Contentious Discussions of Campus Rape Pit Sexes Against Each Other

Sarah Boesveld

October 24, 2013

In the days since the latest in a string of reported sexual assaults at the University of British Columbia, posters have cropped up across campus: “Don’t be a creep! Learn how to manage your sex drive.”

“Recognize that many women are bombarded with sexual interest,” reads another. “Don’t be a rapist! Someone walking alone is NOT an invitation for you to rape or assault.”

It’s a fraught time on campus as the RCMP pursue a suspect linked to all three attacks, the third and latest on Saturday, when a 17-year-old girl reported being accosted and dragged into a nearby wooded area.

But critics say the signs — their source is unclear — also make a sweeping assumption: that male students, or any man on campus, may be a rapist-in-waiting. And they characterize a tense cultural conversation about rape and sexual assault that has rolled to a boil as of late.

Last week, Slate columnist Emily Yoffe stoked uproar when she said that female university and college students ought not to get black-out drunk if they wanted to avoid being sexually attacked since rapists tend to prey on women in vulnerable states. She was called a “rape apologist,” and accused of victim-blaming at a time when multiple horrible tales of rape and sexual assault have captured headlines and stirred emotions.

Posters put up around the University of Alberta campus and possibly downtown last July use images from the Don’t Be That Guy campaign and change the text to send the opposite message..Rape is a problem — on this all can agree. But for an issue rife with shades of grey and multiple variables, sex attacks are often treated as a black and white issue in which one side is right and one is wrong — a clear victim, a clear perpetrator. It makes deep discussion of all the nuances around rape and sexual assault a difficult task, observers say, especially when it becomes not just a politically charged issue but also a moral panic — and a blame game between the sexes.

“I’m concerned that when people say ‘You’re blaming the victim’ that what they’re doing is silencing a necessary discussion about what is rape and whether it is as prevalent as we now think it is,” said Tiffany Jenkins, a sociologist and cultural commentator in the United Kingdom.

She goes so far as to say Westerners are now encouraged to see a rape culture “that doesn’t exist” — one in which men are inherently sexually violent and women must always stand on guard. According to statistics from Vancouver’s Rape Victims Support Network, one in every 17 Canadian women is raped at some point in her life — and such attack happens once every 17 minutes in this country.

But critics are skeptical of comparable numbers in the United States and the similarly broad definition of sexual assault in both countries. The oft-cited statistic in the United States that one in five women are sexually assaulted on campuses each year came from an online survey conducted under a grant from the U.S. Justice Department — “forced kissing” and even “attempted forced kissing” qualified.

The “moral panic” around rape, Ms. Jenkins said, is linked to a deep distrust in ourselves and others that has grown since the feminist movement of the 1970s, when the argument was made that the personal is political and the larger problems of social inequality were to be solved in the home.

“I think increased women’s equality and independence has been a key factor in improving relations between men and women,” she said. “At the same time, we started to see human beings in an extremely negative light — a really misanthropic prism.”

Our penchant for simple narratives doesn’t help the culture of distrust at a time in which girls get so many mixed messages about their sexuality, said Natalie Coulter, an assistant professor of communications at York University who researches tween girl culture.