Let us be clear: the problem of rape and sexual assault on campus is a male problem.
Last week, many newspapers across the country featured an editorial by Dan K. Thomasson titled Academia Needs to Act to Protect College Women. Unfortunately, Thomasson’s comments served to reinforce the antiquated notion that its women’s responsibility to avoid getting raped. Men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of sexual assaults and therefore the onus of changing the campus rape culture lies primarily with them. Simply put, men need to not rape.
Dan Thomasson’s lamentation about a supposedly simpler (and safer) time when women were infantilized does nothing to address the underlying issues of patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity that continue to permeate gender relations and contribute to the societal persistence of victim-blaming. Thomasson seems to suggest that if men have any role at all in addressing the problem, it is to protect women. Women do not need men to protect them; they need men to not sexually assault them.
Thomasson’s call for universities to minimize the potential for rapes and sexual assaults to occur, an approach often referred to as target hardening, seems clearly directed at the behavior of women. While efforts at target hardening such as learning self-defense, abstaining from alcohol and carrying mace may sometimes work for individual women, they are personal solutions to a societal problem and often simply serve to shift the attack to women who are perceived as more vulnerable.
Plainly, target hardening strategies alone are not the answer, particularly when they focus solely on would-be victims and ignore would-be perpetrators. The case of Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University and more recently, Hannah Graham at the University of Virginia, have helped to draw the national spotlight to the dangers faced by women on college campuses. These cases further highlight the inadequate response provided by many universities where victims continue to receive the message that they are not to be believed. Given that 78 American colleges and universities are now being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, it is clear that the same-old strategies that focus on women’s behavior are not effective.
Universities nationwide need to begin to worry less about their reputations and more about removing perpetrators and supporting survivors. Zero tolerance policies, educational programing (directed at males) and models such as “yes means yes” which advocate affirmative consent, are steps in the right direction.
To draw attention to her rape, Emma Sulkowicz has been carrying her mattress around the Columbia University campus for weeks now. Society in general, and men in academia particularly, need to commit to making sure women like Ms. Sulkowicz are not made to bear the burden of rape prevention alone. Worrying, as Thomasson does, about women’s curfews or their alcohol consumption is entirely off the mark and fails to contribute in any useful way.