“Rape Culture” and the Implications for Liberty on College Campuses

College campuses are placing a stronger emphasis on reducing sexual assault. Unfortunately, universities and colleges often adopt heavy-handed policies to punish alleged offenders based on abstractions or simplistic understandings of college student attitudes and behavior. One of the more problematic overgeneralizations is the concept of the “rape culture”, and the pervasive use of the term interferes with our understanding of the nature of campus sexual assault and identifying practical solutions that are more consistent with individual liberty.

Rape culture” posits that our colleges and universities are dens for sexual predators that promote violence against women and, more importantly, that this violence is institutionally supported. Since the problem is cultural, rather than individual, the solution is institutional–categorical policies that provide little room for context or individual circumstance. Also, because the problem is systemic, extraordinary means can be justified to bring it under control, including abrogating due process, tilting adjudication in favor of the accuser rather than the accused, and implementing draconian measures despite a lack of evidence to support the allegations. Emily Yoffe at Slate.com does a nice job of laying out these dangers as does Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute.

But what if a rape culture doesn’t exist?

Take the case of Florida State University, a large urban campus that has been at the center of the national debate over sexual assault. More than half of its 33,000 undergraduates are female. Most students live off campus, and 6,500 are members of 22 fraternities and 19 sororities. The university hosts nationally competitive Division I athletic programs. All these factors should make the university a poster child for an institutionalized “rape culture.” Indeed, the university is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for violations of federal law over its handling of sexual assault.

So, does FSU exhibit a rape culture? Not if rape culture is defined as a set of shared values, institutional processes, and community environment supportive of rape and sexual assault. FSU has been tracking attitudes toward sex and consent among men since 2010. While this is a limited survey focused on heterosexual relationships and ignores female assaults on men, it’s illustrative of the broader cultural context for the university. The vast majority of men surveyed recognize that consent is necessary before having sex. In fact, nine out of ten men responding to the survey report obtaining consent before having sex.

But consent is sometimes problematic since men and women communicate sexual desires and intentions differently. Teenage men, in particular, often have difficulty interpreting nonverbal behavior and see “blurred lines” even when they are clear to women. At FSU, these lines have become noticeably brighter and less ambiguous. In 2013, for example, 88% of men disagreed with the statement: “When women are raped, it’s often because the way they said ‘no’ was ambiguous.” This percentage is up significantly from three years earlier, when 73% of men disagreed with that statement.

A greater concern might be the question of implied intent by women when they take certain actions. When men were asked if they agreed “if a woman is willing to go home with a man, consent to have sex is implied,” 23% said yes. By implication, the vast majority–enough for most survey takers to imply a social consensus–reported that they believed that consent to have sex was not implied simply because a women agreed to go home with them. This is still a disturbingly high number, but it’s a far cry from evidence of a campus-wide rape culture. Moreover, false or unrealized expectations are not the same as an actual assault.

Other questions elicited high responses from men in their willingness to intervene in cases when they believed a woman was being emotionally abused (94%) and when they witnessed another man pressuring a woman to leave with him (77%). Nearly all said they would admire someone that intervened to prevent sexual abuse, sexual assault, or stalking.

These data question the veracity of sweeping comments about the existence of rape culture at a university that has been in the national spotlight for its alleged failure to address sexual assault. I also doubt FSU is unique.

Does the lack of a rape culture mean that sexual assault and rape are not a problem on college campuses? No. Taking even the lower bounds of reported sexual assaults, an issue I will take up in my next blog post, female survivors of rape or attempted rape number in the hundreds at FSU and could fill two or more sororities. If we add men into the mix, the numbers are even higher.

So, what’s the solution? Is there a path that builds civil society and shifts the culture further toward individual freedom and liberty? I believe the answer is “yes,” and I think it’s an important libertarian issue (as I have discussed before here and here).

While I don’t have the space to go into a full explanation of the framework here, I believe it hinges on five elements: 1) directly addressing the moral case for respecting individual dignity and liberty, 2) transitioning social ethics on campuses from a bystander culture to one that supports active intervention when friends and acquaintances are threatened, 3) empowering individuals to neutralize threats through situational awareness and self-defense, 4) adopting policies that hold individuals accountable for the human damage inflicted on others, and 5) ensuring the consequences of poor decisions and judgement are transparent, consistent and equitable in their application.

I will expand on these points in future post as well.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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