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Researchers, staff, students attempt to define rape culture

Research varies on who perpetrates rape on college campuses, effect of context in sexual assault cases

Twenty-five percent of undergraduate women at Brown surveyed in 2015 reported having been sexually assaulted since they enrolled, according to a study conducted by the Association of American Universities. This number is 2 percentage points higher than the national average of 23 percent.

In 2015, the University began implementing recommendations from the University’s Task Force on Sexual Assault, which led to a unified policy on sexual and gender-based violence and a formalized Title IX investigation process. As the University works toward improving its policy and process around sexual assault, it must grapple with a larger issue that remains on college campuses today — rape culture.

The recent spotlight on sexual assault has brought greater attention to the term “rape culture,” which describes a predatory climate that exists on college campuses. Rape culture can be defined as “a concrete manifestation of how sexism works in our society today, specifically related to violence,” said Elliot Ruggles, a sexual harassment and assault resource and education advocate at the University. Rape culture influences how individuals think about sexual assault, who perpetrates it, who experiences it and what environments encourage it. In recent years, the University has introduced programs and resources, such as the SHARE advocates, which have been designed to address and mitigate rape culture on campus.

Who perpetrates sexual assault?

A 2002 study by David Lisak and Paul Miller, then a postdoctoral fellow at the Alpert School of Medicine, found that sexual assaults are perpetrated by a few repeat offenders. Though this study has come under contention, some universities still consider it when developing institutional sexual assault policies.

But a 2015 study by Kevin Swartout, assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University, found the focus on serial predators as the predominant perpetrators of assault “misguided.”

“We’ve been maybe overcounting the number of serial rapists, not that serial rapists don’t exist,” Swartout said.

Repeat perpetrators of assault on college campuses, Swartout argues, generally fall into one of two categories: those who are likely to commit rape before college, but not during, and those that commit assault “for the first time at college,” he said.

Whenever the University conducts a Title IX investigation, it considers the possibility that an accused student could be a repeat offender, said Russell Carey '91 MA'06, executive vice president of policy and planning. The investigator reviews files for previous complaints about an individual and will pursue new information if further accusations arise, Carey said.

The University rarely deems individuals a threat to campus and takes “emergency” action — as they might do if multiple people had filed formal complaints against one person, Carey said.

The centralized Title IX Office “ensures better coordination of (such) information” and can help identify a culture of harassment or assault, Carey said.

“Maintaining a centralized database and records is not necessarily about individuals” but to recognize that “patterns can be in departments and organizations,” he added.

Context and culture

Rather than focusing on the few repeat offenders who repeatedly commit sexual assault, Swartout is interested in how rape culture “gets magnified in certain contexts” and cultivates environments where aggression, especially toward women and gender-nonconforming people, is accepted and even encouraged.

A changing peer group or alcohol use may influence the existence of rape culture that leads to sexually violent behaviors, he said. When students enter college, their peer networks change, and they may leave a group that encouraged sexual violence and enter one that does not, or vice versa.

Likewise, alcohol use may have decreased after high school for those who stopped their sexual violence in college. For those who have committed sexual assault for the first time in college, alcohol use may have begun in college, Swartout said.

Some may not recognize or deny that they are a part of rape culture. People may use stereotypes about sexual assaults, called “rape myths,” to “justify or rationalize sexually aggressive behavior,” wrote Lindsay Orchowski, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, in an email to The Herald. Rape myths include the belief that someone must fight back for an incident to be considered rape, that individuals from “nice homes” never rape or that people use accusations of rape as a method of vengeance, she wrote.

Intoxication can be “used as an excuse to act out aggression or hypermasculine traits,” said Marc Peters, health promotion specialist and interim deputy Title IX coordinator for undergraduate students.

“So many (perpetrators) only perpetrate during a limited period of time,” Swartout said. “It’s not necessarily about them, it’s about the situations that” they put themselves in.

Alcohol and sex can create a noxious, potentially harmful, combination. The 2015 AAU survey found that 5.4 percent of undergraduate females had been raped while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

And Brown students often use alcohol to excuse their sexual behavior, especially in the context of hookup culture, said Lauren Shin ’19, who researched hook-up culture in Brown Greek life.

But Swartout warned that perpetrators should not use his research as context to justify violence and noted that his study cannot quantify whether an assault is context-dependent.

Toxic masculinity

Rape culture can manifest in environments that reinforce toxic masculinity — or the construction of masculinity as violent, unempathetic and sexually aggressive, Peters said. In those contexts, people may adopt practices like disregarding survivors, blaming victims and defending the notion of men protecting other men, he said. Concurrently, hypermasculinity encourages heavy alcohol use and competitive drinking at parties, he said.

Toxic masculinity contributes to the “societal expectation that men will be the initiator of sex, while women are supposed to be passive,” Peters added.

“People have an illusion of safety at Brown because we have a tendency to ignore the fact that we’ve all been socialized in very similar ways” to people outside of Brown, Peters wrote in a follow-up email.

In fall 2015, Peters began coordinating Masculinity 101, a weekly group for masculine-identifying people. Peters encourages students to recognize problems with hypermasculinity and societal expectations of “what it means to be a man.”

“Gendered power dynamics are inherent in all relationships we have with people,” Ruggles said. “We all get to decide as individuals how much of a product of socialization we want to be.”

Rape culture and intersectional identities

Toxic masculinity contributes to the misconception that people who perpetrate sexual assault are aggressive predators while victims of sexual assault are passive and submissive. Much of national discourse perpetuates these profiles by centering on the narratives of survivors who fit a certain image, usually a cisgender white woman.

Je-Shawna Wholley, program coordinator at the LGBTQ Center, said that failing to recognize the identities that go beyond the gender of those who “experience harm contributes to rape culture by defining who is capable of being raped and who is not.”

Individuals who share marginalized identities are not the typical subjects of studies, Wholley added.

Homophobia and transphobia dehumanize queer people, which allows others to justify committing violence against them, said Molly Sandstrom ’17, a Masculinity Peer Educator.

Wholley noted that violence comes in different forms, particularly for individuals who may present as gender-nonconforming. One masculine-presenting woman Wholley interviewed for her research said she had been viciously cat-called. The men yelled they were going to “‘fuck her straight,’” Wholley said, adding that they “used the threat of sexual violence as a way to attack her and her identity.”

Likewise, the hypersexualization of gay men and bisexual women in popular media and discourse may make others feel more entitled to their bodies, Sandstrom said.

“We know queer and trans folks experience sexual harassment and assault at higher rates,” Sandstrom added. Numerous studies have illustrated the disparate trends in sexual assault, and last year’s AAU confirmed the same tendency at Brown.

In 2015, conversations between students and the Sexual Assault Task Force surfaced concerns that members of marginalized communities felt they were targeted specifically because of their identities and did not have channels of support to manage the aftermath of violence, said Maahika Srinivasan ’15, former undergraduate council student president.

Srinivasan said that when hiring the Title IX coordinator and SHARE advocates, the hiring committees ensured that the candidates understood diversity in the broadest sense.

Wholley added, “Students are coming with full identities. They may be experiencing the effects of racism and sexism and homophobia and capitalism and rape culture. They are a survivor of all of those things at the same time.”


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