Last week I watched the documentary “ The Hunting Ground”. Ostensibly it deals with rape on American college campuses, but the real accusatory focus is on the shameful behavior of the Universities’ government. Briefly, the documentary claims that when a female student chooses to complain – all too many do not – there is a bias against siding with her.
In one segment, an interviewed male student felt the furor is exaggerated: “so there was a sexual act, he said, and she said no. Does that constitute a rape?” One wants to shout at the screen: Yes!! This is exactly what rape is: a sexual act imposed on an unwilling person.
Hopefully, the interviewed student, so flippant about rape, would come to reevaluate his position when he himself has a daughter.
But perhaps in that inane statement he betrayed the mindset leading to the discrimination against students who are sexually attacked.
While college administrations are ordinarily swift to address other forms of bad behavior such as cheating, the student who complains of sexual assault is often stonewalled. Even when a rape kit identified the accused, an argument on his part that the act was consensual, is often grounds for acquittal.
Once thrown into the realm of “he said, she said” the victim has to argue the veracity of her unwillingness to engage in sex. In order to understand the victims we need to reevaluate our concepts about gender behavior. Few aspects of human conduct are as dissimilar as the sexual behavior of men and women. Perhaps the most distinctive one is the fact that women are not as constantly available to sexual encounter as men are. Of course this is a generalized statement and does not apply to all. But I wager that if two adults engage in sexual activity the person who is more likely to say no is the female. Men are often quite opportunistic in their sexual behavior while a woman tends to be more cognizant of the way she relates to a prospective sexual partner.
I am sure that some would argue that this is merely a “nurture” phenomenon; that women have a different sexual conduct than men since they have been conditioned to be this way. Some may even argue that the entire premise is wrong and that women are as predatory and opportunistic in their sexual engagement as men. As a long time investigator of human nature, I tend to disagree. Had this been the case, more women would have raped many more men. Statistics tell us that the number of men raped by women is insignificant, indeed infinitesimal (by rape I mean the same definition I used before – the male partner is forced to have sexual relationship against his will and despite his protestations).
Why is it important at all?
I think that the relative sexual freedom, the engagement in casual, non-committal sex, has tragically biased our culture to apply a different threshold to the definition of rape. In all the rape instances in the documentary, the male and female were students of roughly the same age, and most (but not all) knew each other. Those images conflict with the mental image of a rapist; anonymous maniac springing from behind the bushes, brandishing some sort of weapon and violently overpowering the victim. Accused college students get acquitted, or receive very mild censure, since their claim for consensual sex is often accepted. In fact many of the young women who dare to complain are questioned suspiciously about their motives(!!) for coming forward. While the males walk around proud, the women are shamed, often publicly, and some have been driven away from the school by public scorn for being a “liar” a “slut” etc. This level of injustice, mind boggling when you watch the documentary, can only exist if despite the “no means no” campaigns, the power of the woman’s “no” is feeble, suspect and relative. In other words, in many of those cases, deans, female and male professors, closed ranks around the institution “image” and preferred to believe that the accuser’s “no” actually meant “yes”.
At the root of the problem is our misconception about gender differences in sexual conduct. This willing blindness, inadvertently leads to minimizing the victims’ authentic feelings before during and after the sexual assault. In campuses where every perceived adversity is showered with counseling, sensitivity training etc., a young woman is left isolated and unsupported in her quest to overcome her trauma. It is heartbreaking to watch the suffering of the victims. In my practice I am often a front line witness to the emotional wreckage and lasting scars that a rapist leaves in his wake.
Understanding the nuances of female sexual behavior, its difference from that of male’s, and the awful and lasting effects of forced sex – the humiliation, the violation, the loss of trust, depression, suicidal ideation, shame, self loathing and doubts – calls for an urgent discussion about the definition and threshold of what constitutes a college rape.
The statistics are on the side of the victims. According to the CDC, the chances of a woman getting raped in college are 1 in 5. The vast majority of complaints are found to be true. Worse, most female victims never come forward. Yet I found the documentary very surprising. Not about the prevailing rapes. I was aware of the statistics for a long time. The shocking part was the callus manner by which the featured colleges handled the victims’ complaints.
In fact, a rape incident in college often follows the exact script described above by the student – who was “ using it” to defend his accused male peers: There was a sexual act and she said no.
Consider how powerful this NO is: if someone attempts to touch you against your will and does so disregarding your protestation you would feel violated. In fact you would BE violated. In social situations we have been able to consider unwanted physical closeness as a cause for censure and reprimand. Why do we not accord that to victim of forced physical intimacy in colleges?
Many young women arrive at college with certain trepidation: How can she escape being labeled a slut or a prude? Where is the silver lining between those extreme? How can a young college student exercise her sexual freedom and needs, without being stereotyped one way or the other? This is a heady task for a young woman fresh out of high school and barely out of adolescence. In high school, the rules of behavior are tightly scripted. In college she is thrown into uncharted territories without any road map
The “responsible adults” at the college are expected to support a young woman’s right to be the sole master of her body. She can make her own decisions about how to “use” it, she can change her mind: how she feels in a particular moment should dictate the boundaries of engagement.
How is it that in American campuses, the bastions of progressive thinking, a most vile form of regressive, primitive male behavior is allowed to go unpunished? The documentary offers three theories: 1. It causes embarrassment and bad public relations to the colleges. 2. Since rape often happens in fraternities, colleges are loathe to upset fraternity alumni who are major donors and 3. When the rapist is an athlete, especially a star athlete, the financial loss from his expulsion outweighs the ethical behavior. I do not know if that is the prevailing reason in most cases although at least in one case it is very compelling (watch the documentary!!)
But I think the colleges should not get away with such a cynical view. Somehow we expect institutions to behave badly when it concerns their bottom line. But the statistics show that in cases that do not involve human rights violation, or misconduct, the financial considerations carry a lower weight. The cynical explanation is not necessarily the entire story; even the shockingly small number of violators how are found guilty of sexual assault – cases where the victim has been found truthful – often recieve a ridiculous punishment (a “weekend suspension” is a particularly contemptuous example). Some of the most egregious cases that resulted in expulsion were reversed to full restitution the following year. Watching the documentary, I had to conclude that college administrators do not think that a “sexual act when she said no” is a serious enough violation deserving real consequences for the perpetrator. There is simply no other possible explanation. Despite the statistics supporting the veracity of vast majority of complaints (more than 90 percent!) most colleges featured expelled or suspended less than 5 percent of those found guilty of sexual assault.
This is a very important documentary. At least it was very important to me. As a father about to send his daughter to college, I was hopeful that our colleges would be keen to defend the rights of every student from oppression and assault. Indeed it is the case in many instances except for when a student is raped. Apparently, when it comes to female sexual rights, at least in the featured colleges, her saying “no” means “yes”.