Rolling Stone’s story of campus rape has unearthed a hurricane of media coverage, scrutiny, and skepticism. Stories both for and against Jackie’s case have been hashed and rehashed. As Rod Dreher has pointed out in several blog posts, this UVA case is very important to the way we consider and address accusations of rape. But stepping away for a moment from the debated veracity of Jackie’s story, this article must also force us to consider whether there is a “rape culture” embedded in our universities—and how we ought to address it.
New York Times Magazine writer Susan Dominus shared her own story of campus rape on Thursday. Like Jackie, she remembers being at a campus party with a strange date. He kept refilling her cup… she had too much to drink… next thing she remembers, she was on her bed, and he was on top of her. She tried to say “no,” but he didn’t listen. And she’s not the only woman who remembers a scenario like this—many recent stories of campus sexual assault follow a similar pattern. The women feel uncomfortable, unhappy, but they aren’t sure how to say “no,” or are too intoxicated to do so. And sometimes, “no” just doesn’t work. Dominus thinks the problem has to do with our language and terminology, and suggests broadening the language we use to hopefully prevent future rape cases:
One phrase that might work is “red zone” — as in, “Hey, we’re in a red zone,” or “This is starting to feel too red zone.” Descriptive and matter-of-fact, it would not implicitly assign aggressor and victim, but would flatly convey that danger — emotional, possibly legal — lay ahead. Such a phrase could serve as a linguistic proxy for confronting or demanding, both options that can seem impossible in the moment. “We’re in a red zone” — the person who utters that is not a supplicant (“Please stop”); or an accuser (“I told you to stop!”). Many young women are uncomfortable in either of those roles; I know I was.
In an ideal world, clear consent will always precede sex, and young women (and men) who do find themselves in a tricky situation will express their discomfort firmly. But in the imperfect world in which we live, new language — if not red zone, then some other phrase that could take off with the universality of slang — might fill a silence.
Dominus is right about one thing: in a perfect world, “clear consent” would proceed sex. But thinking that a “new language” will fix this imperfect world seems naive and extremely idealistic. We are trying to use words and terminology to put a band-aid on toxic situations, to prevent dangerous scenarios from morphing into painful outcomes. But this is almost impossible, practically speaking. Women like Dominus are partly unable to protest because they were too drunk or dazed to do so. Lena Dunham’s story of rape in her recent memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, told a similar story—though the man in her story is of questionable origin and identity, and people still trying to ascertain the truth of the story, what we do know is that Dunham recalls being very drunk and out of sorts, not in a proper state to adequately refuse her assaulter.
I wish we lived in a world where a girl could drink alcohol with a complete stranger and not have to worry about getting raped. I wish we lived in a world where she would not have to feel concerned when a guy offers her a drink. But as Dominus herself says, we live in an imperfect world, with sinful people. So the freedom that we feel in public gatherings, with strangers, should be predicated and limited by that reality. A girl who pretends otherwise will likely find herself in a dangerous or tragic situation.
Rather than just speaking in terms of consent and being able to say “no” at the last minute, we must consider the decision-making paradigms and consent patterns being made all throughout a woman’s social interactions. While at a party, for instance, one might recommend that a girl attend with another girl—a “wingman,” so to speak—rather than going by herself or with a strange date (especially if she’s going to be attending a party in a new place, with a group of unknown people). If she does attend with a strange date, then she should limit her drinking, or refrain from drinking altogether. As soon as she begins noticing feelings of tipsiness or vulnerability, she should excuse herself. For this reason, when on a date, I think a girl should take her own car, thus giving her the freedom and independence to leave whenever she feels uncomfortable.
Does this seem too conservative? I’m sure it does to some. But staying safe is more important than getting attention—especially attention from the sort of guys who are going to desire sexual gratification regardless of a woman’s wants or needs.
Feminist advocates often make strong appeals for a women’s “choice,” to have sex whenever and however they want. Yet it seems impossible to reconcile women’s choice with the prevalence of university party culture, in which our mental state is so weakened by peer pressure and alcohol that we are often unable to make wise or considered choices. This culture creates a toxic environment for young women. One would hope that feminists would recognize the perils presented by this environment, and encourage young women to be careful—for their own sakes, and for the sake of their present and future well-being. Yes, it’s wrong and unjust that men don’t have the same worries and vulnerabilities in this party environment—that they often profit to a greater degree than young women do. This is why I would argue the university party culture as a whole should be rejected: it creates a toxic atmosphere for young women, while encouraging sexual freedom and libertinism amongst young men.
Few feminists writing about the UVA case seem willing to consider the possibility that our sexual culture on college campuses—that of excessive drinking and easy sex—makes assault and rape incredibly likely. No one is willing to admit that, when you throw mores to the wind, people are going to get hurt. But in order to protect young women from harm, we need to do more than change the language of consent. We need to change our scenarios of consent, as well—to strengthen a woman’s ability to confront bad situations and bad sexual partners with strength, wisdom, and independence. This is a decidedly pro-feminist viewpoint—but it is decidedly anti-party culture, as well.