My route to work takes me along a line of sorority and fraternity houses. Usually, I don’t think much about them, but this week was different. This week, I saw the sorority houses as citadels. I found myself subconsciously assessing their ability to keep out an armed attacker.
As I passed the fraternity houses, I wondered about the young men inside. I’ve become acutely aware of the men on campus, just as I am every time there’s a new high-profile story about violence against women in the media. On the best of days, I’m constantly aware of my surroundings, almost as though I had an assault-prevention algorithm running in the back of my mind. This is because of my experiences, and I am not unusual in that way. On the worst of days, I find myself wondering if the men I see can be trusted, if they find my feminism quaint or offensive, if they have raped or would rape, knowingly or unknowingly, or how they would react if I were to tell them NO.
Elliot Roger had planned to kill more women at a UCSB sorority, but they didn’t open the door. In Nigeria, nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from school by an organization that doesn’t believe that women should be educated. These incidents, worlds apart in terms of circumstance, are intrinsically linked in my mind not only because they are contemporaneous, but because I am a university professor and these crimes were committed against students, on academic campuses. Violence against women on campuses aren’t new; these are just the latest in a long string of events that remind us that, for many women, getting an education is dangerous; even deadly.
The statistics are familiar: 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted as students on American campuses (but don’t expect to find the statistics in the US News and World Report guide to colleges and universities). 90% of these assaults are by serial rapists, who are rarely if ever punished, even when they admit to the crime; or, if they are punished, they’re allowed back on campus (like this Occidental serial rapist who had to write a book report on sexual assault). At Columbia, students started publicly sharing the names of accused rapists because the administration had failed to support them (a trend in the nation’s elite universities). College-age women have the highest rates of stalking. And these are the incidents we know about; violence against women on campuses is chronically underreported.
Taken together, these statistics paint a chilling portrait of the average rapist on college campuses: Men assault women they know, more than once, and often with the deliberate application of alcohol or drugs. These are not accidental, random, isolated, incidents. The lines are not blurred.
We have a misogyny problem, and campuses are a battle-ground. I want my campus to be a safe place for all my students to learn and grow (as well as a safe place to work and teach). Our pervasive culture of sexual violence against women stems in large part from men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. It’s a culture that trivializes assault by shouting “free speech!” whenever we call out rape jokes. It’s a culture that tells us not to feed the trolls when we complain about hostile climates in online spaces, as though the actions of trolls are somehow separate from the men at the keyboards. It’s a culture that sympathizes with pickup artists and creepers as socially awkward victims of women’s boundaries. It’s a culture that teaches young women how not to be raped, rather than teaching young men not to rape. It’s a culture that treats young male rapists more sympathetically than rape survivors who prosecute them (especially if they’re athletes). It’s a culture where women must be aware of their surroundings, because we don’t know whether you’re a rapist until you rape us. It’s a culture where women lie about having boyfriends because men respect us as other mens’ property more than they respect our own autonomy. It’s a culture where calling these things out is decried as an attack on men’s rights.
These problems extend well beyond the university. By the time young men enter my classroom, they’ve already had nearly two decades of deep programming to overcome. Their parents have likely never taught them about consent. They’re less likely to take classes in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. We have resources on campus for women and victims of violence, but few resources to teach men about the ways in which they participate in a culture of violence against women, and how they can hold themselves and others accountable for their actions.
How do we fix this? It starts by having uncomfortable national conversations about masculine identity, misogyny, and violence against women. This can only happen if we actually create space for those conversations, though, which means we need to stop apologizing for people like Elliot Roger or the Steubenville rapists. We need to stop derailing discussions about misogyny by saying “not all men!” We need to stop trying to redirect discussions about misogyny to about gun control or mental illness (not that those conversations can’t happen; we just need to not interrupt a tandem discussion about misogyny).
While these conversation happen, there’s so much we can do. Parents, coaches, teachers, and mentors: teach boys about consent, early and often. University administrators: prioritize services that protect women, provide support, and educate young men. Don’t cut safe ride programs or campus women’s centers. Provide opportunities to teach men about misogyny and sexual assault. Support victims of assault and support strong repercussions that prioritize the safety of women on campus. Provide bystander intervention training.
Prevention and mitigation only go so far; ultimately, the onus is on men. Men, it’s time to take personal responsibility for how your actions reinforce climates that are hostile to women and promote rape culture, from avoiding micro-aggressions to rethinking dating and pick-up approaches to recognizing the importance of consent. Be an ally: call one another out, and speak up when you see something (but please, don’t frame our worth in terms of our being your daughter/wife/mother). Support your friends and fellow students if you learn they’ve been assaulted; sometimes, just believing someone is the most supportive thing you can do. Realize all the ways in which sexism and misogyny are invisible to you; listen when we talk about it.
Do your homework, guys. Show up. Learn. Participate. There will be no grades, and there will be no diploma, but it will be some of the most meaningful and important work you do on campus.
*By “we,” I mostly mean “men.”