As a university administrator, I deal regularly with two serious problems. At first glance, they seem similar, but they are actually quite different. The first of these problems is rape culture. The second is “rape culture.” The scare quotes make all the difference.
Rape culture (no quotes) is one of the most pervasive problems in the world of higher education today. Put simply, a rape culture is made up of those elements in the college experience that 1) increase the risk that women, and men, will be forced or coerced to have sex without their consent and 2) decrease the likelihood that such activity will be reported so that it can be stopped. So persistent is rape culture in our universities that one in every five women who attend college will be a victim of sexual assault.
“Rape culture” (with quotes) is the written equivalent of an eye-roll and a loud sigh that greets anybody who tries to have a serious conversation about rape culture. It is a rhetorical device designed to deprecate the notion that rape is a problem on college campuses and to delegitimize those who are trying to address it. “Rape culture” supports rape culture by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
If the scare quotes could be put into words, they might sound something like: “There you feminist social justice warriors go again turning everything you see into an attack on men and blowing isolated events into huge cultural problems whose only solution is the eradication of the Y chromosome from the human genome.” Often, “rape culture” becomes “rape” (with the quotes intact), which encourages university officials to disbelieve the experiences of victims who come forward to report something that, in the mind of the officials themselves, is inherently surrounded by delegitimizing scare quotes.
Rape culture does not always look the same. In a lot of universities, rape culture includes the excessive consumption of alcohol and the expectation that casual encounters will lead to sex. Alcohol can impair judgment, and sexual expectations can create a sense of entitlement that will cause men to pursue by force what they think they deserve. These are disastrous combinations in any human population, but especially one featuring young people whose bodies have matured faster than their judgement.
This is one area in which, I believe, the various BYUs (-P, -H, and -I) are well ahead of the rest of us. At the BYUs, alcohol and sexual expectation are much less a part of the culture than they are at most other universities. Without question, this creates a lot of safe spaces for young people to learn and develop. I spent six years at BYU-Provo, and went to lots of parties, without ever experiencing pressure to drink or to have sex. This would not have been the case at any of the schools that I have attended or worked at since.
It does not follow, however, that there is no such thing as a rape culture at LDS universities. Even very religious schools, with very religious rules, have some cultural elements that enable sexual predators to pursue their victims. Largely this is because sexual predators everywhere know how to use whatever tools that their culture gives them to accomplish their objectives. As we are now learning through the investigative reporting of the Salt Lake Tribune, “everywhere” includes BYU.
Let me very clear here in restating that Church schools do a very good job in some of the areas that are the most challenging for other universities. I would also emphasize that no college is a monoculture. To say that the BYUs have a rape culture does not mean that they do not also have other cultures—some of them remarkably nurturing and supportive–that shape the experiences of many students. But, as there are everywhere else, there are some cultural elements at the LDS universities that, if not carefully monitored, can become powerful tools in the hands of sexual predators. As examples, we might consider:
- The culture of chastity at Church schools makes it difficult to talk about the difference between consensual sexual activity and sexual assault. As a result, many students at Church schools do not have a good understanding of affirmative consent or acquaintance rape. When a community does not have a good collective understanding of the difference between sex and rape, predators can operate more freely, knowing that what they do will often not be recognized.
- The culture of modesty in the Church often implicitly puts women in the position of being expected to control male sexuality. When a culture tells women that they need to help men control their thoughts by being modest in word and deed–or that their choices in clothing, makeup, and appearance can turn them into “walking pornography”—it becomes easy to blame women when men lose control of their actions. This, for example, is why the first question asked of a rape victim during an investigation is often, “what were you wearing?” In this kind of culture, women also often blame themselves. And the guilt and shame that this produces can themselves become powerful tools in the hands of predators.
- The culture of male authority in the Church often leads to sexual assault policies that have not had sufficient input from women. This is a problem because men and women experience these issues differently and often evaluate the same facts in different ways. When most of the important decision makers in a university are men, along with all of the ecclesiastical leaders in the sponsoring organization, the organization itself will often favor the male perspective in subtle ways that can be devastating to the victims of sexual assault.
- The culture of honor code enforcement at Church schools can discourage survivors from reporting, which, in turn, allows predators to continue their predatory behavior undeterred. Safe reporting is the lynchpin of the current Title IX enforcement guidelines. The only way to stop rape on college campuses is to stop rapists, and this requires reporting. Full stop. And as we are now learning, rigid enforcement of an honor code can dramatically effect this environment for the worse.
I was extremely encouraged last week to read that BYU has created a task force to formulate recommendations to change the honor code policy–and that they are seeking feedback from a broad group of constituents. And I was even more encouraged to see that women’s voices are amply represented in the effort. This group has important work before them. They are not just tinkering around the margins of a policy—as important as that may be. They are addressing elements of a university’s culture that make sexual assault more likely.
The Lord’s University must now struggle with many of the same issues that every other college and university in the country has been struggling with for years. Changing cultures is hard work, but it is the only way that human beings can make progress on some of our oldest and most tragic problems. But we cannot solve problems that we refuse to acknowledge. Rape happens all too often on college campuses, even BYU. Rape culture is real, so let’s lose the scare quotes and make change happen.