Recently, University of Connecticut undergraduate student Carolyn Luby published an open letter to the school’s president, Susan Herbst, in The Feminist Wire. In the letter, she argued persuasively that the school should reconsider its new branding initiative to make its mascot look more “fierce” in light of the culture within the school’s athletic program, which “is certainly capable of frightening college women.” Luby noted that the school should re-prioritize, instead considering ways to remodel the behavior of athletes and create a less violent environment.
Now, Luby is receiving rape threats.
It might be easy to mock a person for objecting to a drawing of a mascot, even if that mascot looks like a popular rape meme. But Luby’s fellow students as well as strangers on the internet have gone much further than that. A website called Barstool Sports reprinted Luby’s letter, which generated violent, gender-based comments. A second site was created just so people could make rape jokes about her. On campus, people are harassing her, and she is receiving hate mail. Even Rush Limbaugh weighed in to mock her and mumble cluelessly about “feminazis” and cartoon characters.
When Luby contacted campus police, they told her to “keep a low profile and wear a hat,” according to the school’s newspaper.
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This is unfortunate, because Luby was making an important point: that domestic violence and sexual assault rates on U.S. college campuses are shockingly high and frequently trivialized. Take this example from the University of Connecticut itself: Last year the school was under similar scrutiny because of an ad for an emergency alert system that aired on the campus television station. According to the Huffington Post, the ad showed a woman escaping from an assailant and trying to call for help, “[b]ut when the woman tries to use an emergency system to summon help, it misunderstands her words and a robotic voice calls her a ‘cock gobbler’ and ‘howler monkey bitch’ who is ‘crying rape,’ which gives the attacker enough time to catch up and strangle her in the parking lot.” The station later apologized, but how is that ad supposed to make women on campus feel? It makes a joke out of a woman’s terror and murder.
While male student athletes make up 3.3 percent of the U.S. college population, they are responsible for 19 percent of sexual assaults and 37 percent of domestic violence cases on college campuses. In 2010, more than half of athletes arrested were college football players. Writing about the topic of violence and athletes for ESPN, Richard Lapchick provided these examples, among others:
• Syracuse guard Eric Devendorf hit a female student in November 2008 and initially was suspended for the rest of the 2008-09 academic year. That was reduced to 40 hours of community service, though, enabling him to play the entire Big East season.
• In the fall of 2010, Tony Woods, a center on Wake Forest’s basketball team, was arrested and charged with assaulting his girlfriend, reportedly fracturing her spine. He received a 60-day suspended prison sentence.
• Baylor basketball player LaceDarius Dunn reportedly broke the jaw of his girlfriend in the fall of 2010. She asked that the charges be dropped, and a grand jury declined to indict him.
• Florida wide receiver Chris Rainey was charged with stalking after sending threatening text messages to his girlfriend in 2010. He reached a plea agreement with authorities and stayed out of court. Then-coach Urban Meyer suspended him … for five games.”
Title IX requires that schools take steps to protect students from gender discrimination on campus. This includes cases of sexual harassment and assault, in which women are overwhelmingly the victims. And schools are legally obliged to acknowledge, process, and report crimes on campus because of the Jeanne Cleary Act. (Jeanne Clery was raped, tortured, and killed in her dorm room in 1986. The law is a result of her parents’ efforts to understand what happened to their daughter and to ensure other students are not harmed in similar ways.) Too many colleges seem to forget these laws in the pursuit of money, reputation, and athletic glory.
Last fall, an article in The Guardian noted that in the United States “college women have a 28 percent chance of experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault. Sexual violence also directly affects men, as 3 percent to 4 percent of college men—over 6 million American men—report experiencing rape. Where the American rape rate fell 60 percent in 20 years, the college rate remains the same.” The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 95 percent of assaults on campus aren’t reported because of perceived “institutional barriers.” And a study completed by the Center for Public Policy in 2010 examined and documented the egregious lack of accountability at U.S. schools.
I wrote an article about institutional tolerance earlier this year in which I included a brief list of examples, which I have updated here:
- At Occidental College a Title IX suit has been brought by a student who was assaulted by a classmate. She reported the crime, an adjudication was held, and the man was assigned a book to read and told to write a five-page report. The woman was shamed, harassed, and scolded by peers online for ruining the school’s reputation. Slate reported that “[a]ccording to the suit, at least 37 women were ‘raped, sexually assaulted, battered, harassed or retaliated against for speaking out against sexual violence’ on campus.”
- Two similar federal Title IX complaints were filed at Swarthmore recently, after students and alumni reported one incident after another in which their sexual assault and harassment claims were ignored or sidelined by the school’s administration.
- At UNC, a case has been brought against the administration by two students, including Annie Clark, who was told by an administrator after she reported her assault that “rape is like football, and if you look back on the game what would you have done differently in that situation?” The other student, Landen Gambill, faced the possibility of expulsion because the man who assaulted her was “intimidated” by the complaint.
- Last October, a young woman filed a lawsuit against Wesleyan University in which she described a fraternity commonly known on campus as the “rape factory.”
- At the University of Vermont, a fraternity, suspended as a result, thought it was OK to send a survey to its members asking, “Who would you rape?”
- A poster titled “Top Ten Ways to Get Away With Rape” was hung in the bathrooms at Miami University in Ohio last year. It issued directions such as “If your [sic] afraid the girl might identify you slit her throat.”
- Amherst College was rocked by a first-person account of a rape published in the school paper last year, in which a young woman recounted her assault and the failure of the school to address it.
- University of Virginia was in the news after a student, who left school as a result of post traumatic stress brought on by her assault, wrote a detailed story of her rape in order to help other students. She didn’t even report the crime to the school when it happened, explaining,”I think there’s a real lack of education on what sexual assault is because, had I known the correct definition, I would have been able to tell myself that’s what it was at the time.”
- At Indiana University, freshman Margaux J.’s assailant, found responsible by the school in the case, was suspended for a summer semester.
- There are similar stories out of the University of Wisconsin, Emory University, Indiana University, the University of Missouri, Boston University, and, not to be forgotten, the “rape capital” of the United State, Missoula, Montana. A grassroots network, including dozens of schools, has sprouted up during the past several months to challenge these cultures.
It’s important to make sure this conversation continues in context. What is happening at UConn isn’t about Luby. It’s about the school, the usefulness and profitability of aggressive and heroic athletes, and the acceptance of violence against girls and women. For decades, we’ve seen a steady stream of news on every crimes and misdeeds by athletes, from domestic violence to sexual assault to homophobia to gang-rape. Sports participation does not turn boys into rapists, homophobes, and batterers. However, participation in high-level, all-male sports cultures indicates a propensity for certain behavior, and the statistics are pretty awful. Glorifying these cultures enables violence against women, homophobia, and racism to thrive.
“A woman should never be worried about being disregarded simply because of her gender. She should be able to have reasonable discourse without being threatened and to be taken seriously for her viewpoints. Rape and rape culture is gender neutral,” Hailey Manfredi, student development chair at UConn, said in a statement. “This is not merely a feminism or women’s rights issue. This is a question about what kind of culture we have here at UConn.