What Can Prevent Campus Rape?

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Judith Levine published a beautiful piece this week on how “to stop campus rape,” an issue that’s recently been getting attention from far outside its usual feminist bounds. In Congress, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and a bipartisan team have been trying to pass a federal Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA) which would, among other things, create a public database of campus assaults and raise fines on colleges that report them inaccurately. A little over a year ago, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act was campuspassed, mandating that schools create rape prevention and awareness programs if they want to keep participating in federal student loan programs.

It’s hard to see how most of these efforts will change anything. The difference between a rapist and a not-rapist isn’t having clicked through an online sexual-assault awareness module. And a public database of campus assaults may prove useful to those who choose educational institutions based on crime stats, but it would seem to do nothing to discourage rape on campus. The underlying issues — sexual assault is all too common, victims are often hushed or treated unfairly by college administrators, the accused can lack anything resembling due process — remain.

Increasing fines for colleges that fail to report sexual assaults, as the CASA would mandate, might force schools to take sex crime complaints more seriously. But even this proposal is riddled with problems. First, it would require a victim whose allegations have already been swept under the rug by her or his university to then take further action and file a complaint with the Department of Education. And as The New York Times noted recently, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which handles these claims, hardly has enough staff to evaluate student complaints, which could mean “many colleges that violate federal law will not be investigated or fined.”

Others, however, fret that the OCR could get a little too fine-happy under the new proposal. Hans Bader, an attorney with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, recently pointed out that the bill would let OCR keep any money it receives, rather than turning it over to the general treasury. Wendy McElroy worries:

This creates a huge incentive for OCR to be aggressively punitive or to accuse innocent universities of misrepresentation or substandard compliance. Even an inability to comply would not exempt institutions from fines. For example, they are required to enter into a “memorandum of understanding” with local law enforcement. If the latter refuses, then “[t]he Secretary of Education will then have the discretion to grant the waiver.” Not the obligation but the discretion.

For McElroy, the whole idea of colleges conducting sexual assault investigations is preposterous:

Rape is a criminal act. Why is it being vetted by campus administrators who would never conduct a murder investigation? Both are the job of police. Why should university staff be forensically trained? The police already are, and they usually have years of experience. Yet CASA provides that universities must enter into “a memorandum of understanding [every two years] with all applicable local law enforcement agencies to clearly delineate responsibilities and share information … about certain serious crimes that shall include, but not be limited to, sexual violence.” Not limited to? Perhaps administrators will be conducting murder investigations soon.

A simple solution exists to what critics call an hysterical and politically motivated campaign about sexual violence on campus. Sexual assault is a crime. Leave it to the police. Unless, of course, the campaign is hysterical and politically motivated. Then the pile-on of regulations and federal power makes sense.

I’m not inclined to agree with McElroy on much, but I think she is absolutely spot on here, both in asserting that cops should handle student rape cases and in assessing the motives of legislators. Students, feminists, and folks of all sorts have been very vocal lately about the problem of assault on college campuses. It’s an election year. Politicians want talismans to ward against war-on-women charges, or more street cred when they fire these charges at others. And unlike most “women’s issues,” this is an easy one, because nobody’s on the pro-rape side.

But let’s ignore these congressional theatrics for the moment. Back to Levine’s awesome essay. She traces the 1960s move away from in loco parentis policies on college campuses through a more permissive period to the trends we’ve been seeing recently (trends that correspond to a general societal panic about youth safety strangely at odds with the reality of crime and vice rates).

From abstinence education’s ascendancy to raising the drinking age, Levine suggests that more worry about young adults is actually making them less safe:

Today America has the highest drinking age in the world. Virtually every high school has a drug-and-alcohol-prevention program and a chapter of the aptly named SADD, or Students Against Drunk Driving. The ideal is abstinence until the magic age of 21.

The same goes for sex education. Its arguments against teen sex are similar to those against underage imbibing. Both lead to bad grades, low self-esteem, addiction, partner violence, unwanted babies, diseases and car crashes. Sex, drink and drugs add up to trouble and pain.

Pleasure is not mentioned. Pleasure is for adults.

But every kid knows that getting high is fun and sex feels good.

So young people arrive at college parched, horny and unskilled at social drinking or sexual relations, and go into hyper-party mode. Still too young to drink at a bar, they “pregame” — guzzle as much as they can as fast as they can — before going out. Ninety percent of alcohol consumed by Americans younger than 21 is in binge drinking. Eighty percent of campus rapes involve alcohol — lots of it.

The answer to alcohol-fueled rape isn’t micromanaging consent or intensifying efforts to banish college drinking — a proposition about as realistic as ending American’s love of cheeseburgers or stopping stopping the sex trade or conjuring unicorns. We need to teach young people to drink, love, and screw responsibility, and this involves a level of openness and honesty that seems to frighten a lot of people. But as Levine notes: teens know when we’re lying to them. Every opportunity we take to tell kids that premarital sex will ruin their lives and only deadbeats drink is a missed opportunity to arm them with the tools they’ll need when they inevitably encounter alcohol and lust.

Americans want to protect children by keeping them children. It doesn’t work. You can’t protect women by infantilizing them, either.

Which brings us to this long, mostly incoherent piece on masculinity from a young man named George Fields. In it, he asserts that “a girl simply grows into a woman, or so most believe, whereas a man is something that is made”:

He is made because his masculinity consists in the destruction of his own nature, not in the maturity of it. He is born subject to a slew of desires, some more despicable, such as an unbridled lust for sex and drink, and some more acceptable, such as a desire for fame and affirmation. Though some of these passions are perhaps less unbecoming than others, they all make the man a slave for as long as he is in thrall to them and acts according to them.

The act of being a man is realized when all such things are put under the rule of his will and are broken with a rod of iron; when he is no longer driven by his lusts as the Greeks would term it, or the flesh as it would be known among Christians, but rather commands them.

To Fields, the fairer sex has no interiority, simply passing from playing with dolls to pining for babies with nary an “unbecoming” urge or thought. Men, meanwhile, become adults by acknowledging that they are weak, narcissistic brutes and then battling this true nature. (And these are the type of folks who say feminists unfairly malign men!) The work of adulthood, for both men and women, is the work of denial.

It’s dangerous rhetoric. What happens when a man can’t deny his passion for “the flesh” any longer? And that blank female canvas he expects has her own ideas about having or not having sex?

Contrast his ideas about adulthood with Levine’s:

Violence will not end until men stop viewing women … as “objects for sex.” But neither will it end if we keep viewing women as “special objects” in need of special protection. … To be equal, women must recognize themselves as adults, neither allowing men to abuse them nor expecting men to protect them. For men to grow up, they must recognize women as equals, people like themselves. Equality, not protection, is the antidote to sexual violence.

Thoughts? Email dish@andrewsullivan.com.

(Photo by Ed Yourdon)