What RAINN's Recommendations On Campus Rape Get Wrong (And Right)


Two weeks ago, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) published a list of recommendations for the White House task force on campus rape. In a press release announcing their effort, RAINN stated that it “urged the [White House] task force to remain focused on the true cause of the problem,” calling the tendency to “blame” rape culture “an unfortunate trend.”

This, of course, launched a flurry of feminist criticism, followed by the thunderous trundling of some daft rape apologia — “Twenty-first century America does not have a rape culture,” trumpeted Caroline Kitchens at Time. “Rape culture theory is doing little to help victims, but its power to poison the minds of young women and lead to hostile environments for innocent males is immense.” (I will not dignify her hideous piece with a response other than this fleeting mention and stifling a gag).

But RAINN isn’t saying that rape culture is a myth — it’s just saying that it thinks it’s more effective to go after rapists than to try and dismantle an insidious cultural attitude. “Rape is not caused by cultural factors, but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime,” reads the recommendation list. This isn’t a disavowal of rape culture rhetoric, but rather an insistence that we hold rapists — and rapists alone — responsible for their actions. This is likely because, as RAINN President Scott Berkowitz has told me before, the organization doesn’t see “overthrowing rape culture” as a viable, easily implementable solution to the campus rape epidemic. Even if you disagree with this approach, it’s important to note that the discussion isn’t about whether rape culture exists. It’s about whether it’s efficacious to blame rape culture for the occurrence of rape.

When RAINN announced that it had “urged the task force to remain focused on the true cause of the problem” what the organization means is,”we believe the White House should target rapists.” In its suggestion list, RAINN elaborates on this notion:

[The emphasis on rape culture] has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., “masculinity”), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who commit rape. This trend has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions.

Personally, I believe this logic is misguided. “By the time they reach college, most students have been exposed to 18 years of prevention messages, in one form or another,” RAINN argues. This simply isn’t true: consent education is rarely part of any sex ed curriculum, and consent awareness campaigns are nowhere near prevalent enough to provide a constant stream of anti-rape messaging for 18 years straight. Rapists don’t just emerge out of the ether, determined to commit sexual assault in spite of the fact they’ve been constantly urged not to. They’re the result of systems that either condone or tacitly approve of the idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies. The reason that athletics and the Greek system are singled out by feminists is because they’re systems with a fraught history of doing this — frats take rape lightly and sometimes go as far as to celebrate it; athletics programs (even in high schools!) work to cover up rapes their star athletes commit.

But, still, I understand the point that RAINN is making: the White House is trying to write policy. Therefore, smashing the patriarchy and obliterating rape culture — while great in theory — isn’t really a realistic game plan for the White House Task Force on Campus Rape. Again, that’s not ideal, but it’s the way the world works. And I’d be very amenable to the idea that we have to start by taking smaller, more concrete steps — especially since it’s an idea being advanced by the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, one that’s done invaluable work for decades — if all the steps RAINN offered worked. Unfortunately, some of the organization’s most crucial suggestions do not.

Several of the points suggested in RAINN’s three-tiered anti-sexual assault approach go directly against what sexual assault survivors and activists have advised. Others are really useful. Here is a step-by-step evaluation:

RAINN: “Perhaps counter-intuitively, we recommend not focusing prevention messaging towards potential perpetrators.”

To put it bluntly, this is a very bad suggestion. “It is all but impossible to reprogram a repeat offender with a simple prevention method,” RAINN argues. So, what? We’re just going to stop telling potential assailants not to rape, leaving prevention entirely in the potential victim’s hands? Sorry, but that doesn’t work. It’s simply not feasible to prevent sexual assault by asking everyone to be extremely vigilant at all times.

A study conducted by Wayne State psychologist Antonia Abbey (and quoted by Amanda Hess at Slate) finds that 62 percent of college date rapists “felt they had committed rape because of their alcohol consumption.” They “believed that their intoxicated condition caused them to initially misperceive their partner’s degree of sexual interest and later allowed them to feel comfortable using force when the women’s lack of consent finally became clear to them.” Importantly, though, they “did not see themselves as ‘real’ criminals because real criminals used weapons to assault strangers.” Prevention messaging that would teach students what, exactly, constitutes rape and then instruct them on how not to do it could potentially prevent countless assaults from happening. Focusing on the victims and the victims alone is an ineffective, short-sighted plan.

RAINN: “We believe that the most effective — the primary — way to prevent sexual violence is to use the criminal justice system to take rapists off the streets.”

This is, without a doubt, the most troubling of RAINN’s recommendations. “The fact that the criminal justice process is difficult and imperfect, while true, is not sufficient justification for bypassing it in favor of an internal system that will never be up to the challenge,” the recommendation list reads. Later, RAINN affirms that it wants the federal government to “support efforts to institutionalize” partnerships between law enforcement and campus security.

At Feministing, Wagatwe Wanjuki has penned a fantastic dismissal of this idea:

In the days since I read RAINN’s list of recommendations, I’ve seen multiple stories highlighting the downfalls of the prison industrial complex, further solidifying my views that the system is ill-equipped and sometimes straight-up hostile to survivors of gender-based violence. Two of these stories included a judge who overturned a conviction because he deemed that the survivor didn’t “act like a victim” enough and a Detroit police officer recently charged with sexual assault while responding to a domestic violence call. And let’s not forget about the backlog of sexual assault evidence collection kits, which has been notorious enough to get its own story arc in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

On its own website, RAINN recognizes that 97 percent of rapists never see a day in jail. Describing the criminal justice system’s approach to sexual assault as “difficult and imperfect” is a massive understatement — and, furthermore, automatically codifying a connection between campus police and local law enforcement is something sexual assault activists have openly fought against. Connecting the campus judicial system and the criminal justice system is especially bad suggestion because the criminal justice system is notoriously hostile towards people of color and LGBTQ-identified people, and, furthermore, because it perpetuates the cycle of abuse through prison rape.

As Alexandra Brodsky wrote at Al-Jazeera, “We cannot fix university adjudicating systems… by outsourcing the work to a structure even more deeply flawed and resistant to reform.” Focusing on the criminal justice system as a serious alternative to ineffective campus judicial boards isn’t a concrete solution. It’s just an easy — and deeply flawed — way to shift the responsibility.

RAINN: “Changing social norms so that students feel a responsibility to watch out for friends, and intervene before a friend becomes a victim or a perpetrator, should be encouraged and supported”

Bystander intervention is a good method of combating sexual assault, one that some anti-rape activists point to as a perhaps “the best hope” for reducing rape on campus. It’s also easy to teach and implement and shifts the blame for “letting rape happen” (blergh) from the victim to the community at large.

Oddly, though, RAINN’s letter of recommendation states earlier, “[We] should focus on the true end goal, reducing rape, and not intermediate goals such as changing attitudes.” Why is it acceptable to focus on changing bystander attitudes but not the attitudes of potential perpetrators?

RAINN: Advocates risk reduction

RAINN has a lot to say about risk reduction, noting that it’s a “sensitive topic”: “Even the most well-intentioned risk-reduction message can be misunderstood to suggest that, by not following the tips, a victim is somehow to blame for his or her own attack… To be clear, RAINN in no way condones or advocates victim blaming.”

Risk reduction is shitty but necessary. On one hand, emphasizing it as a viable solution to campus rape puts the onus on women to protect themselves, which is the exact opposite of what we should want to achieve. We should work to make women freer and safer on campus, not more aware of the steps they must take to stay out of danger. On the other, though, we can’t discount it — the threat of rape is part of our lived reality, and risk reduction does help to keep one safe. For instance, studies have shown that sexual predators will intentionally target intoxicated women.

In a perfect world, there would be no such thing as risk reduction; unfortunately, we live in a world in which 1 in 4 women and 1 and 7 men will be assaulted on campus. It’s pragmatic to teach students risk reduction (as long as it’s in conjunction with several other rape prevention techniques).

RAINN: “Students receive a tremendous amount of conflicting (and often erroneous) information about where ‘the consent line’ is.”

This is a fair point: consent education is very, very important. We should promote it. However, the recommendation is phrased poorly: “Some campaigns and websites claim that the ingestion of even a single drink renders someone unable to legally consent, while conversely others explain that anyone short of unconscious can consent… It’s no wonder students are confused.”

Consent education should focus on the idea that consent isn’t the absence of a no; it’s the presence of a yes. It should teach students how not to pressure and coerce each other into doing things they’re not comfortable doing. It shouldn’t focus on trying to set a murky demarcation between “drunk enough, it’s totally okay” and “too drunk to try to talk into sex.”

RAINN: “Students and other members of the campus community need to know — before an event occurs — what to expect in the wake of a crime of sexual assault. To whom should these crimes be reported? What will occur in the wake of such a report? What role will law enforcement have? Which members of the campus community are mandated reporters? What are victim’s rights in the process?”

This is a good, and very necessary, point. Often, campus sexual assault policies are oblique and confusing, even for members of college administrations. Some examples: recently, the University of Akron, Ohio was caught plagiarizing its sexual assault policy, and several of the complaints against UC Berkeley have pointed out that the school’s sexual assault policy is dense, confusing, far too long, and inaccessible. For example, one student went to Berkeley’s Gender Equity Resource (GenEq) Center to report her sexual assault and wasn’t even aware until after the fact that speaking to a GenEq counselor didn’t qualify as reporting. It’s important to keep things like this from happening in the future; this is a great recommendation.

RAINN: “Critical to this effort are steps to ensure that students and other members of the campus community who experience sexual violence are met with comprehensive services.”

This is crucial as well — as Katie J.M. Baker reported at Newsweek, college administrations have a ghastly track record with dealing with mental health issues. It’s critical that survivors receive the help they need and that they not be penalized for it. RAINN also recommends that the “federal government should require campuses to share, with all members of the campus population, information about on-campus resources, those such as rape crisis centers in the surrounding community, and national resources.” This is something survivors have advocated for as well: one of the reasons that Angie Epifano from Amherst filed a Title IX complaint against her university was because she was dismayed at the administration’s failure to display relevant information about sexual assault resources on campus.

RAINN also suggests that colleges hire specifically trained volunteers or staff “who can help [assault survivors] navigate the minefield that a report of sexual assault can expose.” That’s a great idea — although it’s important to make sure that said volunteer or staff is qualified, well-trained and well-versed in the school’s sexual assault policy.

RAINN: “Access to comprehensive medical care and services in the immediate aftermath of sexual assault is vitally important.”

This is an excellent point as well: RAINN recommends that they “should be encouraged to undergo a sexual assault forensic examination” and “offered free transportation to the hospital” if a sexual assault nurse examiner is not available on campus.

The question of how to properly handle the campus sexual assault epidemic is wildly complex, confusing and difficult. It’s not something that can be adequately addressed in a single report, nor can it be fixed in a 90-day span by a single task force. RAINN does have some very good solutions — especially with regard to services that administrations should be required to offer to sexual assault survivors. Unfortunately, the organization’s emphasis on combating rape by arresting individual rapists reveals a dangerous ignorance to the realities of campus life and to the deep inadequacies of the criminal justice system.

If anything, the response to RAINN’s suggestion list reveals the importance of having an open dialogue between students, survivors, organizations and government officials: it’s simply impossible to write effective sexual assault policy without consulting sexual assault survivors.

Image via Getty.

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