The Year We Doubled Down on the Worst Part of the Campus Rape Debate

Plus, the one blind spot that every feminist can rally around. 

Emma Sulkowicz
Emma Sulkowicz, then a senior at Columbia University, carries a mattress in protest of the university’s lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year, on Sept. 5, 2014, in New York City.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

In this series, Double X writers look back on 2015’s flashpoint debates around gender and feminism as they played out in the spheres of reproductive rights, work-life balance, pop music, affirmative consent on campus, and more. Read all the entries here.

This should have been a productive year for talking about how to prevent sexual assault on college campuses. Last spring, Emma Sulkowicz hefted her mattress across the stage at her Columbia University graduation, in a symbolic victory over a culture of silence and shame. This fall, an estimated 1,400 institutions across the country enacted new “affirmative consent” standards and started teaching students that they needed a clear “yes” to move ahead with sex. Through it all, U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand have been working to assemble a bipartisan group to push for a bill that would create more resources for victims of sexual assault as well as harsher penalties for universities that mishandle rape cases or fail to report them.

But all too often in 2015, the debate seemed to be slipping backwards. In a year that opened onto the unraveling of Rolling Stone’s massive feature about what proved to be a fabricated story of a brutal gang rape—and that closed with CNN’s decision to air the documentary The Hunting Ground despite reason to doubt one of its core narratives—much of the energy around this topic vanished into a vortex of questioning whether rape victims can be trusted and whether rape on campus has the proportions of a genuine problem. The more important and constructive discussions—the ones that actually got at the knotty realities of sex on campus—were often pushed to the sidelines.

Minimizing the problem of sexual violence by discrediting survivors is an old trick. Character assassination of victims was such a ubiquitous and ugly tactic in rape trials that the U.S. tried to outlaw it with “rape shield laws” in the 1970s and ’80s, although that didn’t stop rape deniers from chipping away at victims’ stories. Some feminists responded by taking the untenable position that women virtually never lie about rape, when the truth is that it’s almost impossible to get a solid handle on the rate. (The latest and best evidence suggests the number is less than 10 percent.)

But when you zoom out, this question starts to look like a red herring. Casting blanket doubt on rape victims is a way to insinuate that the entire problem of sexual violence is overblown, when study after study has show that it’s not. Just this fall, in a brand-new report from the Association of American Universities, one-third of female college seniors reported being the victims of nonconsensual sexual contact during their undergraduate years.

Feminists and victims’ advocates saw the storm coming when Rolling Stone retracted its story in December 2014. “Rolling Stone’s letter will be the first citation for every rape denialist,” Alexandra Brodsky, a co-founder of the student campaign Know Your IX and an editor at Feministing, wrote on MSNBC. “They screwed up and now students will pay the price.” In the wake of the story, national Greek organizations lobbied hard for legislation that would have made it extremely difficult for universities to punish perpetrators of sexual violence. They dropped the bill after a backlash this November, but this yearlong effort to institute regressive policies symbolized the way the Rolling Stone controversy set the clock back on the campus rape debate.

When it comes to the arguments against affirmative consent, the subtext is that women and girls can’t be trusted to honor the distinction between morning-after regret and rape. In June, the writer Judith Shulevitz fretted that affirmative consent standards “make sex a crime under conditions of poor communication.” But where is the wisdom in defending sex between two people who aren’t even comfortable establishing what both of them want? Jaclyn Friedman, a sexual health educator and editor of a new book about affirmative consent, argues that so-called “yes means yes” standards are a practical way to foster healthy sexual norms. “All the grownup scaremongering is drowning out one important fact,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “Young people are embracing affirmative consent.”

In at least one instance this year, advocates for rape survivors unintentionally fed into the narrative that victims aren’t trustworthy. The documentary The Hunting Ground—which has been screened to acclaim everywhere from the White House to the Sundance Film Festival to, this fall, CNN—included a story about an alleged sexual assault at Harvard Law School that has been disputed by 19 Harvard law professors. The student in question was dismissed from the school, then reinstated on appeal by a faculty vote; then the appeals process itself was declared in violation of Title IX by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The student was also acquitted of lesser charges of “sexual touching” by a Massachusetts court. (He was found guilty of “misdemeanor touching of a nonsexual nature.”) In a takedown of The Hunting Ground, Slate’s Emily Yoffe wrote,“In their effort to sound an alarm about what they believe to be rampant college rape, the makers of The Hunting Ground did an injustice.” What Yoffe calls an injustice has cut against the documentarians’ own purpose. Libertarian blogger Radley Balko cited the movie when he wrote at the Washington Post, “I think the activists on this issue are mistaken when they say that we’re in the midst of a campus rape crisis.”*

The data is against Balko and other disbelievers (except if they aggressively cherry-pick). But their dogged insistence that campus rape is a problem dreamed up by feminists has had a terribly real impact on the national conversation, crowding out the subjects that could actually improve our sexual culture.

One of the debates that deserves center stage was raised last winter by law professors at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, who published letters expressing concern that policies that protect victims often don’t afford due process for the accused. “Feminists should be concerned about fair process, even in private institutions where the law does not require it,” Nancy Gertner, one of the professors who signed the Harvard letter, warned in the American Prospect. “We put our decades-long efforts to stop sexual violence at risk when men come forward and credibly claim they were wrongly accused.” Gertner and the other signers were particularly concerned about male students of color under the new code. (In the Harvard Law School case featured in The Hunting Ground, both accuser and accused were black.)

Feminists—and university administrators—are also debating the role of prevention programs in changing campus culture. A New England Journal of Medicine study published this year found that teaching college women to assess their acquaintances as potential sexual threats slightly lowered their risk of being raped; some women’s advocates want to run with these results and with programs that warn female students away from binge drinking. But many student activists argue that the focus should be on reeducating men; in their view, teaching young women that they can prevent rape risks adding to their psychic burden in cases where they can’t. As Emily Bazelon pointed out in the New York Times Magazine, both of these policy questions are refracted through a larger debate: Are women better served by preaching self-reliance or by pushing institutions for recognition and protection?

*Correction, Jan. 5, 2015: This article originally misstated that a Harvard Law School student featured in The Hunting Ground was “found not guilty of rape by the university.” He was dismissed from the school, then reinstated on appeal by a faculty vote; then the appeals process itself was declared in violation of Title IX by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. (Return.)