(Dana Bolger)— Sexism. Masculinity. Patriarchy. In the entirety of the 55-page Amherst College Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct (SMOC) report, not a single one of these words appears. Apparently we can have a conversation about rape prevention and response without understanding the underlying causes of sexual violence in the first place.
The SMOC report comes in response to a series of sexual violence survivors’ testimonies of administrative disregard, neglect and abuse following their assaults. The report is the first of several sets of recommendations to be released by the number of committees that Amherst College President Biddy Martin established some months ago. I am encouraged by the committee’s commitment to addressing sexual assault, acknowledging the failures of Amherst’s past, and trying to move the campus toward a better future. That said, forthcoming reports should develop a more sophisticated understanding of sexual violence—of who is raping, how they are raping, and why.
Researchers have studied “undetected rapists” on college campuses and found that these students are repeat offenders, each committing on average six rapes and accounting for nine out of ten campus assaults. Speaking anecdotally, seven of the nine perpetrators I know at Amherst College are repeat offenders. According to researchers, these college men “share the same motivational matrix of…dominance, hyper-masculinity” (Lisak, 56), “hostility to women [and] adversarial sexual beliefs” (Bouffard, 871), and they rape to exert power or control over female bodies to which they feel entitled. Our patriarchal society creates the cultural space, particularly acute on college campuses, that supports them—indeed, in which they thrive. In short, rape is not an accident or misunderstanding but a deliberate act supported by patriarchal society.
The SMOC report fails to develop such an understanding of why rapists act and thus ends up reinforcing common rape myths, like that of the ‘accidental’—or even absent—rapist. For instance, the report’s repeated observation that sometimes “something goes wrong and a sexual assault does occur” (20), makes rape sound a lot like an unexpected thundershower—one that, given the right conditions, strikes seemingly out of nowhere.
When the report doesn’t leave rapists out of the conversation entirely, it conceives of them in fairly innocuous terms, as merely bad “mentors”, who, with some basic training in “individual good citizenship” (48), might become better mentors. The report goes on to state that, “The vast majority of Amherst students…are able to control their social and sexual encounters. The majority do not become victims or perpetrators of sexual assault” (20). This language left me wondering how exactly one “becomes” a perpetrator. Does he just lack “control” and accidentally rape someone? Were I a man, I’d be deeply offended by the suggestion that I am nothing more than an animal, wholly incapable of controlling my sexual urges.
Of course, this language is problematic for another reason: it places the burden of not-being-raped squarely on the shoulders of potential victims. This particular breed of victim blaming suggests that if a victim had merely been better at ‘maintaining control’, she or he would not have been raped.
The report also invokes the myth of the ‘miscommunication’ rape, in which alcohol causes well-intentioned men to ‘misread the signs’ and rape. For instance, when the report says, “We are not suggesting that alcohol consumption is responsible for every instance of sexual misconduct” (37), it indicates that it does perceive alcohol consumption as responsible for many (albeit not all) instances of sexual misconduct. Let me repeat: alcohol consumption is apparently responsible for sexual violence.
The existence of a link between alcohol and sexual assault is undeniable. But the common conception of the nature of this link—a conception the Amherst report espouses—understands alcohol as a cause of rape, rather than what it is: a weapon. Studies suggest that the vast majority of perpetrators utilize alcohol to intoxicate their victims—or to target already intoxicated women or men—thereby diminishing victims’ ability to resist, eliminating the necessity for physical force (and thus the existence of physical evidence), and reducing victims’ likelihood of being believed if and when they report their rapes. So too is it a myth to say that intoxicated men simply fail to ‘read the signs’ and thus accidentally rape people. Further, studies indicate that perpetrators deliberately get drunk to lower inhibition so that they can proceed with an act they intended all along.
The report’s invocation of these rape myths is troubling for its confirmation of mistaken and dangerous attitudes held by many people on campus and in society at large. The meteorological myth—which causes rape to take on the character of a natural disaster—makes rape an inevitable phenomenon, which, if we’re serious about changing the reality for students on this campus, is deeply problematic. Similarly, the ‘accidental’ and ‘miscommunication’ rape myths tend to excuse or even condone perpetrators’ actions. In general, such mythology reinforces a popularly held notion of what ‘real’ rape looks like: a violent attack on a young, virginal, sober woman by a strange, scary-looking man in an alley. If we restrict ourselves to such a narrow and false view of what rape, victims and perpetrators actually look like, we will surely fail to respond appropriately to rape on a personal level (as friends, for instance), as well as on an institutional one.
Not surprisingly, the report’s recommendations largely fall short of actually proposing substantive change. Classes on consent, sexual respect, and citizenship will do little to convince the vast majority of rapists to alter their behaviors. (Remember: perpetrators rape to dominate and control, not because they don’t understand consent.) We’re better off focusing not on changing individual perpetrators but on challenging our culture that supports them. Thus, some of the report’s other recommendations—instituting bystander training and encouraging female empowerment—do move in the right direction because they engage the community in addressing sexual assault. But even these initiatives don’t ask people to interrogate their own complicity in perpetuating rape culture, patriarchy, and sexism, which is exactly the kind of consciousness that our community needs.
Indeed, the importance of challenging cultural attitudes is precisely why the SMOC report’s outright dismissal of fraternity and athletic cultures is so worrisome. The report’s indiscriminate exoneration of these cultures for their roles in promoting sexual violence (“Our committee came to the conclusion that it was counterproductive to try to indict any one demographic” (2)) defies widely accepted national data, as well as anecdotal evidence on campus (e.g., eight of the ten Amherst College survivors I know were raped by athletes; many of these women say they were not interviewed by SMOC). To be clear: fraternities and athletics are not, in and of themselves, the cause of rape; and the vast majority of fraternity members and athletes are, of course, not rapists. But in some fraternities and some sports teams, male aggression and entitlement to female bodies (via force, coercion, or undermining of ability to resist) is—however explicitly or implicitly—condoned, thereby giving individual perpetrators within their ranks the social license to operate.
To make real progress, we need to radically transform the ways in which we relate to each other and to ourselves. To do that, we need to start by understanding sexual violence not within “the larger context of…community responsibility [and] individual good citizenship” (48), but within the larger context of sexism and patriarchy. That means mandating classes not on “good citizenship” and “sexual respect” but sexism, patriarchy, masculinity, privilege, racism, white supremacy, heterosexism, etc. That means making these classes more than an afterthought (a pass-fail, half-credit course crammed into January term). That means instituting bystander training that not only informs individuals of their potential to prevent individual instances of sexual violence, but also encourages them to critically examine their own complicity in upholding rape culture and patriarchy. That means calling out sexist, racist cultures on our campus, rather than saying that “there is no need to name specific student groups here” (21). That means being honest and ethical in the words we use: it’s ‘sexual violence’, not ‘sexual disrespect’; ‘racism’, not absence or disregard of ‘diversity’; ‘sexism’, not ‘unhealthy mentorship’ or ‘bad citizenship’.
I leave you with some final words from the SMOC report: “There are few surprises when it comes to sexual assault at Amherst and little to distinguish it from any other school. Is being right at the norm with respect to the problem of sexual assault really where we want to be? We believe we can do much better” (21).
I believe we can too, Amherst. Let’s get started.