Media sensationalism and rape culture at my alma mater UVA (TW: rape culture)

Media sensationalism and rape culture at my alma mater UVA (TW: rape culture) December 6, 2014

Rotunda_UVa_from_the_south_eastIt’s been a hard couple of weeks to be a Wahoo in the wake of a Rolling Stone article calling out the rape culture on the University of Virginia campus. Even though UVA’s official mascot is the Cavalier, we call ourselves Wahoos, a fish that can drink its weight. That says a lot about who we are and the crisis of our student life. There has been a lot of push-back and criticism of the article because some aspects of the story provided by the rape victim supposedly don’t “add up.” Newsflash: when people have been through extremely traumatizing events, they understandably get mixed up about some of the details. I personally don’t think the article should have named the specific fraternity or administrators involved in this deeply troubling story if the author wasn’t going to contact the other parties involved for comment. But the basic truth that UVA has a rape culture is absolutely valid. I know because I lived and participated in it from 1996 to 2000.

I’ve often wondered how differently men growing up in different eras were socialized to view sexuality. I just know that I was socialized in the middle school locker room and similar places with the understanding that my manhood was measured by how many times I was able to get laid. Women were supposed to be the means of my sexual self-actualization as a man. I recognize that there are reasons why people want to say that certain men are predators in a way that other men aren’t, but I don’t see how our basic socialization isn’t already rape culture. Imagine if we lived in a world where young men weren’t going out to parties thinking that their self-worth depended upon “picking up” and “scoring with” somebody they met and took home that night.

I get the reason why kids get drunk. We’ve made socializing so damn sophisticated and ironical and exhausting that the only way to be clever and witty enough to be socially successful is to fill yourself with what one of my friends calls “liquid courage.” Obviously this creates the context for all sorts of bad and unhealthy human interactions to take place. I don’t want to take anything away from the culpability of sexual predators, but I just can’t see how it isn’t already rape culture for everyone to be getting smashed and young men to be operating with the goal of manipulating random women into bed with them. In the recent controversy about Bill Cosby’s sexual abuse, one of the things which surfaced was an old recording of him in 1969 joking about a magic potion called “Spanish fly.” Listening to the recording, it sounds like Spanish fly is not a date-rape drug so much as an aphrodisiac. Cosby says in his stand-up segment that it makes women go crazy, not that it makes women black out. But this raises the point: is there really much of a difference between spiking a woman’s drink with an aphrodisiac and spiking it with a drug that will make her not remember anything? Either way, the man’s goal is to manipulate and conquer.

I had this goal in my head as an undergrad at UVA. Granted, my evangelical Christian upbringing also instilled in me the belief that premarital sex was a sin, which both held my screwed-up sexual socialization in check and made it into an all-the-more enticing taboo. In any case, during my undergraduate years, my social awkwardness mostly protected me from violating my religious beliefs as badly as I wanted to violate them. I did have one evening though when I almost became a monster. A young woman had come back to my room, but she had second thoughts. She wanted to go home, and not only that, she wanted to ask one of my fraternity brothers who lived a few doors down to walk her home because she didn’t trust me. I was mortified, and so I grabbed her arm as she was trying to leave. I let go after a few seconds, but still, I had grabbed her arm. The next day I fasted because I felt like a monster.

I just wonder what kind of monster I might have become had my social awkwardness not protected me from using women the way that I had been taught was necessary to prove my manhood. How much entitled egotism is required to tip the scale so that a man keeps on going without receiving unambiguous consent from the women he’s with? How many times does a man keep on going without unambiguous consent before he feels okay with using outright force? What makes men okay with grabbing arms and not letting go? I recognize that there are multiple paths to becoming predators; some of the scariest “men’s rights” activists are hyper-misogynistic because of their lack of success with women. In any case, ever since I encountered Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, I’ve come to believe that evil is formed by degenerative habits. There aren’t clear-cut good guys and bad guys, but rather people who have been more or less corrupted by what their habits have made them okay with. It doesn’t make rapists any less evil to suspect that the combination of how men are socialized sexually and the recklessness of the college party scene is helping certain men to become evil predators. I suppose there are certain narcissistic personality types that are more susceptible to this evil than others, but I really think I was protected from becoming that way rather than it being something I was inherently incapable of doing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is it was wrong for the Rolling Stone to make their article about a single bad fraternity at a single bad university. Rape culture is something that everyone in campuses across our country participates in. Frat parties just provide the context in which our toxic sexual socialization can be most easily and tragically lived out. By making it all about Phi Kappa Psi, the Rolling Stone created an easy scapegoat for the campus to vilify and move on without addressing the real problem. This put the fraternity in the position of lawyering up and skewering the credibility of the victim, whom the Rolling Stone was then happy to throw under the bus. So now the narrative becomes a repeat of the Duke lacrosse fiasco where the administration backpedals and the poor misjudged frat boys become the martyred victims of “political correctness” or “feminism” or something.

I agree that there’s a major enforcement problem with campus rape culture, and that perpetrators need to be named, prosecuted, and expelled. But I also want to be a part of fighting rape culture on the prevention side of things as well. Basically, men need to be socialized differently and something needs to be done about the debaucherous context in which rape culture occurs. I wouldn’t be heartbroken if frat parties were just banned forever, though I’m not sure colleges have the authority or the guts to do that. As a campus minister, I feel like my piece of the puzzle is to offer social alternatives to the binge drinking and hookup culture. Though it’s been very hard to get college students to come out to events without alcohol, I’m going to keep trying.

Regarding the socialization side of things, the church has unfortunately been more a part of the problem than the solution. We need to teach a sexual ethics that is based upon respect for each others’ bodies instead of framing sex as a solipsistic question of “purity” strictly between each of us and God. We cannot be teaching girls that it’s their responsibility to cover themselves up and keep their boyfriends in line because men can’t help themselves. As long as sexuality is understood in hetero-patriarchal terms as the male quest to resist the hazardous temptations of female bodies in order to please and honor God, then rape culture will continue to be the ugly taboo underside of Christian purity culture. The challenge for us as Christians is that most of our traditional teaching about sexuality is steeped in patriarchal conceptions of the female body as an object of temptation rather than seeing women as equal agents worthy of respect.

We desperately need sexual holiness, the recognition that our bodies are indeed temples of the Holy Spirit, but it needs to be a holiness that is concerned ultimately with hospitality for the other rather than solipsistic purity. I need to treat other peoples’ bodies like temples, not just my own. Figuring out how to teach and promote this vision of holiness is one of my most important challenges in campus ministry. I am grateful for any insights you might have for how I can best contribute to the battle against campus rape culture.

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  • Melinda Selmys

    “We need to teach a sexual ethics that is based upon respect for each
    others’ bodies instead of framing sex as a solipsistic question of
    “purity” strictly between each of us and God.”
    Yes. Beautifully put.