April 16, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: The Truth About “Rape Culture”

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Correction appended

We hear a lot about “rape culture” on college campuses nowadays. The basic idea behind the concept is that there is a widespread tolerance of rape at Cornell and other universities, largely because society teaches men to disregard the importance of the consent of women in sexual encounters. To those who believe in “rape culture,” rape is not the result of a few bad actors, but is tolerated, even encouraged, in our college culture. Few people seem willing to challenge this narrative for fear of being called insensitive to the suffering of those who have experienced sexual violence.

But a respect for the truth requires that the following question be asked: Is rape so widespread on campuses as to be an epidemic? The oft-cited figure that one-in-four women will been sexually assaulted at least once over the course of her time at college is of dubious accuracy. In fact, more reliable statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that one-in-forty women will be raped over four years of college. Even these lower statistics indicate that there is still much work to be done in reducing sexual violence on campus, and all decent people share the goal of a campus free of sexual violence. But the truth is that the overwhelming majority of people on this and other campuses do not condone or engage in rape.

I would be less concerned about the exaggerated statistics about “rape culture,” and thus less inclined to criticize it, if it were not causing concrete harm to students. But the belief that rape must be prevented by “any means necessary” has been used to justify the elimination of key protections for students accused of rape in campus judicial systems. Some want the claims of the alleged victims of rape to be accepted as true, and not scrutinized in a fair legal proceeding. Just two years ago, Cornell stripped those accused of sexual offenses of the right to retain an attorney in University proceedings and the right to cross-examine their accusers. A student accused of a sexual offense at Cornell is now not able to directly ask the person who is making a potentially life-ruining accusation a single question about the incident. This is an inexcusable erasure of the fundamental right to confront one’s accuser, a right that has existed for all of our country’s history. Such rights are not superfluous. They protect us against arbitrary action by those who hold the levers of power.

To make matters worse, the University has dropped the standard of proof in sexual assault cases from “clear and convincing evidence” to “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that a Cornell student accused of a violent offense that is sexual in nature will not have the legal safeguards given to others whose alleged offenses were non-sexual. With the punishment being so severe and so much on the line for the accused, how can we accept such a low standard of proof?

Given that this university has a tremendous power to punish students, we have an obligation to make sure that the innocent do not get hurt. Whenever the University makes the scales of justice unequal, the safeguards of due process and equal protection are put in jeopardy. We must always be presumed to be innocent until proven guilty and be allowed the basic tools needed to defend ourselves. Do not assume that you will never be accused of something you did not do.

If stripping away the rights of students is not the answer, what can be done about sexual violence on campus? The best hope for change lies in real dialogue about the importance of consent and what it means to consent to sex. This dialogue must come with the understanding that sexual relationships are often complex and that consent is not always clearly given or withheld. What one person sees as rape is not the same as what another sees as rape. As a community, we must form a consensus on what, exactly, constitutes rape and what constitutes consent.

Our paramount goal must be to protect both the innocent and the accused; we must do both. When we do, the Cornell community can have greater confidence that justice is being done for all parties. Our campus would be safer for everyone if the rhetoric of “rape culture” were replaced with an open-minded and inclusive conversation about these matters.

CORRECTION: This piece originally stated that “one in four women will be raped at least once over the course of her time at college.” In fact, the statistic, according to data compiled by the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is that one in four women will be the victim of sexual assault during their academic career.