November 11, 2013

EDITORIAL: A Response to Rape Culture Denial

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A letter to the editor of the University of Wisconsin’s Badger Herald — titled “‘Rape culture’ does not exist” — has predictably garnered significant backlash after going viral last week. The letter is no more enlightened than its headline suggests. The author, David Hookstead, seeks to “set the record straight” by arguing that rape is no different than any other crime; that the causes of sexual assault are no different than those of murder or robbery. He submits that “education [cannot] prevent true acts of evil;” that teaching our youth about sexual consent will not deter rapists from their wicked schemes.

One problem with Hookstead’s argument — one of many — is that he embraces an outdated caricature of perpetrators of sexual assault. The majority of the one in four women who will experience sexual violence during college are not abducted from dark alleys. These women are overwhelmingly victimized by male peers, often under conditions complicated by alcohol or drugs. The fact that many of the aggressors in these situations would not acknowledge that their actions constitute sexual assault indicates the existence of the rape culture Hookstead dismisses so callously in his letter. If rape culture did not exist, neither would blurred lines of consent.

Hookstead writes that the terminology of rape culture “aggressively paints men as dangerous and as the root of evil.” This is simply illogical. Advocating consent education actually indicates optimism about human nature; it hardly jibes with a belief that men are evil and unteachable. The recognition that our society normalizes behaviors that can lead to rape — and that some instances of sexual assault could be prevented by better educating young people — should in fact be seen as a rejection of the mentality that all men are destined to become abusers.

We are glad to see that recent initiatives at Cornell are built on the premise that cultural factors can contribute to rape in our community. The University’s new Council on Sexual Violence Prevention is off the ground this semester with the first few meetings of its 40 student, faculty, staff and city members. While it is much too early to gauge how effective this new body will be, we are encouraged by some of the the language in its stated mission: “The Council studies and evaluates the campus environment … and explores opportunities for fostering cultural change [and] reducing risks.” Hookstead and others are misguided in their assertion that rape can be responded to, but not prevented. It is heartening that the University is not content to merely play defense.