The Myth of Heroes and Villains in On-Campus Rape Prevention

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This morning, I was forwarded a NYT article by Michael Winerp on bystander intervention. It was easy to miss, tucked away in the higher education section, addressing mainly parents interested in knowing what schools are doing to keep their children safe. While mostly insightful, the article also perpetuates dangerous myths about false accusations that hinder the overall goal of protecting students from sexual violence. Winerp frames bystander programs as a way not just to protect women, but also a way to protect men, athletes in particular, from women who would do them harm. In doing so, he flames the adversarial fire between young men and women and misses an opportunity to have a grown-up discussion about sex.

It’s not hard to see the ingenuity of bystander intervention programs. When rape prevention programs were developed as part of the Violence Against Women movement in the 60s, men were painted as a more monolithic group and spoken of as the enemy. However, David Lisak, a prominent researcher into sexual assault, is quoted as saying that only 3% of men who commit assaults, so the vast majority of men are not out to do any harm. Bystander programs engage these men as potential good guys who are looking out for others. It also recognizes that they may not necessarily be looking out for women, but possibly for a male friend or teammate they don’t want to get into trouble.

While this engagement is a great way to get men involved, by continuing to frame the problem exclusively in terms of men vs. women, Winerp misses the fact that men can also be victims of this violence. They are not the majority by any means, but they are there, and their numbers are even more grossly underreported than women’s. This reliance on a battle-of-the-sexes style trope limits comes with an underlying sense of fear at the traction campus advocates are currently getting in preventing sexual violence. Greendot is a national violence prevention organization currently leading the way in implementing bystander programs on college campuses by purposefully taking gendered language out of their curriculum. They are making a conscious effort to include men, both as potential saviors and survivors in order to subvert this adversarial dynamic.

Jen Sayre from Correlate Films on Vimeo.

We all the know the dominant narrative of weak women in need of saving, and men, either as heroes or villains, taking charge of situations. However, if we leave the area of comfortable discourse and recognize that these depictions are a very limited picture of human sexuality and relationships, we’re able to have much more sophisticated and useful conversations about violence prevention. No one, neither male nor female, wants to see themselves as the victim. The part of this narrative that paints women as getting positive reinforcement for accusing someone is simply false. Accusers are put under enormous pressure and scrutiny, especially when they are speaking out against athletes or celebrities. The adversarial bias that paints the majority of women as vengeful schemers needs to go out with the idea that all men are potential predators. These exaggerated stereotypes are not helping.

This leads me to the biggest problem in Winerp’s article. After addressing the efforts made by schools to educate, he also, rightly, addresses the problem of leaving these cases brought to student tribunals. While it is overwhelmingly true that groups of students are not equipped to handle the sensitive nature of these cases, his argument as to why is one of the most counter-productive lines of reasoning present in this entire debate.

He cites the case of Dez Wells, a basketball player at Xavier university who was accused of raping a woman. He acknowledges that they had sex, but claims it was consensual and that he used a condom. According to the legal papers, it all started with a game of truth or dare among friends. As Winerp writes, “Many of the dares, Mr. Wells said, were sexual — at one point the woman gave him a lap dance; at another, she exposed her breasts. Afterward, they went back to her dorm room and had sex.” Hours later, the woman reported it as a rape.

Winerp goes on to quote the Hamilton county prosecuting attorney as saying that after their investigation, “It wasn’t even close,” and that there was no indictment. Even with this determination by the prosecutor, Xavier officials acted on their own and brought the case of a mixed student and faculty tribunal, which was not trained in how to read evidence from rape kits and admitted to not knowing how to handle the information. Still, the board found Wells guilty and he was expelled. Wells has had his reputation tarnished, and his potential career as a basketball player threatened. He maintains his innocence and is suing Xavier for this decision.

Winerp uses this story as an example for the dangers of taking these cases out of the hands of law enforcement, but he doesn’t even give passing recognition to the fact that in many cases, the courts cannot get adequate evidence to prosecute someone even if they believe that they are guilty. He does not consider the fact that many women decline to prosecute when they learn of what the process will require of them. He doesn’t even begin to question why it was dropped, but takes the fact that it was as a clear indication of innocence. I am not suggesting that the athlete in question is definitely guilty. I am suggesting that a responsible journalist would mention that conviction rates for rape are extremely low. Due to under-reporting exact numbers are elusive, but the range given is generally between 3-7% of rape cases leading to a conviction. Given these rates it seems disingenious to look to the the legal system as an authority in properly grappling with the complexity of most of these cases.

Not being able to rely on the justice system for answers in these situations is truly a problem for policy makers and journalists because it leaves them in an area where this isn’t a distinct authority in the matter. One of the major pitfalls of writing about sexual assault is that it is a topic that is guaranteed to come with some heightened emotional response and people picking sides and vehemently arguing their point. Lines are drawn around exaggerated depictions of men as evil predators with instatiable urges preying on the innocent and women as vengeful lying sirens ensnaring men into seductive traps that result in the ruination of their good name.

Winerp plays into this tendency when he mentions that the woman in question was playing sexy games with the athlete, giving him a lap dance and taking off her shirt. This implication here is that she wanted it, or generously, that any reasonable person would assume she wanted it. The fact that Winerp fails to grasp is that even if she was giving off all the signs of a lady who wants to get in bed with a man, she can still be raped. Instead of recognizing that sex is a huge grey area, he puts it into a black box, where what happens after that lap dance is not up for discussion. What if she was into it initially, but then he got too rough with her and wouldn’t stop when she wanted him to?

Some people might just call that “bad sex” and move on, but the fact remains that he kept going after she said no. We have a word for that, and it’s a lot more serious than “bad sex.” If this is what happened, any prosecution would be nearly impossible, but that would not mean that the women is free from lasting emotional and psychological scars of being victimized. Again, this is not to say that this is what happened, but it is to say that this is just as possible as any other scenario. We aren’t going to get anywhere with prevention efforts without the understanding that a woman flashing her breasts does not give a man free reign to use her body as he wants behind closed doors.

Last year, Jyl Shaffer worked at Reed College, a small libreral arts college in Portland, OR as a prevention educator. In her work, she lets students know that there isn’t really one clear and concise way to ensure that you are getting consent. As much as we want there to be a set of steps that students can run through, the fact is that you are working with people who are exploring their sexuality and don’t really know what they want. These are people who don’t have a lot of real-world experience to temper the messages they have gotten from TV or the internet. College is generally accepted as a time for learning, about the world, about oneself, and about relationships, but what is coming to light more and more is that these lessons aren’t necessarily a harmless part of growing up.

Jyl Shaffer from Correlate Films on Vimeo.

It is a somewhat new idea, at least by mainstream standards, to think of consent in such explicit terms, and comprehensive sex education that frames sex as a good and pleasurable experience remains deeply controversial. However, the fact remains that an understanding of sexual encounters as a changing and mutable experience that is constantly being re-negotiated by the parties involved is central to effective violence prevention. Bystander intervention programs are fantastic, but without a discussion on what healthy sexuality looks like, these efforts will always be limited in scope.

Sticking with the example of Dez Wells and his expulsion from Xavier, the need for a more comprehensive sex education becomes even clearer. The fact is that with good education, it’s not just men like Wells being taught how not to rape, but women like the one in the example being taught how to more clearly communicate their boundaries and desires. It is giving her permission to speak up more loudly and more forcefully when she needs to, and providing a more detailed vocabulary for her experiences. So, if a rape does occur, she is more equipped to deal with it in a way that holds the rapist accountable in a reasonable and effective way.

As it stands, no one is really happy with the case at Xavier and it’s end result is a hotly contested law suit. This is neither justice for the victim nor is it a validation of Wells’ clean reputation. Instead, what you have is an uneven attempt at finding justice within a punitive system. In the event that Wells was guilty and got away with it, his explusion is not sending any sort of message that he has to change his ways. If our goal is reduce sexual violence on campuses, it is time to look around see that clinging to the tools provided through the justice system as it currently stands are falling short.

Dr. Shawn Marsh is a researcher with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges investigating the effectiveness of the legal system in handling juvinile sex offenders. Though his work is not directly on college populations, there are similarities between teens and people in their early twenties that allow for some overlap. Most notably, people at this age are still malleable in terms of brain development and interventions that focus on treatment and education can work to prevent future assaults in a way that explosions, imprisonment, and a sex offender list cannot.

According to Dr. Marsh, research shows that punishments have to be both timely and “that it has to be, from the perspective of the person [who comitted the crime] to fit the offense.” So, to create change, we need to consider what the offender might think is an appropriate response and hold them accountable through those standards, rather than our own. In a world that wants to paint all sex offenders as the lowest of the low and the vilest of the vile, this can be deeply uncomfortable. But based on current scientific research, we are currently faced with the fact that our desire for vengeful justice is standing in opposition to creating a just and equitable society.

Shawn Marsh from Correlate Films on Vimeo.

One reason there is such deep resistance to this line of thought is that there is a long history of victims who were not heard or believed and have thereby never been given a chance to heal. Their anger seethes out and looks for scapegoats they can tear down in hopes of coming to some sort of resoultion about their own attack. Another reason for the heightened emotion is that the fear of being accused of committing a sex crime is real. These convictions can and do ruin people’s lives in a way that does not ultimately solve the problem.

Making matters even more confusing, the federal definition of rape is relatively new. It was changed in the beginning of 2012 to be more include any type of penetration into any sexual orifice, and notably removed the words “forceable” and “female.” These changes demonstrate an understanding that rape can be coercive as well as forceful and enacted in a variety of ways upon a variety of people.

Last year the world watched as football players at Steubenville High School were convicted for raping a girl. One argument in their defence was that they didn’t know that what they were doing was rape. With a lack of good education, it is reasonable to fear that our boys are getting dangerous messages about sex from the media and their friends that are leading them into trouble. We have not actively taught young people how to respect boundaries, and the rules are changing all around them.

It is no longer tenable to pretend that sex education that focuses on avoiding diseases or pregnancy is enough. We need to be adults who open up the black box around sexuality in our own lives and sort out all the fear, anger, longing or whatever other intense emotions arise so that we can be models for students. Whether we are more concerned with keeping girls safe or keeping boys out of trouble, we have a common goal in reducing sexual violence. The fearful narratives don’t work for either end. We can continue to put our heads in the sand and rely on tired tropes of vilification or we can push a little farther. We need to learn to be open about boundaries and desire, so we can watch out for ourselves and each other.


All video clips are from a forthcoming documentary about violence prevention efforts. Check out our KickStarter.