Grounds for Outrage

Journalist Emily Yoffe has tried to “disprove” just about every story of rape that is publicized, especially if it’s related to a college campus. She blames anyone but the perpetrators to show that this “rape epidemic” is really just college kids drinking too much and doing things they regret or are confused about. She believes that being a victim is the easy-way-out from accepting responsibility of a regrettable sexual decision (#survivorprivilege anyone?). She has a daughter in college, and maybe she’s trying to convince herself that “not getting trashed” is enough to protect her.


When asked about her concern for her daughter, Yoffe replied, “I think that my friends who have sons in college actually are more worried because they’re really terrified of their boys getting in situations where a female college student may say, ‘You know, I don’t think that was OK,’ and the boy thought it was OK.” However, she does not believe in affirmative consent as “these rules dictate how young adults in college make love.”


Her 2013 article, “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk,” was attacked by a slew of people for having a victim-blaming slant. While she does place most of the responsibility to not get raped on women without telling rapists not to rape, I think she honestly wants to believe that the problem is as simple as getting college kids to stop binge drinking. It’s not. That’s not the problem. Binge drinking is, however, another serious problem on college campuses that only a major culture change will be able to shift. And I think we need to teach alcohol responsibility, in high school and college, which can be done without victim-blaming.


In her 2014 article, “The College Rape Overcorrection,” Yoffe blatantly claims that the movement against the rape epidemic is a draconian, systemic victimization against men and reports on a few individual cases, claiming that these were just drunken misunderstandings. Yoffe of course cites the National Crime Victimization Survey as debunking the 1-in-5 myth, but as I reported previously, it does no such thing.


And yesterday, Yoffe completed her trifecta by publishing an article discrediting The Hunting Ground, a Sundance documentary screened at colleges across the country earlier this year that claimed to expose the great institutional cover-up of college rape. Assuming what Yoffe reports in this article is true, and it seems to be, it does indeed expose the film for providing just as biased of a view as her own. But her assertions go beyond attempting to discredit the film by attempting to discredit that there even is a rape problem, and again, Yoffe claims that these are confused or ashamed or malicious women. But in her own article, Yoffe reports that the the accused student admits (twice!) to vaginal penetration of the victim (but these documented text messages weren’t used as evidence in court), confesses to wrongdoing, and the police failed to test the male DNA on a condom presented as evidence to see if it belongs to the accused. I’m not commenting on what actually happened that night or what any of the three students involved experienced, but this example doesn’t highlight a witch-hunt of men like Yoffe intended, but rather a seriously broken legal system. Yoffe claims that “the documentary is shaping the public debate around campus rape, but a closer look at one of its central cases suggests the filmmakers put advocacy ahead of accuracy.”


So what does this really mean? Lazy filmmaking. This film was not made by any recognized group of advocates or activists or researchers. I had actually planned to write my own critique of the film once I obtained a copy to view more carefully again at home. The Hunting Ground was screened at my school in April, and I was one of a few students at Michigan State University who had a lengthy meeting with Kirby Dick, the director of the film, and I gathered that he does not have a full understanding of the issue. He was out to make a big splash and expose a huge system-wide university scandal that may not exist in the way that he thought it did. The film tries to simplify an incredibly complicated issue in a way that may do it more disservice than good. The Hunting Ground serves as a kind of emotional-appeal introduction to the campus rape issue but does little in the way of actually dissecting the intricacies of the root of the problem or what we should do about it. But Kirby Dick was trying to use a few cases to demonstrate a serious problem that many people do not understand, and for that, I commend him. I don’t think his intentions were to mislead anybody, they were misinformed at worst, but what Yoffe is doing is using single cases to discredit the entire movement that people have fought for and suffered through for decades. This is huge in the way of fuel for those who want to “debunk the rape epidemic.”

It is true that most universities want to keep their reports of sexual misconduct low–you can ask campus administrators that question and they will tell you straight up that they don’t want to get a thousand reports of sexual misconduct each year because they can barely handle the 95 reports they do get. What is clear to me, from my meetings with campus administrators, is that they often don’t understand the seriousness of anything other than our culturally pre-conceived scripted idea of rape. They want reports of sexual misconduct confined to only those cases they consider to be “legitimate” by individuals who pose a “real” threat to the community (e.g. violent, forced, penetrative, stranger), and that is where the real fight lies. In the Hunting Ground case that Yoffe tries to dissect, I take away that the accused vaginally penetrates a woman who is passed out and think “holy shit, she was raped, how horrible,” but there’s a whole group of other people who say “it was just his finger, they were kissing earlier, it’s no big deal.” How do we reconcile these differences? Universities simply don’t think what is happening is that big of a deal and that women are just hysterical, and this is indeed confounded by their financial interests and image investments.


But why is Yoffe doing this? If she was trying to exonerate an unjustly punished individual, that would be one thing, but this is bad journalism and unethical research at best. We cannot look at individual cases and make assumptions about the whole system. Research 101 people! Yes, there are cases where false claims are made, there are cases where people claim rape because they were shamed for having sex, there are cases where one party genuinely thought they had consent when they did not. But almost all empirical research has demonstrated time and time again that these make up a small fraction of sexual violence occurrences. We will never be able to address this problem as long as we have so many “researchers” and activists trying to either prove or disprove that sexual violence is really a huge problem. What we need is the truth (and that includes the truth about false claims or misunderstandings…how and why does that happen and how can we address it?), but the people who care about the truth seem to be few and far between.


The claim that women are at a greater risk of sexual assault as soon as they step onto a college campus is not backed up by any data that I’ve seen. And we don’t need to keep saying that to prove a point that rape is happening in college. Young people under age 24 are certainly at a higher risk for victimization, but this is happening on and off-campus to students and non-students. The problem that is unique to college campuses is that the administration has an incentive to sweep these things under the ol’ proverbial (very lumpy) rug to protect their own image and financial interests. That is what prompted the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter and all of the Title IX regulations regarding sexual violence in the past few years. The university system has a responsibility to protect its community from predators and to help victims recover by providing them support resources, and historically, this has not been done well at all.


So why is the university involved in this at all? Why not just let the legal system handle it (aside from the clear incompetency that Yoffe unintentionally pointed out herself)? Because the university has a responsibility to serve its community in a way the police do not. Police don’t get involved with housing assignments, course loads, health care services, and disability resources that victims often require.


Additionally, interpersonal traumas that involve the betrayal of a trusted or depended-upon relationship have consistently been shown to have unique and more harmful post-traumatic consequences than interpersonal traumas that do not involve a trusted individual. Knowing this, we can grasp why what may seem like “not that big of a deal because it was just his finger and she obviously was somewhat attracted to him” is actually a big deal. When the two women in Yoffe’s story went out with their friend and all got drunk together, they (if even subconsciously) trusted him (and each other) not to violate them. You think that when you’re with friends, it’s okay to get really drunk because you’ve all got each other’s backs, so when you wake up to your most sensitive, intimate, personal space being violated by someone you trusted, that is a betrayal on top of a physical violation. And that is interpreted by your brain and body as life-threatening.

Furthermore, when an interpersonal trauma such as rape occurs within a trusted institution (e.g. military, church, school), the trauma is more harmful than it is when experienced outside of a trusted institution. An educational institution is a trusted organization. Students entrust a college or university with their safety, their education, and their social development—essentially their entire adult future—and student survivors of sexual assault have identified feeling betrayed by their university in several ways, including when the university:

(1) creates an environment in which sexual assault seems like no big deal,

(2) creates an environment in which sexual assault is common,

(3) does not take proactive steps to prevent sexual assault,

(4) makes it difficult to report the assault,

(5) covers up the experience,

6) responds inadequately, and

(7) punishes or retaliates against the victim in some way.

Women who experienced one or more of these types of institutional betrayals had more severe post-traumatic symptoms than women who were sexually assaulted but did not experience institutional betrayal. This is why the university has a responsibility to help with this issue. But preventing and responding to sexual violence is more of a systemic cultural problem than a university one, and I can see how only focusing on the college aspect of this issue is leading to a very narrow view of how to approach this. We are throwing buckets of water out of a very leaky boat, and it’s time we figure how to plug the hole (ugh, horrible unintentional pun…).


Sexual violence prevention must start in middle school or younger. We must stop shaming sex and teach kids how to set their own boundaries, how to give and receive consent, how to have healthy relationships with people of every sex/gender/orientation/ethnicity/race/religion/etc, and what to do in a situation where their boundaries have been violated. More than 40% of the 1-in-5 women who have been raped in their lifetime were first raped before the age of 18. These are not the drunken college misunderstandings everyone is claiming, and people who were victimized before the age of 18 are more likely to be victimized as adults, in college or otherwise. We must stop being ignorant to the effects of trauma on our entire society.


When considering how trauma affects the brain, we can begin to grasp how one incident of an interpersonal violation can alter the brain’s ability to detect and respond to threats in the future, how one incident can render an individual more likely to engage in alcohol, drugs, and other behaviors that then puts them at higher risk for future victimizations. We need to focus on how trauma affects the brain if we want to understand why a victim might not fight back or seem like a willing participant, why a victim might exchange messages with their assailant or have casual conversations with them afterwards, why it might take months or years for a victim to identify their experience as rape. We need to consider how trauma influences parenting in a way that makes children of parents with PTSD more likely to be victimized and develop the disorder themselves, and how childhood adversity perpetuates this endless cycle of inter-generational trauma, violence, abuse, and poverty (which is undoubtedly also perpetuated by other socioeconomic issues like racism, sexism, and wealth inequality).


A time will come when we can objectively measure whether an individual has been traumatized or not (technology already exists that can distinguish those with PTSD from those exposed to trauma without PTSD), which will make waves in helping people recover and being believed, but the legal issue will still be a complicated one. Maybe a person did have a traumatizing sexual experience, but how can we ever prove that the other party knowingly traumatized that person? Is traumatizing someone alone enough to constitute a crime, like negligent homicide? And unless we have some kind of regular trauma screenings for people (which isn’t a bad idea), it will be difficult to determine which specific event caused the psychological effects of trauma we see. What about someone who experiences sexual assault but is able to recover and doesn’t develop PTSD? Does that mean no crime occurred (hint: the answer is no). These will be very difficult arenas to traverse, and we should be thinking about them now. But most of the legal issues with sexual violence at this time stem from questions of whether the victim is lying or not. It’s not that simple. Sexual violence is not always about DNA evidence, but is is always about consent, and currently we have no way to objectively determine if consent was given unless a recording of the whole encounter is available. In many cases, we may have to accept that there simply is not enough evidence to convict someone of a crime, but that should not discredit the possibility that sexual assault may have occurred or the fact that the victim experienced trauma that they may need resources to recover from.


What is not okay is blatant disregard for evidence (think 400,000 untested rape kits in the U.S.), minimizing a victim’s experience and blaming them because the evidence that we want to see isn’t there, and being ignorant to the realities of traumatic stress. Dr. Rebecca Campbell has led the way on disseminating trauma research to the public and to the police force, and I hope more researchers will take her lead.


In a rebuttal to Yoffe’s 2014 article, Josh Beitel concluded that “whether you believe the number is 1/4 or 1/40, there is far more evidence for college rape being a problem than there is for wrongly accused male perpetrators being a problem. The fact that Yoffe has chosen the latter as her takeaway says a lot more about her than it does about the issue itself.”


I can’t speak for everyone, but I am not in this “crusade” to make mountains out of molehills, to fabricate a problem that doesn’t exist, or to punish people who don’t deserve to be punished. I am simply in this to help people who have, for centuries, been marginalized, blamed, ignored, and left out to dry. Because I am one of them, and so are the majority of the people in my life.