Sexual assault at college: Confronting the rapists in our lives

By MADDIE KING | April 20, 2017

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Anton Bielousov/CC BY 3.0 We need to come to terms with the fact that even our close friends could rape.

A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that one in five undergraduate women will experience sexual assault while in college. That means you probably know someone who was raped at Hopkins. It also means you probably know a rapist.

They’re in our classes, our frats, our dining halls and our friend groups. And yet this reality remains conspicuously absent from our conversations about campus sexual assault.

In 2015 activists at Columbia University projected the words “Rape Happens Here” on the doors of the campus library. The phrase describes rape in the passive voice, reduced to the experience of trauma. There is an action but no cause, a school full of victims but no one who’s responsible.

Students in distress looking to support a friend who has experienced sexual assault can find answers from an abundance of available resources, but there’s no instruction manual that tells you what to do when the rapist is someone you know.

The identities of rapists on this campus have become a sort of open secret, their names whispered in support groups or the bathroom at PJ’s. How do students navigate their interactions with the rapists who walk among us? How do you respond when someone you know, like or even trust has committed sexual assault? I spoke with students about this unspoken reality, and while I offer no solutions, I hope that by sharing a variety of experiences and responses, we can begin to find the answers together. So... you think your friend’s a rapist?

Denial

The most obvious and common response is denial. Not all denial looks the same; There are many ways to avoid acknowledging a rape. Sometimes that denial is active and explicit: the assumption that the victim is lying. Sometimes it’s more subtle. Denial can manifest in the façade of objectivity, the refusal to jump to conclusions and the classification of the nature of the encounter as ultimately unknowable.

Denial can take the form of a polite refusal to pry further about a sensitive topic or the compartmentalization of the event as irrelevant to your relationship with the accused.

Denial manifests in language. You’ll call your friend “creepy” or “aggressive with girls when he gets drunk,” but he’s not a rapist. The identification of rape becomes murkier when considering the complicating effects of alcohol and inexperience on consent. In the context of cultural normalization of ambiguously consensual encounters, rapes can easily be explained away as unfortunate misunderstandings.

The impulse to deny the assault is understandable. When the options are to pretend the assault never happened or denounce a close friend as a criminal, more often than not, denial wins out. Acknowledging the validity of the assault threatens to fundamentally shatter your understanding of your friend, yourself and the moral order of the world.

How do we reconcile our positive experiences of the rapist with the evil of their action? Does the rape define them? Does it negate all previous acts of kindness? Was the foundation of your friendship based on a lie? If our identities are shaped by the company we keep, we fear what it means to associate with someone who did something so terrible. We feel guilty and ashamed to have been so close to someone and not seen their capacity for abuse. When acknowledging the validity of the rape begets emotional upheaval and crisis of conscience, it’s no wonder so many choose to turn a blind eye.

Desexualization of Rape

Our unwillingness to label seemingly good people as rapists is derived in part from the desexualization of rape in mainstream rhetoric. In her groundbreaking 1975 bestseller, Against our Will, Susan Brownmiller argues that “rape is not about sex, but about power.” Sex is a “weapon to generate fear” rather than the crime’s motive.

To author Kate Millett, rape is an act of domination, born from “the emotions of hatred, contempt and the desire to break or violate personality.” At the time this rhetoric was revolutionary. It was a paradigm shift that reframed rape as a political issue and distinguished rape from consensual sex. This rhetoric also served to increase resources for and recognition of trauma recovery for survivors.

But in the process, the humanity of the crime was lost. Other crimes, no matter how heinous, have rational motives rooted in our humanity: rage, jealousy, greed, desire. Sexual offenses are a category all of their own. Stripped of any reasonable cause, rape becomes a deviant expression of pure evil, a deliberate, hostile act of degradation and cruelty for its own sake. Rape is not a human activity but a crime of monsters.

The dehumanization of the rapist has visible, often racist, implications in our legal system, as judges and juries are hesitant to label seemingly normal people, like the now infamous Brock Turner, as rapists.

For accountability, we need to acknowledge that seemingly normal people can be rapists, and to do that, we need to expand our understanding of why people commit rape. Activist and writer Wendy McElroy once wrote, “There can be as many motives for rape as there are for murder and other violent crimes.” Insisting that no rape is ever about sex does a disservice to our ability to address rape and rapists with the sobriety and clarity the topic deserves.

Rape Culture on Campus

If we accept that men (and people of all genders) who are capable of rape often look and act exactly like those who aren’t, we must also accept that the people we know might be rapists. This is an extremely uncomfortable realization.

What are the moral implications of being friends with a rapist? Are you condoning their behavior by maintaining the friendship? How can survivors feel legitimized in their feelings when their rapist continues to be embraced by their community?

Many of the students I talked to expressed frustration and disgust with the hypocrisy of those who attend feminist marches and Bystander Intervention Training but remain uncritical of the rapists in their own circles. On a campus where disciplinary or legal action for sexual assault is uncommon, is social banishment the best way to hold rapists accountable?

The desire to cut off contact with the rapists in our life presents another moral dilemma: how to respect the wishes of the survivor. In many ways, a rape can feel like a crime against a friendship and a betrayal of a community’s trust. The initial impulse when you learn that someone you know has committed sexual assault might be to tell your friends, to warn others, to show the rapist that you know what they did and you don’t think it’s okay. But it’s important to remember that sexual assault is a crime against an individual.

Not all survivors want their experience to become public knowledge (and thus susceptible to public scrutiny). Without their explicit consent, this could be re-traumatizing. When navigating interactions with the rapists in your life, respecting the survivor must be the ultimate priority.

Moving Forward

So how do we deal with the rapists in our life without creating excuses for their crimes or disrespecting the survivors?

I don’t really know. But one thing is clear, our unwillingness to engage in uncomfortable dialogue does nothing but protect predators. Combating rape culture means engaging in frank conversations. Take the voices of survivors seriously: Erroneous rape accusations are extremely rare. Talk to your friends about toxic masculinity and the objectification of women. Talk to your friends about consent, not just about the straightforward, official understanding but about its uncomfortably nuanced aspects as well.

What does consent mean when drinking is involved? Reflect on your own sexual encounters: Are there any that might not have been entirely consensual? If you’re unsure, it might be beneficial to gently contact your former sexual partners. Ask your friends about their sexual encounters too.

Don’t be afraid to ask more questions when something doesn’t seem quite right. You might not want to hear the answers, you might find out some uncomfortable truths about your friends, but refusing to ask these questions won’t make the reality disappear.

Someone you know is a rapist, and ignoring that for the sake of convenience or comfort doesn’t make it any less true.

Maddie King is a senior International Studies major from New York City.

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