TW: rape, sexual assault
Colleges have a rape problem. Statistics indicate one in four women will be sexually assaulted at university and more than 60% will have an unwanted sexual experience. It is uncomfortable to digest, but the reality is that the college environment begets rape culture.
College is, at its most basic, a blend of young adults, independence and alcohol – the latter of which has serious implications for consent. Alcohol diminishes the capacity to give consent, but worse than that, it is thought to create a “blurred line” where none exists. We excuse unacceptable behaviour if the perpetrator was drunk. People ask: “is it rape if you are both drunk?”, “what if they didn’t say no?”, “what if they only said no after we started having sex?”. The answer is yes. It is still rape ‒ but you won’t hear that at college. Meaningful conversations about consent ‒ when it can be given and what it entails ‒ are notably absent from common college discourse. We prioritise making friends and building solidarity, but are happy for people to absorb popularised narratives about consent, like Robin Thicke’s, where sexual assault is overlooked as a grey area.
The absence of these conversations is especially damaging given the expectation (inherent in college communities) that students will accept and conform to the prevailing norms and values and share the one set of ideals. Interhall activities are predicated on demonstrating college pride, and belonging is defined by membership to a college. Concurrently, pop culture and films like Neighbours typecast colleges as sex and alcohol fuelled fraternity-like houses. We gossip about who kissed who, who slept with who. We talk about people punching above and below their weight. Value is assigned on the basis of sex. Sex thus becomes synonymous with “college life” and being “cool”. In an effort to fit in, people feel compelled to mimic these behaviours because to say no is to reject college culture. Where the default assumption becomes that most people want to have sex, it means people are less likely to question if someone is comfortable and it means some people feel entitled to sex because it is part of college life.
Let’s talk about what happens once a rape has occurred, or rather, what doesn’t happen.
Colleges have progressed in supporting victims, but this support focuses on helping victims process their trauma, not on consequences for rapists. Rarely does a rapist face publicised suspension or expulsion. Rarely will their friends take a stand against them. Rarely will their position within the college change. This is because we struggle to imagine that one of our friends ‒ or someone we like ‒ might be a rapist. Society has constructed a number of conveniently distant images of what a rapist looks like: the stranger lurking in a dark bush, the creep living along the back wall, the misogynist. Instead of shifting these perceptions, we try to justify our friends’ behaviour. This usually occurs by downplaying the crime; the accuser “could be a bit dramatic”, “there was no proof”, “we don’t really know what happened” ‒ all excuses I have heard.
These attitudes make it difficult for victims to feel safe at college and speak out. Collegiate solidarity extends to all the friendships we make; it underpins all our interactions. Reporting sexual assault can feel like a challenge to the college as a whole. It makes victims feel guilty or fear they will be perceived as a trouble-maker. This is an especially strong deterrent when you consider that reporting mechanisms are entirely internal and conducted by the same people who decide leadership positions. Rapists can continue to rely on their friends and the wider community to remain loyal while victims fear exclusion. A fear made all the worse by gossip and the knowledge that your trauma may be the subject of dinnertime conversation. It means if a victim wants to escape their rapist, the onus is on them to move away, while the problem remains unaddressed at college.
Colleges do not yet have spaces where it is acceptable, and encouraged, to call out sexual assault and crucially, where victims will be believed at face value. They expect victims to deal with their trauma privately. They refuse to act without proof of a crime which happens behind closed doors. They lack independent processes and systems to deal with perpetrators. This environment allows rape culture to fester. It is imperative administrators take affirmative and pre-emptive steps to combat rape culture.
Disclaimer: Freya Willis is the Women’s Officer at Burgmann College