Oct 30 9:00 PM

What's behind 'rape culture' on campus?

Laura Dunn's experience one night in college, and her dealings with rape culture, have stayed with her. Today, she is an activist working to change the culture behind rape.
America Tonight

Laura Dunn thought college was a safe and carefree place -- until a night that changed her life.

During the spring semester of her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she went a party with fellow members of the crew team.

“It was my second time drinking ever in my life,” she told America Tonight. She had shot after shot, more than seven, she said. It was around then that she remembers two men from her team starting to pay more attention to her.

The two men said they were taking her to another party, but instead led a stumbling Dunn to an apartment.

"I actually fell face first on their stairs and they both just picked me up and carried me up," she said.

Then, she says, they raped her.

"It was almost like it wasn't happening to my body," she said. “… And I remember putting my hands up and saying, 'No. I’m a virgin, please stop.'" 

Consent was 'moot'

Laura Dunn

The rape was devastating. "I had nightmares. I couldn’t sleep. I lost weight. I was anxious all the time. I was having all these problems," she said. She even quit the crew team.

Dunn stayed silent for more than a year, until one of her professors started talking about rape on campus.

"She said something like 20 to 30 percent of victims report [the crime], which means 70 to 80 percent are silent," Dunn said. "I realized in that class I was the silent group, and realizing my silence is actually part of this problem."

She would go on to report the crime. The Dean’s office advised her to the campus police. The campus police sent her to the Madison police.

She also told her parents. At first, she said, they blamed her. "[My dad] sat down on the couch with me and the very first thing he said was, 'What were you wearing?' I couldn’t believe my own father would ask me that," she said. "Every reaction they had made everything worse, because it wasn’t, ‘Are you okay? We still love you.'"

Later on, they took a more supportive role, encouraging her to speak out.

The University of Wisconsin ultimately said that there was no way to determine what had really happened; since both parties were drinking, consent was "moot."

[My dad] sat down on the couch with me and the very first thing he said was, ‘What were you wearing?’ I couldn’t believe my own father would ask me that.

"Consent is the heart of sexual assault. It’s not moot. It’s always an issue," Dunn said. "The reality is, when it happens, people kind of shrug, say, 'Well, you were drunk.' It didn’t matter that you never drank before. Didn’t matter that everyone else gave you that alcohol. Clearly, somehow, you’re supposed to still be able to protect yourself and know better.”

Dunn’s story, told by correspondent Sarah Hoye in tonight’s program, isn’t unique. In a given year, 5.2 percent of college women are raped, according to a 2007 study of 2,000 female students by the Medical University of South Carolina. Projected over a now-average five-year college career, more than one in four women will be raped by the time she graduates.

Among the few who choose to report their assaults, like Dunn, many of them are blamed. Often, that is because alcohol is involved.

Strategies of campus rapists

Seventy-two percent of victims of college rape were too intoxicated to consent, according to a 2004 report in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol. Among women who had consumed 10 or more drinks in a sitting since starting college, 59 percent were sexually victimized by the end of their first semester, according to a 2011 University of Buffalo study.

But correlation does not necessarily mean causation.

"That’s not to say that alcohol or drinking causes rape. It doesn’t," said Lynn Phillips, a psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies students and sexuality. "Somebody choosing to take advantage of somebody who’s drunk is what’s causing rape. Right? They choose to do that. They could choose not to."

Predators may use alcohol as a tool to incapacitate women or render them more vulnerable to attack, but it is one of many tools and methods rapists use, according to pioneering research by clinical psychologist David Lisak. From more than 20 years of studying campus rapists, Lisak has identified some of the characteristics of campus predators. Using alcohol is a common one, he found, but rapists are also adept at identifying likely victims, using sophisticated strategies to 'groom' them, and using power, control, manipulation, threats and physical force. When it comes to the research, the arguments made by the victim-blamers do not stack up.

The reality is, when it happens, people kind of shrug, say well, you were drunk.

Phillips has interviewed hundreds of college students about their experiences with sexual assault. One of the problems, she argues, is that society doesn't teach young men about consent.

“We don’t do enough to teach young men that you can’t have sex with somebody who’s incapacitated,” Phillips told America Tonight. Instead, the message that both men and women get fuels assault. “Everywhere in the culture there’s this sort of eroticizing and naturalizing of sexuality mixed with physical force,” she said. “It really focuses on male entitlement to sexuality. It frames masculinity as being about power and aggression and about getting everything you can, sexually.”

Others call that rape culture, an environment in which violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. It is what many feminists and activists say fuels assault, and victim-blaming.

It is the culture that Dunn, now a third-year law student at the University of Maryland, is working to change. She is a survivor who has become an activist, speaking out in public, specializing in Title IX issues, and interning at the Department of Justice’s Office of Victimization.

“I actually do think the culture will change once you acknowledge that it doesn’t matter what you wear, it doesn’t matter what you drink, it doesn’t matter where you go out,” Dunn said. “You should be safe where ever you are and have that right to yourself to make your choices.” 


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