As a new academic year begins in the US, thousands of college freshmen are participating in orientation activities to introduce them to the culture and climate of their new campuses.
Students at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, participated in a chant that reflects the culture that exists across many campuses in North America: “SMU boys, we like them young. Y is for your sister. O is for oh so tight. U is for underage. N is for no consent. G is for grab that ass.” The chant clearly supports statutory rape and disregards the woman’s ability to say no. A similar chant was reported several years ago at Yale University, where fratenity pledges walked through Yale’s Old Campus shouting, “No means yes and yes means anal.” What happened to no means no? The fraternity was later banned for five years.
Who is a rapist?
As a society, we cling to narrow narratives of what constitutes rape. For many, rape is when a scary black man jumps out of the bushes with a weapon and forces a woman to have sex with him. This scenario belies the fact that almost 80 percent of women who are raped are assaulted by someone they know – and it ignores the fact that not all rapes happen to women.
Our obsession with stranger danger obscures violence that is committed by someone the survivor knows and causes us to view it as less serious. These crime narratives frame our view of sexual violence so that when elements are missing – as is almost always the case with campus sexual assault – we doubt the validity of the charge. Certainly, we tell ourselves, a young man who is admitted to X [insert any prestigious institution of higher learning here] could not be a rapist. The typical college male, for example, the preppy guy from chemistry class or the fraternity guy in his dress shirt and tie, is not what we imagine when someone says the word “rapist”.
But in research studies, over 30 percent of college men report that they would rape someone if they thought they wouldn’t get caught. In my research, 17 percent of college men said they gave a woman alcohol so that they could have sex with her; however, only 2 percent of them considered this rape or sexual assault. I’ve had college men tell me, “Of course, I don’t ask her. I know she’ll say no.”
What is not clear is that the absence of no does not mean yes or that the absence of no does not substitute for yes. In fact, consent is an explicit and enthusiastic yes and not the “blurred lines” from the hottest song of the summer.
Survivors of sexual assault have been silenced all too frequently on college campuses. It’s time for the rest of us to use our collective voice to silence and change the rape culture.
Clarity of consent
The lack of clarity around what is and isn’t consent leaves young women who have been raped on campus struggling to define what happened to them. They describe feeling violated and knowing that what happened to them wasn’t right but they stop short of calling it rape.
One young woman told me, “I thought that when a boy wants to have sex, he’ll have it. I never thought of it as sexual violence.”
In my research on sexual assault, when women can respond yes, no, and unsure to questions about being forced to engage in sexual activities against their wishes, a significant portion of respondents choose the unsure option.
Another young woman said, “I think a friend of mine took a little too much advantage of me. My friends don’t agree. Now I’ll have to find new friends or let it go.” Regardless of whether the woman defines the incident as rape or sexual assault, consequences, such as lowered grades, difficulty concentrating, and feeling depressed or anxious, ensue.
Unfortunately, most of these young women do not seek help from professionals on campus. Research has shown the likelihood that a woman will report sexual violence decreases as she spends more time on campus. Students tell me it’s because they’ve watched how sexual assault is handled on campus – on most campuses, it’s handled badly. For example, a Yale student who sexually assaulted a fellow student according to the victim was handed a one day suspension.
Reporting assault may not help
A report from the Center for Public Integrity confirms that students who report rape on college campuses are seldom believed and that students who are found guilty in campus judicial proceedings receive little or no consequences.
The number of colleges being investigated for mishandling of sexual assault cases by the US Department of Education continues to grow. Campaigns like Know Your IX are helpful in educating young women about their rights on a college campus. It must also be noted that we are asking institutions of higher learning to do a better job than a criminal justice system that does not always handle sexual assault in an efficient or survivor-sensitive manner.
College traditions such as the cheer at St Mary’s University and Yale can seem harmless. It’s easy to write it off as a joke, as students just having fun. But to the person who believes that women can’t say no and that consent is meaningless, our silence conveys acceptance. Our silence supports the culture of rape’s supportive attitudes. Survivors of sexual assault have been silenced all too frequently on college campuses. It’s time for the rest of us to use our collective voice to silence and change the rape culture.
Angela Amar is a professor at Emory University who conducts research and has published over 35 papers on sexual assault and partner violence. Her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Health Resources Services Administration. I am currently an Op Ed Project Public Voices Fellow.