Rape Culture and the Complexity of Consent

November 16, 2017

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I have to believe all these news stories coming out about sexual harassment and abuse are triggering some deeply held trauma by millions of women. As we know from Kevin Spacey’s reign of terror, not all the victims are female. (Terry Crews recent disclosure is a powerful example.) But it’s mostly women. We know this. For every Harvey Weinstein and Judge Roy Moore, there are countless women who must shudder each time this expanding story is reported. (Al Franken? Really, dude?) For some it takes them right back to that moment. Listening to Beverly Nelson’s account of Moore’s assault is like listening to someone frozen in a moment for 40 years.

I asked my wife how she was hearing these stories. Like most women, she has her own experience of abuse. I was worried it was bringing up difficult memories. Her emotional response was anger; that this sexual abuse was so widespread and that the conspiracy of silence surrounding it has allowed even more women to become victims. I wonder if that’s as common a response as the feeling of emotionally crumbling yet again.

A few years ago I was giving a lecture on the under-reporting of rape to my criminology students at the University of Oregon. It was a giant classroom in McKenzie Hall and I was being very social scientific about the reasons sexual assaults are not reported to the police, including the finding that 78% of rapists are known to their victims. In the middle of me laying out all these horrible facts, a young woman in the front row burst into tears and ran out the classroom. I never gave that lecture the same way again. I know when I’m talking about sexual violence, there are going to be victims in the room. I know there are victims reading this.

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I’ve written plenty about rape culture in this blog. From fraternities to #metoo, and probably too many references to Game of Thrones. As a feminist, I’ve lectured for decades that the normality of rape reinforces patriarchal power. To men, it’s an invisible reality. But to a female, every time they are in a bar, or walking to their car, or watching the local news (or Game of Thrones), there is a constant reminder that they are a potential target. And there’s a good chance that it’s already happened. Every woman understands the “rape schedule.” Few men even know what it is.

That’s why this blog post is going to push some buttons.

The complex nature of consent

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In the early 1990s, universities across the country were finally having real conversations about the epidemic of “date” rape on college campuses. As a graduate student at Emory University, I made “Fraternities and Rape on Campus,” by Patricia Martin and Robert Hummer (1989) required reading for my students. The mantra came down from on high that, “if she’s too drunk to consent, it’s rape.” It didn’t end predatory males from pouring 100 proof hunch punch down young women’s throats, but it planted the seed that the rapist isn’t just the stranger in the parking lot.

But after that clear and important message, it can get confusing.

Female agency and sex-positive feminism

Sally and Biff both get shit-faced at a party and then hook up. Did Biff rape Sally? Or did Sally rape Biff? Or was there just drunken sex with no rape? And can I even ask this question without forfeiting my membership in the National Organization of Women?

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Another book I assigned to my students, in the early-2010s, was Shira Tarrant’s Men and Feminism (2009). Dr. Tarrant was in Portland, speaking about campus rape at Reed College, so my girlfriend and I headed down to catch her talk. Reed had had it’s own issues with sexual assault by male students so the main theme was the revisiting of the “if she’s too drunk, it’s rape” mantra. Again, it’s in important message to get to young college students but I was in the middle of a much different situation with a stalker who was using her femaleness as a defacto victim status to upend my life. (Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987).) So, feeling like some complexity was needed, during the Q&A, I asked this question:

“My mom likes to tell the story of how my dad didn’t want kids. One night she cooked my dad a big dinner and opened a bottle of Chianti and got him drunk and that was the night I was conceived. My question is, am I the product of rape and should my mother have gone to prison?”

You could hear a pin drop and then you could hear heads explode. I should point out that this story isn’t exactly true (as far as I know), but the scenario introduces something debated in feminist circles, that women have their own sexual agency. I’ve had women tell me that they got drunk with guys as an excuse to have sex with them. “If it turns out bad, I can just blame it on being wasted.” I’ve had women tell me that they slept with their professors in college like it was a sport. “We all got points for bagging Dr. So-and-so in the English Department.” I’ve had many of these conversations but I didn’t want to share them with the audience at Reed College.

We took Professor Tarrant out for a beer afterwards and talked a little bit about my situation (and my question). She admitted that when talking to undergrads you really have to start at the beginning of the issue in an attempt to keep college women from becoming victims of date rape and the spiral of consequences that follow. The more nuanced stuff must come afterwards. I’m glad she’s out there on the front lines doing this work. I’m looking for the return of the sex-positive feminists to add to the discussion.

Assuming consent

Every time I kiss my wife, I’m assuming her consent in the matter. Am I wrong? Am I sexually harassing her? Does our marriage provided a “reasonable presumption of consent”? What about marital rape? Ivanka Trump alleged that her husband raped her. Was Donald just invoking a “reasonable presumption of consent” due to their marital status? In the wake of all the recent revelations, I’ve been think about this a lot. Deep in my heart I believe I’ve never been in a romantic or sexual situation that wasn’t completely consensual, but probably most of that was based on assumptions I made at the time. Was that wrong? I’ve been very explicit the last few weeks. “Dear, my I grab your ass?” All I manage to do is annoy her with the constant request for consent.

To be clear, the cases in the news are pretty clear, including the Al Franken case. These women clearly did not want this contact. The Lewis CK case is slightly more murky. And then there are lots of cases that might be put down to misread signals and honest mistakes. Those situations really need a closer look instead of the broad assumption that all men are abusers.

When the discussions about consent and date rape started hitting college campuses in the early-1990s there was, of course, some blowback. The “masculinists” were lining up to shut down feminists. I remember one “consent” document that hit the Emory campus that laid out each of the four sex bases and required a signature from each participant on each base before moving forward. “Do both parties consent to moving to second base? If so sign here.” Talk about taking the fun out of life, liberty and the pursuit of shama-lama-ding-dong. It looked like soulless feminists were out to ruin the joy of sex. Of course it turned out the form wasn’t from the university HR department, but some dudes in a frat. Well played, assholes.

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Human sexuality is incredibly complex. Some (male/female) people like to be aggressively taken and bent over the office desk. Some (male/female) people are gold diggers or just want to bed (male/female) people who are more powerful than they are. Some (male/female) people want to have sex with (male/female) people they admire and others prefer (male/female) people that repulse them. That’s called the Louis CK dynamic. If it’s consensual, who cares? Every relationship has power dynamics at work. (How many times do I have to say that?) Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote a great deal about how S&M mocks the power-dynamics in “normal” sexuality, but it’s easier to find a dominatrix than it is a dude to whip you. (Safe word: post-structuralism)

Keep your dick in your pants, just for a minute

This is in no way meant to delegitimize the deep trauma from years of abuse that has been brought into the light this fall. Harvey Weinstein needs to go to prison and Roy Moore and his creepy “evangelical” crowd needs to be shunned by the nation as a whole. (Please Neil Young, give us a new song about Alabama). And every man in this country needs to take a deep inventory of his past behavior to figure out if there some “me too” stories that are being told about him.

I know you dudes might feel emboldened. You’ve got a president that brags about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and alt-right Proud Boys who have declared open war on feminism, but here’s the secret I leaned along the way. Listen to women. Before you  unzip your pants and start masturbating in front of your dinner date, listen to women.

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Women seem so much better at reading the clues in intimate situations. Maybe it’s having to have their rape-threat radar on 24-7. But women are in the game that most men only think they are. I know it’s hard for men to ask for directions and shit, but just keep you dick in your pants for a minute and follow her lead. Try it. If she wants you to throw her up against the wall and go all 9 1/2 Weeks on her ass, she will make sure you know. It’s worth it, bro.

There was a moment in the 1990s when it felt like the third wave feminist movement was fully present. Power feminists, like Naomi Wolf, were taking “victim feminists” to task for negating female agency and erasing women’s sexuality. And Madonna gave them their soundtrack. (Ready to feel old? “Erotica” came out 25 years ago.) I think they hadn’t yet dealt with the intransigence of rape culture and the real rape (and rapist presidents) it has produced. Bill Clinton’s icky-ness might have given us an “opportunity” to talk about power dynamics but Donald Trump’s cult has no time for any of this “political correctness.” Maybe after we get through this new opportunity to cut the rapists and sexual harassesers off at the knees, we can at least again have this conversation.

 

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University administrators allow fraternities to turn colleges into rape factories

Aug. 31, 2015

When I was an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta, the fraternities had a little Sunday morning ritual called the “Walk of Shame.” After all the big Saturday night parties, brothers would drag lawn chairs into the front yards of their campus frat houses and berate women who were walking down Frat Row, heading home the following morning. Many of them would hold up cards ranking the women’s attractiveness from zero to 10.0 in what one frat called the “slut Olympics.” Odds are that some of those women were the victims of date rape but none deserved to be devalued in that way. But that was the 1980s. Stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore, right?

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Lately news stories of rapist frats have to compete with news stories of racist frats so it’s easy to get confused. Last week’s story about the banners hanging on the Sigma Nu house at Old Dominion in Virginia urging parents to drop their freshman daughters off “for a good time” was just the latest offense to actually make the news cycle. Did the frat boys (yes, boys) know that freshman females are at the greatest risk of becoming rape victims the first two weeks of their freshman fall term? Even if they didn’t, I’m sure it’s what they were banking on.

The list of such stories is long. From frats jokingly referred to as “rape factories” (Wesleyan) to frat emails about female students as “rape bait” (Georgia Tech) and on and on. It is the norm of the rape culture in a place that is not only supposed to be safe for young women (universities), but is also supposed to challenge the power status quo by enlightening students to the abuses of power. Instead universities with fraternity systems are reinforcing the the status quo in the worst possible ways. I have endless stories of frat bigotry from brothers I have encountered over the years, from racism (ex. at University of Alabama, “Want one our niggers to fix you something to eat?”) to homophobia (ex. at Oregon State University, “We don’t let fags into our party.”) But misogyny was always just the air they breathed, not even worth noticing.

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Universities may suspend fraternities whose sexual abuse makes it into the mainstream media, but for the most part, it goes unchallenged in any meaningful way. Why? Because fraternities are the engine of the Old Boy Network that carries “brotherhood” into the corporate boardroom (and washroom, and country club, with “business meetings” at the strip club). This is the Old Boy Network that invented the glass ceiling and sows the seeds of rape culture because it’s a male privilege and it brings money from good old boys from Duluth to Dubai. Happy alumni in high ranking positions give a lot of endowments to universities to preserve their fond memories of academics and parties, but mostly parties. Why would any cash strapped university president bite the hand that feeds his or her beast by suggesting that the beast is deeply sick?

First, the reality

Because they’re right there on campus, researchers have had a relatively easy time studying frats for decades. Repeated surveys have shown that one in five daughters sent to college will become victims of sexual assault. A 2007 study found that fraternity brothers rape at three times the rate of non-fraternity members (300%) and that most campus rapes happen inside fraternity houses. It’s not just “coeds” who are victims. We can include off-campus girls and women (including “townies”) and young men (including fraternity pledges) in the body count.

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For years I’ve assigned Martin and Hummer’s classic 1989 study on fraternity date rape to my students. The research detailed how fraternities use “little sisters” (adopted female students) to lure women to fraternity parties, maximize their alcohol consumption (see my recent post on Cancun), and then crank the music as loud as possible. The brothers would then use the line, “It’s really loud down here. Let’s go upstairs so we can talk,” to set the stage for the rape of the incoherent female. Interestingly, the study also found that fraternity members with girlfriends were less likely to engage in rape. However, members with girlfriends were routinely castigated for being “henpecked” and “pussy-whipped.”

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There’s another deeper subtext about how these rapes often occur in group settings, gang rapes, with brothers watching each other have sex with semi-conscious women, performing their masculinity for each to other. In Peggy Sanday’s 2007 book, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus, there was almost a sport-like quality to “beaching a girl” – having sex with her while the frat brothers watch. Researchers have also explored the deep homoeroticism of young men living together in a “Greek” house as they throw any off any suspicions that they themselves might be gay by expressing homophobia and sexually “conquering” women (but not having girlfriends). Things that make you go, “Hmmm….”

Three things: Generalizations, boys and sororities

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Let me clear about three important things. First, not all fraternity brothers are rapists or repressed sadistic homosexuals. I’ve known plenty of fraternity guys, including my father and my college roommate. Both, like good guy Brad Pitt (left), were Sigma Chi members. (We hope Brad was a good guy in college.) I am confident they saw the experience as formative and way to make (or buy) friends that lasted beyond Graduation Day. I am not generalizing about individual members, but I can weigh in on the moral corruptness of institution itself.

Secondly, young males are inherently stupid and not encouraged to be enlightened. Teenage boys are not taught about the impact of patriarchy on their mothers and sisters. They are taught to take risks to prove they are “real men.” This includes me. My dorm at Emory’s Oxford College had an annual event called The Whore & Pimp Party. Not only did I not challenge it’s existence, my sophomore year I organized it (and booked a great Atlanta metal band called Metalworks). I really hope Oxford left that party in the twentieth century. It was both sexist and racist. And there are few more despicable characters in modern American culture than the pimp. (No Trump reference needed.) I was a stupid 18 year-old-boy. But, after that, I chose to evolve

Third, people will say, “But what about sororities? Isn’t that equality?” First of all, sororities were created because women were (and are) locked out of men’s fraternal organizations. Secondly, “separate but equal” has never translated into any form of equality. And third, sorority girls (yes, girls) aren’t dropping roofies in male students’ drinks and raping them. Sororities give the illusion of equality and therefore serve to give legitimacy to the fraternities that exclude them (unless they are “hot” enough to be a frat little sister). Sorority girls are the house slaves who think they are equal because they have a seat at the master’s table, but are still thought of just like the field slaves by the brothers. (I borrowed that analogy from Malcolm X.)

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When I was a grad student teaching at Emory, I declared open war on the racist sexist fraternity system and all its bogus “traditions.” The KA house had its big Old South party, romanticizing the days of slavery. Another frat (Pike), had a “Pole Party,” and advertised it on flyers featuring a woman with a pole going up her vagina. That one actually got a reaction. Word got out that if you were a frat boy or sorority girl, cover your Greek letters in Blazak’s class or he will call on you to defend your lifestyle choice. Anti-frat graffiti started popping up around campus. Women started saying, “I’d never date a frat boy.”

It came to a head when I was invited to a big conference of fraternities to discuss my opposition to the Greek system. Into the lion’s den. And I didn’t hold back. I talked about how we emphatically opposed racial apartheid in South Africa but we don’t recognize gender apartheid in our own house. I talked about how sororities are propping up a system that routinely turns a blind eye to the rape of their members. I said, “You are educated people heading into the twenty-first century. Is this the best you can do?”

There were lots of boos and and one alumni stood up and asked, “How can you say these things when we do so much good charity work in the community.” I could’ve questioned that charity work (A carwash for a children’s hospital! Thanks!), but for once I was right on point. I simply said, “Do you honestly think you could not have done that good work in a organization that allowed women to join?” He had no answer because there is no answer. Afterwords, two young women approached me and said they were quitting their sorority.

Now whenever I see fraternities recruiting on campuses, I always stop to ask, “Do you allow females to join yet, or do you still discriminate against women?” They just smile.

I have a fantasy that one day I will be invited to give a commencement speech at Emory. (Maybe after the film version of my book, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, comes out.) I will tell some funny stories about political science classes with guest lecturer Jimmy Carter and the day I started a punk rock riot when Ramones played at the school. And I’ll also tell a few about the bad old days of the fraternity rape factories. Of course, there are still frats on university campuses, including at Emory. A tumbler account ranks the current Emory frats, from top dogs Sigma Chi, “Good looking guys who are good with girls,” down to Phi Delta Phi, who were kicked off campus for “fight clubs.” The cream of the crap.

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My daughter, Cozy, will head off to college in 2032. I might be naive, but I hope fraternities (and sororities) are long gone by then. A memory of a hurtful tradition, like slavery. Young people do have the constitutional right to assemble. If the KA’s want to march around like Confederate soldiers they have that right. If the Alpha Phi sorority wants to say it only recruits attractive white females, they also have that right, just like the Klan does. The question is, do they have the right to do it on university campuses, subsidized and supported by all the other students who either would never be allowed to join them or who are, as my mom claimed she was in the 1960s, GDIs (God Damn Independents)? No, they do not.

Dear university administrators, do you want to reduce hazing deaths (and the lawsuits they incur), and also reduce institutionalized racism and sexism while weakening the glass ceiling that so many female administrators have pushed against? (Only 26% of college presidents are female.) End the archaic Greek system and join the twenty-first century. Clemson did it last year (temporarily). Individual frats and sororities have been kicked off campuses. It’s time for the whole system built on the exclusion of others to go. This includes black fraternites and other minority frats that exclude women and the minority sororities that back those frats up. College is supposed to be a place where all are safe to find and follow their dreams, not be encouraged to become rapists or the victims of rape. Are alumni donations more important than your daughter’s safety or your son’s criminal record? (Of course, many colleges deal with rape accusations behind closed doors so that today’s privileged college student isn’t tomorrows registered sex offender. Prison stints might cut into alumni donations.)

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Fraternity members are not “men.” They are boys who are trying to become men in a setting that encourages them to value “bros before hos.” Michael Kimmel wrote about this so well in his 2008 book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. In the end, he urges society to raise “just guys,” who care about justice, instead of just “guys,” who continue the cycle of bro culture. What if the next time a fraternity or sorority tried to colonize a campus (that’s their term), young men came out and, in the spirit of the opposition to Wal-Mart stores being built in small towns and big cities, said, “Not on my campus! Not at my school!”

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Some would make the case that the solution is to just teach frat boys not to rape. I would argue that’s not feasible within the institution built on the exclusion of women. It’s like teaching white people not to be racist by sending them to an Aryan Nations compound. It’s time for the whole thing to go. If they want to have their “No Girlz Allowed” treehouse off campus, they can. But let’s keep campus a safe space. I know this won’t eliminate rape (date rape is a campus-wide problem), racism and hazing deaths from America’s universities, but it will get the institutions that celebrate them away of our institutions of higher education. And obviously, some good old boys with deep pockets whose heads are still back in their college animal houses are going to whine about “political correctness” (No Trump reference needed) and threaten to close their checkbooks, so this is where the administrators get to decide where they stand. And it is a crucially important choice. The voice of non-Greek students is pretty clear.

My dream is to drop Cozy off at her freshman dorm at Emory University seventeen years from now. I want my biggest fear to be her deciding to become a business major, not if she will be one of the 20% of female students to be raped. Let them talk about the Greek system in her history class along with slavery. Evil Traditions 101.

Note: Donald Trump was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity while at Fordham University. It is not known if he raped anybody while there and if he did how many women he raped. As Mr. Trump is fond of saying, “we’re looking into it.”

These books were mentioned in this blog and can be purchased at Powell’s Books by clicking the covers below.