There’s so many things to write about when it comes to rape culture in the media. It can be hard for me to keep up, but thankfully, I now have guest posters who are happy to step in! Today I’m bringing a piece by Brendan P Bartholomew, who kindly penned a response to Joanna Williams’ claim that rape culture doesn’t exist at British universities- despite evidence to the contrary.
The Web site spiked recently posted an opinion piece by one Joanna Williams, entitled “THERE IS NO ‘RAPE CULTURE’ AT BRITISH UNIVERSITIES.” I am not a woman, sexual abuse survivor, or UK college student, and cannot speak for those groups, but I can speak to the utter wrongness of that opinion.
Williams’ premise is that by discussing rape culture on university campuses, modern feminists are behaving like Victorian era sexists who used horror stories of spinsterhood and predatory males to discourage women from attending college. She claims British universities don’t have a rape culture problem, and cites various rape statistics to support this claim.
Sigh. Where to begin? Let’s start with that juxtaposition of feminists with Victorian sexists. Williams writes:
“But there’s one big difference from a century ago: today’s panics over rape ‘epidemics’ are not promoted by Victorian fathers but by female students.”
And that right there should have ended the discussion, because she admits that the very women in harm’s way, the actual women out there experiencing the “ground truth” of rape culture on college campuses, are telling us there’s a problem. I don’t know about you, but when I hear from a woman that she doesn’t feel safe, I assume she’s right, and allow that to inform the conversation. If you say, “This school has a climate that fosters rape,” you’re only guilty of fear mongering if it’s not true. Williams needs it to not be true, and I’m tempted to wonder why. Spiked identifies her as an “Education Editor,” and “a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent.”
I could speculate about the personal stake Williams may have in this, but any student of logic would call that an ad hominem fallacy. Therefore, I’ll focus on her logic, and her fallacies. She writes:
“Being a feminist on campus in 2014 seems to mean calling for university managers to intervene in intimate relationships and to curtail free speech in the name of protecting delicate women from sexual threats.”
So, in other words, if it happens within the context of an “intimate relationship,” it’s not legitimate rape, but a simple misunderstanding, or a case of morning-after regret? Is that the logic here? As to this subject of free speech, there have been incidents of men handing out “how to rape” pamphlets on college campuses. Would that be an example of speech that should not be curtailed? And why are we speaking in terms of “delicate” women, as opposed to just women? Should women feel demeaned because other women seek to protect them from sexual threats?
When Williams goes on to cite rape statistics in order to support her argument, she ignores the fact that there is widespread agreement that rape is one of the most notoriously under-reported crimes, due to the enormous pressure survivors feel to not come forward. So when she writes…
“This would equate to just over four recorded rapes at a typical university.”
I say no, that equates to just over four rapes per campus that we know about. But don’t take my word for it. The American Medical Association has said as much, and you’ll find confirmation on Wikipedia:
According to the American Medical Association (1995), sexual violence, and rape in particular, is considered the most under-reported violent crime.
The most common reasons given by victims for not reporting rapes are the belief that it is a personal or private matter, and that they fear reprisal from the assailant. A 2007 British government report says “Estimates from research suggest that between 75 and 95 percent of rape crimes are never reported to the police.”
Continuing to build her argument on a foundation of rape statistics, Williams writes:
“Rape Crisis, a UK charity that supports women and girls who have suffered from sexual violence, claims that in 90 per cent of rape cases women know their attackers, and that 52 per cent of women suffering serious sexual violence were attacked by their partners. The validity of applying such national statistics to a student population, which is generally young and living away from old networks of family and friends, needs to be questioned.”
Williams seems to be suggesting that national statistics on the prevalence of rape can’t possibly be relevant to university life because those statistics indicate that rape is overwhelmingly acquaintance rape, and there are no acquaintances, only strangers, on college campuses. What a bizarre assertion.
“Of these, 48 per cent [SIC] say the perpetrator was not a student (challenging the notion of a university rape culture)…”
Um, unless I’m misunderstanding that statement, doesn’t that leave 52 percent who say the perpetrator was a student, thus confirming the fact that campus rape is a huge problem?
Williams also writes:
“…and only 17 per cent of the victims reported the attack to the police or university staff because ‘they did not feel what had happened was serious enough’.”
Such a statement betrays a lack of understanding about the internal debate a survivor might have when deciding whether an incident was “serious enough” to report. Reporting a rape means exposing oneself to the possibility of being re-traumatized by school officials, police, and the community at large. It’s not a decision easily made. Williams ignores the fact that keeping victims quiet is a part of rape culture. Citing a low instance of reported rapes to cast doubt on rape culture’s presence is like claiming the lack of dissenting speech in North Korea proves North Korea doesn’t suppress dissidents.
Furthermore, Williams never defines for us exactly what she thinks rape culture is. Given that her argument hinges on low instances of reported rape, it appears she’s conflating rape with rape culture, and working from the assumption that reported rape is the only symptom –and the only consequence—of rape culture. Is it possible, or even likely, that campus rape culture creates a stressful environment in which people who feel unsafe are less likely to excel in their studies, finish school, and earn degrees? I would hope that, as an educator, Williams might be interested in rape culture’s possible effects on student outcomes.
I am reminded of an experience I had many years ago, when I was called for jury duty. Because the case involved a violent crime, each potential juror was asked whether they knew anybody who’d ever been the victim of a violent crime. I will never forget the response from one potential juror, who happened to be a university student. Her response started with, “Well, I know girls on campus who get raped, but other than that, I don’t really know any crime victims.” Meaning that in her world, it was so commonplace for her fellow students to be survivors of campus rape, that it was hardly noteworthy, and probably didn’t rise to the level of “violent crime” the question had implied. This was years ago, and I still find the memory jarring. On that day, I got all the confirmation I needed that campus rape culture exists. It is ironic and sad that Williams’ denial of this problem makes her complicit in perpetuating it.