What we learned at yesterday’s sexual assault lectures


Last Friday, November 14, President Paxson sent out an email to the Brown community that addressed a number of concerns regarding university sexual assault policy and planning for the future. In particular, she called attention to the Janus Forum event that was to take place the following week, “Valenti/McElroy: How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?” Paxson wrote:

“Some people–including writer Wendy McElroy, who will speak with Jessica Valenti at a Janus Forum event next week–have argued that sexual assault is the work of small numbers of predatory individuals whose behaviors are impervious to the culture and values of their communities. I disagree. Although evidence suggests that a relatively small number of individuals perpetrate sexual assault, extensive research shows that culture and values do matter. Societies that have strong norms against sexual assault have fewer assaults.”

Further, Paxson informed the community of an alternative event to “provide… more research and facts about these important issues.” This lecture, “The Research on Rape Culture,” given by Brown University Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Lindsay Orchowski, Ph.D., would occur concurrently with the Janus Forum event, but in a different location. By initiating this alternative to the Janus Forum, Paxson made a bold statement to the student body, faculty, and the Brown community: she offered us the option to educate ourselves through a fact-based presentation or to attend a discourse in which two contending speakers posed significantly different solutions to handling sexual assault on college campuses. The events differed in purpose, in lesson, and in nature.

Though both events were videotaped, it was intentionally impossible for any person to attend both. So if you went to one and not the other, or if you missed them altogether, we’ve got you covered. BlogDH sent one writer to the Janus Forum and another to “The Research on Rape Culture.” Here’s what we heard:

Valenti/McElroy: How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?

This event followed a typical Janus Forum discussion structure in which each speaker had the podium for 20 minutes, followed by 40 minutes of Q&A.

Wendy McElroy, a writer and self-identified individualist feminist, opened the discussion and the debate by asking the audience, “How many of you came tonight thinking you know who I am and what I’m going to say?” She proceeded to tell the audience about her past experiences of rape starting at age 16, which resulted in a hemorrhage in the center of her right eye. She said, “I know the pain of violence against women. I see half of the world because of it.”

McElroy then told the audience, “I did not blame society, I did not blame culture, I blame the man who did it.” She also stated that she found the term “rape culture” to be “hyperbolic.”

She argued that acknowledging and/or identifying the existence of a rape culture moves the focus away from blaming the individuals at fault. Additionally, she highly emphasized the importance of due process in any proceeding while recognizing the shortcomings of the legal system and the low possibility of having a truly fair trial.

When discussing how colleges should handle sexual assault, McElroy encouraged the audience to “go to the police.” Although she argued that the police do a “piss-poor job” dealing with rape, she said that they do “a better job than academics.” She encouraged students to protest at police departments in order to see changes in attitude from law enforcement.

McElroy closed her 20 minutes by telling the audience, “People lie. Men lie. Feminists lie.”

Jessica Valenti, journalist and founder of Feministing, started her talk by saying, “I am exhausted talking about rape culture in a framework where the existence of rape culture is up for debate.” She centered her discussion around her argument that we as a society continue to give rapists “the social license to operate,” and that in order to take away this social license from rapists we must “shift the way that we think about gender, power, sex, and consent.”

Valenti also highlighted the relationship between rape and alcohol as simply another weapon for rapists in our culture. “Rapists use alcohol to attack and discredit their victims. Rapists deliberately use alcohol as a weapon in their assault,” she told the audience.

Valenti encouraged students to demand more serious attention from the administration when discussing rape and to take matters into their own hands, whether that be by writing the names of rapists on bathroom walls, or by creating networks of support for each other, akin to Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight Together” movement.

By taking action against sexual assault on college campuses, Valenti argued, we can start to chip away at a rapist’s current social license to operate. She closed her twenty minutes with, “If we all agree to carry our share, we can turn the tide.”

After the two speakers had their time at the podium, the event opened for forty minutes of questions from the audience. The first question asked both speakers how they would weigh putting a victim through an arduous and potentially traumatizing process with shaming someone who might be innocent.

In McElroy’s answer to this question, she said that she would hesitate to send a son to college because campus culture can mar men’s reputations through false or exaggerated accusations. This response was met with gasps, loud whispers, and even laughter from students in the audience.

When asked how we can have more open discussions about rape culture’s existence, Valenti addressed how emotionally charged this issue is and how much research already exists that affirms the existence of rape culture. She recommended that students enter discussions being sensitive to our surrounding culture, which she argued perpetuates the prevalence of sexual assault.

Lindsay Orchowski, “The Research on Rape Culture”

Lindsay Orchowski, who serves on Brown’s Sexual Assault Task Force and has done work with the White House study on rape culture, started her lecture by setting the record straight: understanding the factors that lead to sexual violence involves a public health approach. She told an allegory of a fisherman who constantly dove into the river to save drowning swimmers, and only after saving so many did he think to go upstream and figure out why everyone who swam started to drown. This, she proposed, is how we need to address sexual violence–by moving upstream.

The key concepts of her approach involved defining the problem–using data to determine the occurrences and effects of sexual violence around the country–and realizing factors that increase the risk of becoming a victim or of becoming an offender. Before a program is implemented, it has to undergo rigorous evaluation. Orchowski didn’t leave out the unnerving yet legitimate truth: there is yet to be a program at the level of advocacy that should be adopted on a widespread scale. This is, of course, the eventual goal.

What remains a large obstacle to policing, preventing, and recognizing sexual violence is, ironically, being able to define it. Currently, there is no consensus on the definition of sexual violence. Questions of how inclusive it should be defer a conclusion. Should the definition include rape? Coddling? What kind of contact? It is discomforting that a topic of such national weight and contention cannot even be defined at its most fundamental level. Nevertheless, the Center for Disease Control has created an umbrella definition for the term, which you can read on the CDC website here.

The thread that sews the various definitions of sexual violence together is the lack of consent present in them all. However, the definition of the word “consent” itself is inconclusive. This is particularly true on college campuses.

Some facts: 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men experience attempted or completed rape from the age of 14 through their college years.

This rate is higher than the rate amongst the general population. In general, sexual violence rates have remained the same over the last 20 to 30 years. However, awareness and measures taken to prevent sexual violence are more common now than they were a few decades ago. Here, we’ve got to wonder: could it be that attempted sexual violence has increased but our successful preventative measures allow the rate to level itself?

When you start discussing sexual violence on college campuses, you start discussing the use and involvement of alcohol in assault. 50 percent of sexual assault cases involve alcohol. Then again, that means that the other 50 percent of cases do not involve alcohol, as Orchowski was keen on emphasizing. 25 percent of victims acknowledge their assaults as “rape.” 75 percent do not use criminally convicting terms to label their experiences.

Orchowski, unlike McElroy, used an socio-ecological model to determine what incites a perpetrator. Ecological models look at personal history, the context of the victim-offender relationship (prior to the assault), the community that houses the relationship, and the external societal influences that overarch them all. This is how behavior is shaped across a range of experiences. Therefore, Orchowski pointed out, rape is more prevalent in cultures that promote male superiority and expression through violence and domination over the female.

These factors contribute to what we have come to call “rape culture.” “Rape culture” is a term coined by feminists in the 1970s to explain how society normalizes sexual violence, thereby creating a sort of “culture” around it. Rape culture assumes the inevitability of rape–that rape is a part of culture and is a culture within itself. You can think of rape culture in mundane examples–punch lines on Family Guy, jokes about cases in the news, and any other instances that tend to normalize the concept and action of rape.

Then the perpetrator is, at the end of the day, the one who falls victim to rape culture himself. Offenders accept rape as a normal, inevitable act that they “should” subscribe to. In college, perpetrators tend to assault an acquaintance (95 percent of the time) and use means such as alcohol and coercion more than they do weapons and other incriminating and traditional means of violence. Perpetrators tend to be hyper-masculine, mistreat women, have a misconception that they are supported by their peers, have a lack of empathy towards their victims, and carry with them a sense of entitlement. Both undetected rapists and convicted rapists are likely to be repeat offenders.

In an interview conducted last year, a University of Rhode Island student expressed that bringing girls home, sleeping with different girls every weekend, and with as many girls as possible was almost like a challenge, or a game. Sex becomes a form of social currency, and this is how rape culture manifests itself.

The social norms theory, relevant to the university atmosphere, involves pluralistic ignorance and false consensus. Pluralistic ignorance is the incorrect belief that one’s private attitudes and behavior are different from those of others, so one ignores his or her true notions in order to conform to the notions of a larger group, which are, in reality, nonexistent. False consensus is the incorrect belief that one represents the majority when one is actually a minority. These are the ways in which perpetrators justify their actions.

Orchowski finished her presentation by encouraging bystander intervention. If we defy the perpetrator’s notions of social norms, then the perpetrator will be less likely to act on those notions.

In the Q&A session held after the presentation, a student made the discussion local: about sexual assault policy developments at Brown. A professor asked about the role of the hookup culture and other sexting technologies that might allow for easier objectification in the grand scheme of sexual violence rates. Another audience member asked about the impact of underage drinking on campus violence, and a fourth question brought up the Times article about the definition of consent.

To each of these questions, Orchowski gave somewhat nondescript answers. They all remained along the lines of: rape involves numerous factors and social influences (including, but not dominated by, alcohol), continuing the discussion will lead us to more finite conclusions about the definitions we struggle to form a consensus on, and the discussion should be continued from a bottom up rather than a top down method–especially in considering university policy.

While Orchowski’s presentation was informative, her answers to audience questions were fairly broad. But then again, Orchowski served a specifically information-based purpose, which she properly fulfilled.

At the same time, Orchowski is on the Sexual Assault Task Force, yet couldn’t find the words to explain exactly what a school like Brown might do to create specific definitions of dangerously ambiguous terms, lower sexual assault rates, and ensure students a comfortable environment.

But now that we know the facts, it’s very much overdue that we start looking for solutions.

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  1. blahblahblah and the rapes continue at Brown, while Chris Paxson watches and does diddly squat.

  2. Amy Keohane

    As a member of the class of 1985, the year in which Bill Cosby received an honorary degree from Brown, I am urging that Brown’s Board of Trustees pass a resolution revoking Cosby’s degree immediately until he addresses the widespread allegations against him more substantially and speaks out against sexual violence. While our justice system rightly deems him innocent until proven guilty, the court of public opinion finds his silence unacceptable. Sexual violence is rampant on college campuses and Brown is vocal that the administration takes any form of sexual assault very seriously. Brown should take a leadership position here and act.

    30 years ago this spring, Cosby charmed us all with his light humor (he pointed out that as we go forth, “forth is not back home”) at Brown’s 217th graduation. If he is innocent, a man with an honorary degree from Brown University should be publicly denouncing sexual violence.

    Amy Ford Keohane
    Brown Class of 1985

  3. “But now that we know the facts, it’s very much overdue that we start looking for solutions.”

    I see very few facts in this article, but rather a great deal of speculation combined with dubious and disputed research presented as fact. No doubt the writers believe in the picture they paint, and it is the strength of this conviction that they confuse with matters of truth.

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