‘Fact or Fiction’ — an appropriate title

Campaign has good intentions but misleading methods

My first reaction upon visiting the Fact or Fiction website was decidedly negative. But after exploring the site more, talking to girls about the campaign, and seeing some of the posters, I can see why — at least — its heart is in the right place.

The Fact or Fiction campaign was founded by a group of undergraduate women at MIT to combat the ostensible “Mean Girls” atmosphere that pervades non-sexual female-female relations at our school. The group’s modus operandi appears to be the distribution of postcards to the mailboxes of MIT undergrad women and the strategic placement — i.e., in girls’ bathrooms — of informative posters in an attempt to challenge their deeply ingrained stereotypes of other women.

If you have visited the website, the first thing that might strike you is the mission statement, which is nothing less than to “defin[e] MIT female identity.”

A lofty goal, indeed — not to mention completely unwarranted and unsolicited. The thing is, no one is allowed to define another person or group’s identity. You are only allowed to define yourself. To attempt to apply some uniform “MIT female” profile to every undergraduate girl on campus defeats the purpose of one of the campaign’s main goals: to do away with generalizations.

What’s more, the campaign doesn’t even paint an accurate picture of MIT women. If you take a look at one of their posters (the one that attempts to combat stereotypes of women at area colleges, including MIT), you might not be surprised to find a striking dearth of women of color. Another poster that ostensibly attempts to counter the notion that East Campus girls are more punk, alternative, or ostentatious with their dress shows a spectrum of Barbies in a series of outfits, ranging from the professional to the scandalous. Two girls, one from Simmons and one from EC, are placed along the spectrum where stereotype would dictate ­— the Simmons girl near the professional Barbie and the EC girl next to the Barbie in fishnets — but, lo and behold, they are both dressed conservatively.

The poster ends up doing nothing less than misrepresenting the range of expression that MIT girls represent. To suggest that East Campus is no different than West Campus is both disingenuous and pointless. Of course, there is variation within each group and it’s unfair to generalize all students at a particular dorm, but the poster ends up doing more harm than good. It seems to say, “See? East Campus girls aren’t that weird after all!” The value judgment inherent in the depiction leaves girls who actually do wear fishnets (they exist!) and other non-conservative attire out of the range of what is “acceptable” and declares West Campus girls to be the norm to which all others should rightly conform.

If the goal of the campaign is to foster a greater sense of female camaraderie on campus, convincing Baker girls that their sisters at Senior Haus are “just like them” is not going to do much. In general, they aren’t just like each other; the whole idea of dorm culture would be rendered void if that were true. More importantly, this isn’t a problem that needs to be fixed. Someone tell me the last time two girls “shoved or pushed” each other or “hit or slapped someone” (as the Fact or Fiction website says 12.7 percent and 9.1 percent of MIT girls have done, respectively) because of their “dorm-centered animosity.” MacGregor girls aren’t the Hatfields to Bexley’s McCoys. There is no substantial courtesy deficit between girls of different dorms.

Misguided attempts at bridge-building aside, the website does post some very telling — and frankly frightening — statistics from the polling of 2,400 MIT students this past April. According to the site, “28.9 percent [of MIT women, refreshingly less than the same proportion of American women in general] agreed with the statement: “If a woman is raped while she is drunk, she is at least somewhat responsible for letting things get out of control.” Let me begin by stating the obvious, but that which is rarely reinforced: the rapist, and only the rapist, is responsible. It is absurd to suggest that women must accept with resignation an increased risk of sexual assault as a consequence of drinking. How preposterous — indeed revolting — is it that as a culture we attribute responsibility to intoxicated women for being raped, but we do not similarly condemn an intoxicated person who is the victim of battery or robbery?

Additionally, 27.9 percent of MIT undergrad women agreed that “rape accusations are often used as a way of getting back at men.” Let us dispel with this insidious myth right away. According to a 2010 study by psychologist David Lisak at UMass-Boston, generally less than six percent of rape accusations are false. This is certainly unacceptable — no one should be falsely accused of such a detestable crime — but most people stop there and do not consider the far larger number of actual rapes that are never reported (at least 60 percent, but perhaps as high as 96 percent), never prosecuted (almost 50 percent of those reported), do not result in a conviction (about 42 percent of those prosecuted), and do not result in jail time (about 31 percent of those convicted). I cannot tell if it is worse to be falsely accused and convicted of rape or to be raped without getting justice, but I can tell you which happens a heck of a lot more. If you find yourself championing the cause of the accused over that of the complainants, do re-evaluate your priorities.

Similarly, one in six women at MIT believe that “when women are raped, it’s often because the way they said ‘no’ was ambiguous.” Once again, the data beg to differ. In a 2002 study by Lisak involving 1,882 male college students, 120 of these students (around 6 percent) admitted to actions that constitute rape or attempted rape, and 76 of those 120 (around two-thirds) were repeat rapists averaging 5.8 instances each. Virtually all of them were cognizant of the fact that using alcohol or other substances, the threat of coercion or physical force, or actual coercion or physical force were methods of initiating sex against the wishes of their victim. This suggests there is a subset of perpetrators who rape almost according to procedure.

What I mean to say by all of this is that while it’s wonderful that the Fact or Fiction campaign is raising awareness of women’s issues, will putting these survey results in hundreds of mailboxes without the proper refutation do much to change attitudes? And why the need to confine the target demographic to just under half the MIT undergraduate population? Considering the vast majority of rapes are committed by men, it would seem to be more expedient and necessary to raise their awareness. Cultivating an atmosphere of sisterhood is definitely a worthy goal, and one that can and should be confined solely to women, but when it comes to advocating for better attitudes toward rape victims and a more rational view of rape, a campaign that ignores the portion of the population with the most power to stop it is nothing if not impotent.

Pierce Harlan about 13 years ago

". . . generally less than six percent of rape accusations are false."

Wrong. Or, at least deceptive the way it is worded. Various studies have posited varying percentages of rape claims that we are reasonably certain are false, ranging from two percent (long ago debunked) to 41 percent and higher. What is NOT mentioned is that this percentage -- whatever it is -- does NOT mean that the remainder of rape claims were ACTUAL rapes. Pay attention: for all rape claims aside from the ones we are reasonably certain are false, there are only a relatively small percentage that we are reasonably certain were ACTUAL rapes. Most rape claims lie in a vast gray area for which we just don't know the answer. That's the nature of rape claims. Yet the field has become so terribly politicized that "experts" toss out the "false" number and don't bother to explain that this does not mean the remainder of claims were ACTUAL rapes. Here's the reality: no matter which study is referenced, for all rape claims of which we are reasonably certain the outcome one way or the other (likely a minority of all claims), false claims make up a signficant percentage. To suggest otherwise is dishonest in the extreme.

Pierce Harlan

False Rape Society

Harrison about 13 years ago

There is such a thing as a False Rape Society? This is something people devote time and energy toward? Wow. I thought I had heard it all, but this is a new low.

Anonymous about 13 years ago

Pierce Harlan, judging by your tone, I think you got caught up in statistics and missed the point entirely. If someone is raped, the last thing they need is for their character to be called into question. We don't need people to have unwarranted suspicion towards rape victims.

People do get wrongly accused of crimes: it is awful, and it is a valid problem. Your point may not be bad, but the way in which you say it ignores and diminishes the significance of real instances of rape. I think your attitude towards rape is awful and insensitive.