assaults is that some women may not recognize unwanted groping, to pick an example, as a crime — or even if they do, they may choose not to pursue it as a criminal matter.
It could be that the “real” incidence of sexual assault is rising while the reported incidence is falling. But for all we know, women may be more willing to report sexual assaults even as they become less frequent.
Are campuses safer or more dangerous than the community at large? We just don’t have the information that would tell us.
One of the most confusing elements of the current situation is the role of the Internet. There is no doubt that it has created all sorts of “communities” of otherwise isolated individuals, from pedophiles to lepidopterists to alt-punk fans, that may help sustain what might otherwise be marginalized activities. It could be true as well of rape culture.
But the Internet also has helped us uncover troubling behaviour and forced institutions to react. In an earlier age the vile, threatening language of those idiots at the U of O would have vanished like the whiff of beer rather than being preserved in the amber of a screenshot.
Would UBC and SMU have reacted to the rape chants on their campuses had they not been captured on video and put up on YouTube? Surely not.
It may be that rape culture has intensified. But it may be simply that a malign subculture is now being exposed more than ever. An official UBC report (PDF) said that the offending chant had been a “tradition.” How long back it went, we cannot say.
Ms. Jean is a former journalist, and there is a half-serious old saw in journalism that three of anything makes a trend. Perhaps that was the standard she was applying when she claimed rape culture is on the increase.
But as the chancellor of a university, she should know better than to make such an audacious claim without much more substantial evidence. She may be unnecessarily frightening the very women she purports to defend.
In some ways, universities have changed for the better. When I was a lecturer at a large provincial university in my 20s, a number of my colleagues were in the habit of “dating” and bedding their own students. While some of us may have disapproved, there did not seem to be any regulation of this behaviour beyond what was in the Criminal Code. Today, at most universities in Canada, this would be recognized as a gross abuse of authority, comparable to a doctor molesting a patient.
The truth is, whether things are getting better or worse on campus, there is plenty of work to do.
A couple of young men I teach told me the other day that in sports locker rooms it is much easier to call out other guys for racist comments than for those demeaning women.
Some people may be inclined to dismiss this as “boy talk” — something which even some female U of O students did last week in reacting to the Facebook incident. And it is not at all certain what the relationship of such reprehensible banter is to actual physical assault. But it’s hard to imagine that dark talk of violence directed at Jews or blacks would be dismissed just because no one had painted a swastika on a synagogue or organized a lynching.
Unfortunately, universities only act when bad publicity makes them start to worry about their own reputations. At my own university this week, striking security workers said the university increased their numbers after a particularly shocking sexual assault a few years ago. But since the controversy died away, they claim, there has been no further increase in their ranks even though the student population has grown greatly.
What is so infuriating about all this is that, whether or not rape culture is flourishing, the perception that it is may be what’s needed to get universities to do what they should have been doing anyway: make our campuses the safest places they can possibly be for women and for all our students.
Paul Adams is an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University. He is also a veteran of the CBC, the Globe and Mail and EKOS Research.