Commentary Violence

We Have a Rape Problem. First Step: We Have to Admit It.

Martha Kempner

Too many boys think it is OK to have sex with girls who have not consented. They think it is OK to have sex with girls who are so drunk they could not possibly consent. They think it is OK to have sex with girls who are completely unconscious. And we let them do it. It's time to admit we have a problem.

We have a rape problem in our society. And they say the first step to getting past a problem is to admit you have one. So anyone who has been reluctant to admit our problem should read the fabulous reporting by the Kansas City Star about what happened to Daisy Coleman and her family last year. Daisy was 14 years old when she relocated to the town of Maryville, Missouri, with her mother and three brothers in an effort to move on after a tragic car accident claimed the life of her father. Things seemed to be going alright for Daisy, especially after she caught the attention of a popular senior football player. Then, one night in January, she and an unnamed friend drank alcohol at Daisy’s house, snuck out to meet up with the football player, and got more drunk as they were plied with alcohol by classmates at a party. Both girls were raped at that party. Daisy’s rape was caught on iPhone video. The football player then drove to the girl’s home, leaving Daisy passed out on her front porch in 30-degree weather.

In the days following the incident, law enforcement officials and community members seemed to believe and support the girls, according to the Star‘s reporting. In fact, charges were quickly filed against the boys. Then something happened: Political favors were called in in favor of the boys, and public opinion began to shift. Daisy and her family became a target. Nasty comments were made on the Internet and in person. Her mother was abruptly fired from her job in the town. When this all got to be too much, they moved away. But before they were able to sell their house in Maryville, it burnt to the ground for unknown reasons. Most notably, all the charges against the boys were dropped.

This story is as heartbreaking as it is familiar. Think about what happened in Steubenville, Ohio, when two football players raped an intoxicated young woman while friends cheered them on and videotaped the incident. The victim apparently did not remember what had happened until she saw it on social media. As word got out, the town rallied around the football players, so much so that last week a grand jury was called to investigate whether adults in the community—including school administrators, coaches, and parents—tried to cover up the incident to protect the boys. The general sentiment of the case was summed up by CNN reporter Poppy Harlow, who showed a great deal of sympathy for the perpetrators on the day they were found guilty of rape. “These two young men who had such promising futures—star football players, very good students—literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart,” she said. She did not express similar sympathy for the rape survivor in the case.

We could also think about Rehtaeh Parsons, the Canadian teen who survived an alleged gang rape and committed suicide after pictures of the incident were posted online, leading to at least a year of intense bullying. As her mother said, “Rehtaeh is gone today because of the four boys that thought that raping a 15-year-old girl was OK and to distribute a photo to ruin her spirit and reputation would be fun.”

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There are more examples, so many more, but we don’t even need to review them to come to the conclusion that we have a rape problem in our society. Too many boys think it is OK to have sex with girls who have not consented. They think it is OK to have sex with girls who are so drunk they could not possibly consent. They think it is OK to have sex with girls who are completely unconscious. They are so convinced that this behavior is OK that they record the behavior and release it for all the world to see. Instead of reacting with horror and punishment, their peers applaud and call the victim a slut. And the adults in their lives tut-tut, say boys will be boys, sweep it under the rug, and somehow, inevitably, turn around and blame the victim, especially if she was too drunk to say yes or too unconscious to say no.

In Slate on Wednesday, Emily Yoffe (the publication’s “Dear Prudence” advice columnist) suggested that one way to break the cycle of drunken non-consensual sex is to teach young girls about the dangers of drinking. She suggests that without blaming the victim, we should tell girls that by trying to match men drink-for-drink they are rendering themselves defenseless and putting themselves in harm’s way. Reaction to her column was swift and harsh, with commenters saying that girls have already been told this for decades, that Yoffe acts as though rape just “happens,” that she absolves men of responsibility, and that she is, in fact, victim-blaming.

I believe that telling girls to be careful does not automatically translate into blaming the victim; no matter how well we educate the next generation of boys, not everyone will end up being a good guy. The problem is that we tend to start and stop with telling girls to be vigilant: Don’t walk in unpopulated areas. Never go to a boy’s room alone. Never go anywhere alone. Don’t drink. Don’t wear short skirts. The list goes on. It may be decent advice, and it may help to a point, but it does not deal with the heart or the source of the problem: the boys who rape.

Earlier this year, rape survivor Zerlina Maxwell was practically pilloried for saying on Fox News, “I think that the entire conversation is wrong. I don’t want anybody to be telling women anything. I don’t want men to be telling me what to wear and how to act, not to drink. And I don’t, honestly, want you to tell me that I needed a gun in order to prevent my rape. … I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there with prevention.”

In fact, rape prevention programs targeting boys have been shown to be successful. One class for freshmen guys started with a video on male-to-male rape in an effort to get the boys to empathize with victims. It went on to have men visualize a typical rape scene with a girl who has been drinking at a party and imagine that the drunk girl was their mother, sister, girlfriend, or grandmother. The course then helped them recognize consent, understand the role of alcohol, and consider how to intervene if they were a witness to unwanted sex. As Rewire’s Tara Murtha noted, boys can’t stop rape if they don’t understand what it is. Though the course lasted only an hour, the research found that its impact stayed with the guys who took it for years. Programs like this are important, and I would love to see them be part of every freshman orientation week, not to mention every high school health class, because clearly the problem starts before college. (Though, as Rewire noted earlier this year, sexual assault is a persistent problem on campuses across the country.)

Of course, programs like this can’t work without support. They can’t work if young men continue to brag about rape without being punished. They can’t work if those who look on and do nothing, or worse, document the incident, are not also called out for their role. And they can’t work if adults continue to put blame on the victim for what she did wrong or didn’t do right. In short, they can’t work until we as a society agree that it is never OK for boys to have sex with girls who don’t consent, for boys to have sex with girls who are so drunk they could not possibly consent, or for boys to have sex with girls who are completely unconscious.

Programs like this are a good start, but they can’t work until we acknowledge that we have a rape problem in the first place.

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