“Rapists are here! Stop protecting them!”
There were a lot of words written on The Surface, an interactive art project for class VIS 439: Art as Interaction where students could write anything on four panels over the past few weeks, but few phrases lasted very long before the next person came along and painted over them. Not so for this quotation, however. From the time it was written, some time in the first week or so, no one dared to write over it. No matter what one’s opinion of The Surface may be, there is no denying that this quote made a profound impact on those who saw it, which is probably why it remained untouched for so long.
One might ask why those six words were so poignant. After all, don’t we all know that the college rape culture is a major problem? There has been extensive news and opinions coverage in just the past month, from a personal account about the rape culture at Princeton to the recent announcement that Princeton is one of 55 universities being investigated as to whether its sexual assault policies violate Title IX. Perhaps students just understand that this is an extremely important issue and, therefore, deserves to remain seen. But there were other important issues brought to light on the board too. Yet those eventually were painted over. So what makes these two sentences special?
I think that despite this being common knowledge in the back of nearly everyone’s mind, it was shocking to see the words so starkly written out in caps and red ink. Because normally, we don’t call out these occurrences for what they really are: rape.
Princeton’s policy is a prime example of how people usually shy away from describing rape as rape. In “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, the policy against rape is called “non-consensual sexual penetration.” Then it states in parentheses that the act is “commonly referred to as rape.” Around 15 years ago, Brett Sokolow, president and CEO of the consulting and law firm the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, popularized the term “non-consensual sex” among universities because it avoids the stigma of the word “rape.” According to Sokolow in an article, he said that while colleges knew rape was happening, they didn’t want to label students as rapists. He thought that perhaps using a different term would “encourage schools to punish rapists.” After all, Sokolow explains that colleges can’t punish anyone for rape under the law since it is a criminal offense; perhaps using a term that differs from the legal crime might mean they could more safely punish perpetrators while in the scope of their jurisdiction.
Perhaps colleges avoid the term “rape” for more legitimate rationales than being worried about their images and reputations. After all, part of the problem in obtaining criminal convictions in many college rape cases, including the recent one at Dartmouth, is that juries may consider some of these cases to be “gray rape,” because they involve alcohol and terms of consent that aren’t clear. I do not believe that “gray rape” is a legitimate reason not to convict someone of rape. I am a strong believer of the phrase “only ‘yes’ means yes.”
Nevertheless, admittedly the confusion that alcohol adds to a situation renders it difficult for a prosecutor to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt. Many Dartmouth students found the acquittal in its recent case disappointing. Since, unfortunately, the greater society and our laws have not accepted a stricter and more accurate notion of consent, many victims are not inclined to pursue a criminal investigation. Therefore, perhaps using terminology such as “non-consensual sex” would allow colleges to punish offenders. Theoretically, even if these perpetrators can’t be convicted under our outdated criminal system, there could still be some repercussions from the college.
But this isn’t what is happening. The Title IX investigations, including one at Harvard — probably based partially on the viral “Dear Harvard, You Win” letter — prove this. As do the recent recommendations from the White House Task Force on sexual assaults on campuses. Rather, by not calling these assaults rape, universities are under less pressure to take punitive action. After all, to an oblivious public it doesn’t seem as bad not to punish “non-consensual sex” as opposed to not punishing a student for raping another student. According to Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak, rebranding rape is only making accountability harder. After all, rape is a felony. It wouldn’t look so great were a school not to punish someone for committing a felony, even though that is exactly what is happening.
The fact that people wince at the word “rape” is exactly why using the term is important. It’s violent and powerful and does justice to the crime itself. “Non-consensual sex” is a euphemism that waters down the crime and is perhaps contributing, or at least not stopping, the rape culture. Perhaps the only way to accomplish real changes to the rape culture is to call it out for what it is.
Marni Morse is a freshman from Chevy Chase, Md. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.