An anti-rape plan that focuses on ... men

White House report on sexual assault takes refreshingly critical look at social norms

March 11, 2014 8:00AM ET
U.S. President Barack Obama, center, signs a memorandum at the White House, in Washington in January 2014.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Will 2014 be the year college campuses get it together when it comes to sexual assault? The media are certainly pushing them in that direction from both the left and the right, with exposes on rape at Christian institutions and violent assaults at fraternities. And after several Yale students filed a Title IX complaint against their school in 2011, women on campuses across the U.S. have taken similar paths, filing lawsuits against schools — including Northwestern University, the University of Connecticut and the University of California at Berkeley — for failing to meet their Title IX obligations and mishandling cases of sexual harassment and assault.

The push toward safer campuses is coming not just from feminist-minded media and women who are fed up with the status quo. Some of this year’s most progressive anti-rape activism came from an unlikely place: the White House. On Jan. 22, Barack Obama administration published one of the most comprehensive national anti-rape plans in the country’s history. In a sweeping 34-page report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” the administration offers a series of solutions across forums, from the criminal justice system to college campuses. It’s an incredible document, both because of its focus on boys and men and because it was issued by the highest office in the land. It’s also an important political touchstone and a reminder that, for all its flaws, one party tries to decrease rates of violence against women, while the other invents increasingly aggressive and complex ways to politicize women’s bodies.

Nearly 1 in 5 American women reports being raped in her lifetime. One in 71 men report being raped. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators — 98 percent — are male. Rape is a sex crime, yes, but it is also one of power, with the most vulnerable individuals facing the highest risk. Eighty percent of female rape survivors are raped before their 25th birthday. A quarter of male survivors are raped before they turn 10. Women of color are particularly vulnerable: A third of multiracial women and 27 percent of Native American women have been raped.

All this comes at a cost. Although exact numbers are hard to quantify, studies suggest rape costs $87,000 to $240,776 per attack. That accounts for medical expenses, legal interventions, time off from work, lost productivity and use of law enforcement resources.

Particularly striking is the administration’s holistic response to these statistics. It calls on the criminal justice system to more effectively prosecute crimes and support survivors. It funds projects to reduce the backlog of rape kits. It modernizes the definition of rape used by the FBI to collect data to make sure that rapes are accurately reported. Until recently, it counted as rape only forcible penetration of a vagina by a penis; the updated definition includes oral and anal penetration, is not gender-specific and includes circumstances in which a victim cannot consent because of incapacitation. The report highlights the prevalence of rape in the military. And most important, it addresses the culture of rape: It promotes bystander interventions and harm-reduction models that play crucial roles in stopping sexual assaults before they happen. This last step is crucial, as it acknowledges and seeks to change a social norm of seeing gender-based violence as personal or private, allowing bystanders to look the other way.

Recoding social norms

While some groups of women are more vulnerable than others, sexual assault nonetheless cuts across lines of race, class, sexual orientation, religion, age and other identifying factors. The one unifier: Almost all rapes are committed by men. Advocates are therefore working with men and boys to decrease the number of offenses and to give men — most of whom are not rapists — the tools to combat a male-centric culture that allows rapists to operate.

Men who commit rape tend to do so repeatedly. One study found that only 7 percent of college men admitted to rape but that most of those who raped did so several times, averaging six rapes each. And on college campuses, men tend to use drugs and alcohol as tools to incapacitate their victims or target women who are drinking.

In response, the White House report outlines interventions that might actually work. A major step uses publicly funded universities’ Title IX obligations to make sure schools are implementing anti-sexual-assault programs and holding perpetrators responsible. (Schools may lose federal funds if they violate Title IX, but that’s a punishment that almost never happens, in part because the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights first has to seek voluntary resolution of the problem. The OCR has used the voluntary resolution process to require that schools give sexual violence survivors the resources they need to continue their educations and adequately train the administrators tasked with handling sexual assault complaints, among other stipulations.) Through the 2013 version of the Violence Against Women Act, this administration also requires educational institutions that participate in federal financial-aid programs to update their policies for responding to allegations of sexual violence and come up with new plans to combat dating violence, stalking, domestic violence and sexual assault. 

That anyone in the White House is paying attention to rape on college campuses and not blaming young women and not blaming alcohol is ground-breaking.

Nancy Schwartzman, filmmaker and activist

Men must be a key part of this process: As long as the social norm is to look the other way when it comes to abuse, to assign value to women based on their sexual choices or to equate manliness with sexual aggression, rapists have greater leeway to commit their crimes and other men are less likely to intervene. Encouraging men to intervene as bystanders — whether by interrupting an assault (if it’s safe for them to do so) or by simply pushing back on misogyny and rape myths — could go a long way toward dismantling a culture in which sexual assault is tacitly accepted as the price women pay for public interaction. 

Social support, six ways

The report gives women real tools to help protect themselves from assault without implicitly blaming them or putting the onus on them to miss out on social events. A critical promotion is the Circle of 6 app, the brainchild of filmmaker and gender-based-violence activist Nancy Schwartzman. Users program in six trusted friends and can send out prepared messages if they need help in a variety of situations — if they don’t want to walk home alone late at night, if they’re at a party and need a friend or even if they’re at a bar and a guy seems to be pushing their boundaries and not reading their cues to back off. Circle of 6 can ask a friend to escort you home, locate a user via GPS, tell someone you need to be called to interrupt a conversation, and connect users with help lines and resources on violence and assault. It’s one more way to combat sexual violence as a community rather than put the responsibility on the individual and trusting in the legal system to pick up the pieces.

“There’s no magic button and no one tool that solves this problem,” Schwartzman told me. “It’s a multiplatform approach to even having conversations around accountability, safety, relationships and assault.”

Central to that conversation is the development of a culture that supports rather than blames women. Many commentators have argued that because alcohol is often involved in campus assaults, college women should abstain from the heavy drinking that is often a part of student life — essentially, that avoiding parties and drinking in moderation is necessary to protect oneself. To its credit, the White House does not pin the blame on women for their assaults and instead promotes community-based solutions.

The report recognizes that college-age women are most likely to be assaulted in their first few months on campus, when they are navigating a new social scene and often experimenting with drugs and alcohol for the first time, without their parents or a core group of friends as a safety net. Telling those young women not to drink or even to drink in moderation is not very effective, as I have argued. If drinking is part of campus social life, lots of women are going to do it, and lots of those women don’t yet know what drinking in moderation means.

“The fact that anyone in the White House is paying attention to rape on college campuses and not blaming young women and not blaming alcohol is ground-breaking,” Schwartzman said. “They’ve made it so that it’s not an over-there problem. It’s right here. It’s right in our backyards … That did not happen before this administration.” 

A tale of two parties

The Obama administration’s work on sexual assault is, of course, far from perfect. Rape crisis and domestic violence shelters remain woefully underfunded. Changes to military assault policies are coming at a sluggish pace. Title IX is wonderful, but violating it rarely comes with serious penalties, and it does not apply to many private institutions. And Schwartzman points out that while male-centered prevention education is great, it is almost always voluntary and boys and men simply don’t show up. Without making it mandatory, educators are almost surely missing the very men who need it most.

But the White House is light-years ahead of the GOP. Republicans are obsessed with rape, bringing it up so often that after the 2012 elections, Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott recommended the party nominate fewer “rape philosophers.” Republicans claimed that women got rape kits in order to “get cleaned out” and supposedly abort pregnancies; that women don’t get pregnant from rape because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down”; and that “some girls, they rape so easy.” They are still nominating officials who argue that if women have the right to terminate their pregnancies, men should have the right to rape them.

2014 may be a turning point for campus response to sexual assault, but there’s little indication a more evolved understanding of rape has hit the GOP.

If only the White House report could be assigned to Republicans as mandatory reading before the midterm elections.

Jill Filipovic is a lawyer and writer. She blogs at Feministe and is a weekly columnist at The Guardian. She was the recipient of a 2013 United Nations Foundation reporting fellowship in Malawi. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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