Good News, Bad News: coming of age in America’s Rape Culture

By Maria Siino

I recently started college in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I have both good and bad news to report from my first year there.

When I first got here, I looked for activities I could be a part of, hopefully ones that were not simply clubs but organizations that felt meaningful to me. There weren’t a lot of clubs listed, but among them were the campus GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) and the Feminist Collective. I resolved to go to both. I have since become the president of the Feminist Collective and a casual member of the GSA.

The good news is that last year in particular, The Feminist Collective made some real strides in improving the campus’ attitude toward sexual assault. We established a better relationship with the local rape crisis center, we made zines, we held a successful gallery show on the topics of Sex, Kink, and Consent, and we held a successful Take Back the Night event. This year, we are hoping to get the official sexual assault policy changed and have the Residence Assistants be trained in matters of crises and sexual assault. We may be changing things for the better in our tiny community.

The bad news? Well the bad news…is that this isn’t really news. At least, the rampant sexual assault rate on campus is not news. It’s not scandalous or shocking, because colleges across the country face the same problem. The keynote speaker at our 2013 Take Back the Night said in her speech: “In the 11 years I have been teaching, I have never taught at a school where this process wasn’t happening.” The process that she was referring to is that of dealing with sexual assault on college campuses and learning how to counteract the rape apology that tends to exist within their administration. Rape apology is best defined as justification for rape or defense of rapists, which often includes blaming the victim, making excuses for rape in certain scenarios, and other ways of derailing the fight against sexual violence.

I remember feeling dismayed (to say the least) upon finding out how badly my school handles sexual assault. The only reason I became less alarmed was by realizing that any college I could have gone to would likely have the same problem. If I had gone to the Big Apple, it would have been an issue. Recently in New York City, a student at Columbia University named Emma Sulcowicz was assaulted by a fellow student and brought it to the attention of the staff. In spite of other survivors who made similar claims about the same perpetrator, the college has not brought him to justice. While other students have publicly come out in support of Sulcowicz, the offender has faced no charges. If I had gone to the University of California in my hometown of Berkeley, it definitely would have been a problem. Earlier in 2013, a U.S. federal sexual assault probe was sent to UC Berkeley along with 54 other colleges in the country. UC Berkeley was also among 30 schools that had been reported for mishandling cases of sexual assault in 2013 to the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

One might think that looking up sexual assault statistics would help a prospective student choose a college where they might be safest, but apparently this isn’t the case either. An article published in Al Jazeera earlier this summer discovered that colleges with ostensibly low rates of sexual assault are often misleading. These colleges frequently show low sexual assault rates because they have discouraged their students from reporting sexual assault, either actively or inadvertently. Surprisingly, the colleges with higher rates of reported sexual assault have actually encouraged their students to report their assaults and seek help, hence the statistics. Unfortunately, this information might only inform a prospective student as to how a college might handle sexual violence on campus, but holds no guarantee as to whether or not they will be safe at a particular school. No matter where I might have gone to college, rape apologism would be rampant in almost any campus I could have chosen. Even if I hadn’t gone to college, the issue would still be there. I would still face rape culture no matter where I went, and as a woman, this is the life I face.

One would think that in liberal havens like Berkeley and Santa Fe that there would be more precautions taken against these issues. Of course having lived in both of these places, I know that simply isn’t true. As Aaron Cometbus put it, Berkeley is a “failure” of sorts. Elements of counter-culture still exist here (though arguably in small quantities and quirky demeanors), but if an issue like rape can’t be quashed here, what good is it? I will always love the place where I grew up but I feel that as an adult I can see it more for what it really is. I’m beginning to feel a similar disenchantment about Santa Fe as well.

I wasn’t raised in a radical environment. My family is typical in most respects, and as such, I was raised to fear for my safety and follow arbitrary rules that don’t actually eliminate sexual assault. Time and time again my parents warned me against being out late. But what can they do? They live in this culture, too. They wanted to keep me safe, and even if it meant letting my brother ride the bus home at night and chewing me out for doing the same thing, I’m sure they don’t regret doing it. I can’t blame them for being pragmatic in a culture like this one.

Victim blaming wasn’t the reason they restricted my behavior, though. At least it never seemed that way to me, and they never said it would be my fault if something happened to me. They were just terrified of raising a 5’3” daughter in a world ostensibly different from the suburban environments that they grew up in. Even people who try to reject rape culture can sometimes become rape apologists because this whole culture is rape apologist. I often have trouble placing blame on these people, only because sexual assault is so ingrained in this culture. If we are lucky, we’re taught that rape is wrong, but not that it needs to be stopped. How fucked up is it that as a 15-year-old I was told to be careful absolutely everywhere I went so that I wouldn’t get jumped by someone twice my size? But I didn’t think much of it. I’ve only recently discovered how awful it is that we, as a culture, simply assume that rape will happen whether we like it or not.

Another issue is how counteractions of sexual assault are attempted. Currently, all responsibility to prevent sexual violence is placed upon the victims, who are usually women. Women, especially college students, often carry safety items such as pepper spray, stun guns, rape whistles, and sharp key chains. They also take self defense classes, carry weapons, and ask male friends to walk them to their cars. While these forms of protection are crucial and often empowering, they don’t always solve the problem at hand. Rapists need to be held accountable, severe punishment needs to be brought to students who commit sexual assault, and measures should be taken to keep these self defense measures from being necessary. Protection is only one part of eliminating sexual assault; the other is preventing the assaults from occurring in the first place. It’s like how I was told not to go out by myself as a teenager; while it was probably the most pragmatic way of keeping me safe, it didn’t uproot the problem at its source. On college campuses, women often keep items for protection on their key chains, but obviously the sexual violence hasn’t stopped because of it.

So the good news is that people all over the place, including myself and the other members of my school’s Feminist Collective, are taking measures to change the culture that we live in. Whether it’s teaching women how to defend themselves or educating people on the realities of sexual violence, efforts are being made to stop the secrecy and rape apology that permeates college campuses. The bad news is the fact that it has to be done at all, and that there is so much more work to be done. Rape apologists are everywhere, and some of them might say that we’re doing a good thing, idealistic as it may be, but wouldn’t question why we have to do this in the first place. They would probably say that the world is a bad place and rape is just a fact of life, even in a college environment that is supposed to be safe and educational. But I refuse to accept that. Until this rape culture is dismantled and my campus is safe, I will never accept a compromise.