FeminismSexual AssaultThe Queerview Mirror

The Queerview Mirror: Time Magazine “Sexual Assault on Campus”

If you opened the May 26th issue of Time Magazine to the first of the ten pages bordered in caution tape yellow (pages 20-29), you saw a picture of the main hall of my campus at night. My town, Missoula, Montana, has borne the title “America’s Rape Capital” for about two years and now my college, the University of Montana (UM), has been featured in Time’s article “Sexual Assault on Campus” by Eliza Gray. Our community is tired of that label and as Gray points out in the hook for her article, “the nickname has it wrong. Missoula isn’t special; it is fairly average. The truth is, for young women, America’s campuses are dangerous places” (20).

One in five women is the victim of attempted or completed sexual assault during college. The article, which begins and ends with UM and Missoula, is not likely to make much headway getting rid of the label “America’s Rape Capital,” even though it clearly points out that although we’ve gotten the most media coverage, Missoula and the UM don’t have a higher rate of rape than other cities and campuses. I do want to say, before I get into the specifics of the article, that I honestly believe that being called “America’s Rape Capital,” while extremely painful, gives us the advantage of not being able to forget, make superficial adjustments and move on. There is a chance that the long term pressure of that horrible reputation will create a backlash of people becoming so defensive that they refuse to admit that rape ever happens. But that wouldn’t be such a big change from the days before the federal investigation. We’ve been grappling with this issue as a community, sometimes bitterly and sometimes cooperatively, for over two years and because of all the media attention, we are going to keep on grappling with it. It is painful. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to deal with this at all. But the world we live in isn’t perfect. Rape and sexual assault are traumatic experiences. There is no way we can deal with them in a pain-free manner. THE important thing, THE singular most important thing, is that we do deal with them. And the media attention means that Missoula is going to keep dealing with them. For that, I am grateful.

But back to the article. It is pretty well written and a fairly engaging read, which probably matter to a magazine like Time. It brings up some interesting points, particularly at the end about what is being done and what various groups (the executive branch and the group of three Senators that has promised to work on campus assault) will be able to accomplish at a national level. Last but not least, the article and the following pages of opinions titled “The Debate: How should college campuses handle sexual assault?” probably capture national opinion about sexual assault and rape pretty well. And to me, that is scary and not just a little bit frustrating.

Gray’s introduction describes UM; briefly touches on the beginning of the federal investigation into the way UM, Missoula city police and the county attorney dealt with the reported rapes; quotes Joe Biden and the 1-in-every-5 women statistic about college campuses all over the US; defines rape and sexual assault; mentions the role of alcohol; talks about how most men aren’t rapists; suggests that it is more productive to see Missoula as the starting point for dealing with rape on campus, rather than the start and end of the issue; and mentions a few measures to prevent sexual assault. It does what it is supposed to, it provides an overview of what the article is going to discuss. Three things stood out to me about the intro, and not in a good way. First, Gray quotes the FBI’s definition of rape and then writes, “Earlier language referred to sex inflicted ‘forcibly and against her will.’ The newer ‘without consent’ language is meant to include victims who are incapacitated by alcohol or cannot otherwise give consent.” She fails to mention that the newer gender-neutral language is meant to include victims who are male, transgender or gender nonconforming. Maybe she would argue that that point isn’t directly relevant to the focus of the article, but rape of people who aren’t women is the hidden issue within an issue that most people would prefer not to talk about. She wrote seven pages about rape and not once did she mention that women aren’t the only victims of rape.

Second, she writes, “The 1-in-5 number shouldn’t be taken to mean that young American men are a horde of violent rapists. The best research suggests that a large proportion of the worst offenses are committed by a relatively small group of students—sexual predators who find college an alarmingly auspicious environment both for targeting women and escaping punishment” (22). She has more discussion on this point later in the article, but as a point Gray chose to include in her introduction, it caught my attention. Nowhere does she write something along the lines of, “The 1-in-5 number shouldn’t be taken to mean that young American women are a flock of drunken victims. The best research suggests that US culture fosters rape culture—an environment in which males are led to believe that women’s bodies should always be available for their personal enjoyment.” Rape culture comes up in the article only because Gray quotes someone who says those two words together. The article seems to spend a lot more energy reassuring men that they shouldn’t have to worry about being thought of as a rapist than it spends reassuring women that they shouldn’t have to worry about being raped.

And third, she writes that federal investigators and school and local officials “have identified specific measures that students, colleges and local cops can take to head off assaults and make sure that when attacks do take place, the victims are properly treated. Some are as obvious as requiring school employees to report any crimes; others are as simple as arming young women—and young men—with clever tricks to derail the predators” (22). The latter makes it sound like UM is informing people about ‘how not to be raped.’ She is actually talking about ‘bystander intervention,” which she names and describes later, but I didn’t realize that until I had read most of the article. Why not name it right away?

Those three frustrations are only from the introduction. The list goes on in the main body of the article. In the second section of the essay, Gray finally mentions how only 12% of rapes of college women are reported to law enforcement. She writes “High-profile incidents often increase awareness and motivate victims to come forwards. So when college officials try to shine a light on the problem…the result can be a wave of allegations that makes a campus suddenly seem less safe.” However, she doesn’t discuss why only 12% of rapes are reported, and she doesn’t mention how frequently the survivors of sexual assault are blamed for the assault, how poorly law enforcement officers can respond, or how difficult it can be to determine if what has been done to a person would be considered rape. She doesn’t mention how that wave of allegations signals that the survivors of sexual assault feel like campus is a bit safer place to actually talk about what happened to them. She does write that we shouldn’t be surprised when larger numbers of survivors come forward because we’ve known about the terrifyingly high rate of rape on campuses for over thirty years since a 1987 study by Mary Koss found that 1-in-4 women had been the victim of attempted or completed rape.

Next, Gray mentions how the popular image in which “a knife-wielding rapist jumps out from a dark corner” isn’t the reality for most rape survivors and goes on to say that the term ‘date rape’ also produces a misleading image of “two drunk teenagers fumbling around in the dark until a testosterone-fueled adolescent male goes too far” (23). And then she paints a horrifying picture of the behavior of the “relatively small group of perpetrators” (23). She describes “the Frank video, which is actually more usefully known as “The Undetected Rapist.” The video in question shows Dr. David Lisak, a University of Massechusetts researcher, and an actor re-enacting part of a study Lisak conducted, asking men about their sexual encounters. The actor portraying a study participant describes premeditated rape as something he and his friends do as part of their normal party operations.

Missoula posters promote intervention to stop sexual assaults, image from osocio.org

Missoula posters promote intervention to stop sexual assaults, image from osocio.org

In the middle of this discussion of how rape is usually perpetrated, Gray talks about a respected 2002 study that concluded that only 6.4% of college men reported committing acts that qualify as rape when asked questions about their sexual encounters without being asked directly if they had committed rape.  It is the same study that produced “The Undetected Rapist” video, which is mentioned two paragraphs later in the article, but the connection is not clearly stated. First of all, I don’t understand why Gray’s article didn’t include more information about the study and the video so interested readers could more easily find more information. The study I believe she is referencing is called “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists” and was written by David Lisak and Paul M. Miller. Secondly, the tone Gray takes when talking about this 6.4% of men is decidedly reassuring to men: “only 6.4%” and “among the relatively small group of perpetrators” are phrases she uses. She writes, “In short, most guys are good guys.” She’s saying, “This isn’t a general problem, only a few specific men are guilty.” But ‘only’ 6.4% means 1 in 16 men reported committing acts that fit under the legal definition of rape. 6.4% seems pretty small. 1 in 16 though? Can I repeat that one more time? ONE IN SIXTEEN COLLEGE MEN SELF REPORTED THAT THEY HAD COMMITTED ACTS THAT ARE LEGALLY CONSIDERED RAPE. All I did to change the picture was a bit of basic of algebra (1/X=64/1000, solve for X). Instead of the more reassuring seeming 6.4% that Gray talks about, 1 in 16 are bad guys and over 1 in 32 are repeat offenders, “averaging nearly 6 rapes each” (23). That is one repeat offender in EVERY medium to small sized lecture class you take on your average campus. 1 in 16 does still mean most guys are good guys. But the majority is way smaller than I am comfortable with. I can’t stop repeating those numbers to myself.  1 in 16. I hope you are as utterly freaked out as I am.

Gray wasn’t. She continues calmly, “College party culture takes particular advantage of young women who lack experience with alcohol—an idea that is entrenched on campuses and in popular culture” (24), beginning with the 1978 film Animal House. She almost writes about rape culture, without actually coming out and calling it that, when she writes, “More than three decades later, popular culture still accommodates the idea—with implications for both men and women—that it’s O.K. for men to trick women into having sex, that reluctance is just a barrier to be overcome through perseverance and guile” (24). That is all she says about it though. She doesn’t connect this “accommodation” in popular culture to the not so small 1-in-16 number of men who have committed rape. She doesn’t say that rape is a cultural problem, not just within the culture of universities but in American culture at every level. She doesn’t say anything about how we might combat the omnipresence of this theme, just mentions that it can be found everywhere from song lyrics to sitcoms.

It is only in the last three pages that Gray begins to address what is actually being done about the huge problem of rape on campuses. She writes first about the two government efforts to address campus sexual assault (the 1990 Clery Act and 2011 use of Title IX to require adequate addressing of sexual assault as a requirement for federal funding).   Next she writes about the UM investigation and the joint resolution between the departments of Education and Justice with UM on moving forwards and strategies for doing better in the future. Finally, she gets around to talking about bystander intervention, but she prefaces it by quoting Dorothy Edwards, former director of the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center at the University of Kentucky, who says “If you are like the vast majority of college men who do not rape, you’ve now heard for the 17th time, Don’t be a rapist. If that’s your only message in prevention, you are alienated and defensive—of course you are!” Edwards is not wrong, but the quote just continues the apologetic tone to men. Where is the apologetic tone to women for having to live with the all-too-real fear of being raped? I’m tired of feeling the need to apologize to men because they might feel like they are being accused of rape. Fact: 1-in-5 women are raped during college! That is the real problem.

I do agree that it is hugely important to acknowledge that third role: that of the bystander. Bystander intervention is one of the most important things I learned about from UM’s rape crisis. As Gray describes, “With grant money from the Department of Justice, Missoula launched a cutting-edge bystander-awareness program designed by experts at the University of New Hampshire. It helps students come up with realistic strategies to intervene in sexual assaults before they happen—by trying to distract or stop a potential perpetrator or getting a potential victim (like an intoxicated girl) away from a risky situation” (26). It has applications to more than just sexual assault as well.  Again, why wasn’t bystander-intervention mentioned by name earlier, in the introduction? We need more bystander intervention!  We need to talk about it more and we need to do it more.

The last section of the article begins by asking “Will these steps make women safer?” but the section barely addresses the question. One paragraph talks about how steps like bystander intervention programs will prevent some assaults and mentions getting tougher on perpetrators. However, Gray can’t end her article without one more discussion of how men are the wronged parties in the whole issue of rape: the next two paragraphs are focused on the need to protect men from false accusations of rape. Gray writes, “schools are still reluctant to expel young men over sexual conduct… while zero tolerance may sound good in principle, it can be disconcerting to male students—and their parents—who fear that zealous colleges will side with alleged victims in murky circumstances” (27). Again, I am tired of worrying about men when we should be worrying about the survivors of rape and sexual assault.

Gray wraps up the article by discussing the potential (or lack thereof) of national level action.  Her outlook isn’t very hopeful.  And all the things the article fails to address and the consistent pattern of greater concern for men’s feelings than for the survivors of sexual assault make me feel pretty pessimistic as well.

engstrom heels

UM President Royce Engstrom participates in a 2012 Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, photo from Kaiman.com

The last paragraph of the article brings attention back to Missoula.  Gray writes in conclusion: “Some 3,600 students will move on, having received degrees and an unexpected crash course on the myths and realities of sexual assault. And this fall, a new class of freshmen will arrive in need of the same education.”  I am one of those graduating seniors.  I, at least, did get an unexpected, thorough, and often painful crash course on the myths and realities of sexual assault, which is more than can be said of Eliza Gray and everyone who reads her article.

Queerview Mirror is a semi-regular feature where Queereka contributors review a variety of media. Look for Queerview Mirror posts on Friday afternoons.


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Ser is asexual, on the aromantic spectrum, gender-questioning, and atheist. They recently graduated from the University of Montana with a BA in Environmental Studies with a focus on nature writing. They love to read, write, play ultimate frisbee, cook, hike, row and cross country ski.

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