Addressing rape culture at the Institute
As sexual assault becomes more apparent on college campuses, how can MIT do better?
Editor’s note: This article, which is part one of a two-part series, contains explicit references to rape and sexual assault. Part two was published on Feb. 11.
What is rape culture?
One in six women will survive rape in their lifetime. One in 33 men will survive rape in their lifetime, although the ratio is often believed to be much higher — up to one in six men — since it is thought that male survivors are less likely to report the crime. LGBQ people are more than twice as likely to survive rape and sexual assault as straight individuals; one in two Trans* people are survivors. One in four women will survive a rape or attempted rape by the time she finishes college. An article published in this week’s Boston Globe stated that reports of sexual assaults at Boston-area schools have risen nearly 40 percent between 2008-2012, at a 10-year high. At MIT specifically, there were six reported rapes in 2010, seven in 2011, and twelve in 2012. Additionally, no one reported any forcible fondling in 2010 and 2011, but three did in 2012. The silver lining is that the increase in reports may be due to better access to resources for reporting, but the majority of rapes still go unreported.
Statistically speaking, most of us know at least one survivor of rape, so why is more not being done to prevent such a heinous crime? This inaction can be largely attributed to the presence of rape culture in society. This article, the first of a two-part series, describes rape culture and examines its effects here at MIT.
Drawing from Wikipedia for a concise definition, “rape culture is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society, and in which prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone rape.” That is, rape culture manifests itself when instances of rape and sexual assault are frequently downplayed, excused, or even endorsed by individuals, institutions, and the media. In many cases, the public sympathizes with the perpetrator and even blames survivors for their own assault. Moreover, the public treats accusations of rape much differently than other crimes: victims are questioned as to why they didn’t work harder to prevent it, while alleged perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt. Think of how the media responded to the Steubenville rape case from last year, where the media focused on how the woman should not have drunk so much while lamenting the ruined “bright futures” of the perpetrators. Or you may have heard someone say that a woman was “asking for it” or a survivor “just led a guy on.”
Our criminal justice system perpetuates rape culture with laws and policies that allow lawyers and juries to blame survivors for the rape, making it extremely difficult to convict rape perpetrators (only an estimated 2–4 percent of rape perpetrators are convicted). The media perpetuates the myth that rapists are only the “strangers in the bushes,” though two-thirds of them are people the victim already knows. Media imagery sexualizes and normalizes rape, implying that there are “blurred lines” when it comes to consent for sex and sexual contact.
Sexual violence is more frequently perpetrated against people of color and LGBQA and Trans* people. In addition to misogyny and sexism, rape culture intersects with racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and many other types of oppression. All are contributing factors to a culture that permits people to inflict pain on others — be they male, female, transgender, genderqueer, or of another gender; whether they be asexual, queer, bisexual, lesbian, gay, straight, or of another sexual orientation.
Verily, rape is an act of violence and power, not sex. The way a person looks, dresses, dances, or acts is never a substitute for sexual consent, and the absence of a “no” does not automatically register as a “yes” in the arena of sexual consent.
In July of 2013, college students from across the country gathered outside the Department of Education headquarters insisting that the administration do more to act as oversight for colleges regarding requirements of preventing sexual assault and rape on their campuses. At that time, the DOE was barely enforcing its own policies of reporting these crimes, and had few measures in place to prevent them on college campuses. Moreover, these students demanded that universities do more to punish perpetrators. Essentially, these students were protesting the most dramatic manifestations of rape culture on college campuses across the country. President Obama pledged this January to develop a White House Task Force On Protecting Students From Sexual Assault, with a 90-day turnaround on recommendations for actions colleges can take to uphold student rights to safe and violence-free campuses.
Is rape culture present at MIT?
Rape culture manifests itself in social media and public art, from student group publications to the party scene. There are pre-existing, structural conditions that are necessary for fostering an environment where rape culture is socially acceptable. One important condition is a general lack of a community-wide conversation regarding sexual assault and rape. With this article, we hope to at least begin to fill this communication void.
Perhaps the most prevalent and insidious forms of rape culture at MIT is the alarming frequency with which alcohol is used as a weapon to target individuals. This is the aspect of rape culture that most directly impacts the safety of many students. Instead of placing the onus of preventing rape on the potential perpetrators — men in 9 out of 10 rape situations — people often tell women what to do to prevent assault: they should drink less, not walk around late at night, carry a whistle or pepper spray, not wear something so “provocative”, or should not “lead a guy on.” For instance, many women who attend a party together will have pre-determined rules and signs for each other if they are in a potentially dangerous situation. But rarely, if ever, do men have any agreed-upon rules to ensure that their peers are not committing assault. The onus continues to be placed on potential victims to ensure their own safety, while little action is taken to teach people to not commit rape — the glaring fallacy of that logic is the assumption that rape is inevitable. But rape — like misogyny, racism, and homophobia — is not inevitable.
Another example of rape culture includes posts and comments on social media platforms. Two frequently visited social media sites at MIT are the “MIT Confessions” page on Facebook and isawyou.mit.edu. Sometimes people use the sites as legitimate methods for connecting with others, or simply for venting. Many individuals, however, exploit the sites’ structures to post voyeuristic remarks on others that they have seen. Indeed, others need only peruse either site for a few minutes to find as many as a dozen examples. For instance, one post we found was about someone trying to catch glances at another person changing their clothes. While these sites tout their openness and claim that the poster takes “full responsibility” for whatever they post, these creepy and offensive posts still come through. Just as The Tech controls what is published in their paper, depending on their standards and ethics, these sites ought to have a set of guidelines for what is reasonable and what is not.
Voo Doo, MIT’s student-run humor paper, is also a toxic influence on campus. This publication receives funding from the Undergraduate Association (UA), which in turn receives almost all of its funding from students’ tuition and student life fees. Yet Voo Doo is known to have published multiple offensive, harassing cartoons and articles. Thus, students may be surprised to learn that their money is used to fund a “satirical” publication that has published rape cartoons, which actively trivialize a devastating and traumatic crime. Voo Doo has previously defended its graphic depictions of sexual assault under grounds of free speech, humor, and pushing boundaries. Making “jokes” out of sexual assault survivors is neither humorous nor inventive. Rather, it simply maintains the status quo by belittling them in one of the most painful ways possible and normalizing such horrendous acts of violence. In addition to depictions of sexual assault, the publication satirizes racial violence with depictions of lynching and the Holocaust.
We call on the Undergraduate Association and the Association of Student Activities to take a strong stance against rape culture and cease funding for Voo Doo unless the publication agrees to refrain from using sexual assault for the sake of jokes.
Finally, a recent example that received a great deal of press was the removal of murals in Burton-Conner due to Title IX violations. We feel that the core of the issue was miscommunication and misinformation: students conflated guidelines in the “Mind and Hand Book” with federal law under Title IX, but different murals were removed under either grounds. Students, especially in responses in The Tech, focused energies onto a blanket defense of free speech and public art (in a privately owned residential space, we might add). But why was the key issue of the violent and offensive content of the murals violating Title IX ignored? Where were The Tech articles that dissected why certain BC residents wanted to keep the murals while others felt unsafe or sexually harassed by them? Whenever students, faculty, or staff attempted to start those discussions, they were quickly and fiercely shot down by the same types of individuals proclaiming “freedom of speech,” a mantra that many assume shields them from criticism but in fact often further silences assault and harassment survivors. We ask that students, faculty, and administrators work together — via, e.g., the new Title IX Working Group composed of students — to understand not only Title IX and living group culture, but also the underlying problem of rape culture prevalent across the nation and at MIT.
Debunking “freedom of speech” arguments
A common defense of the preceding behaviors is that those who perpetuate rape culture are simply exercising their freedom of speech. This argument is both incorrect and harmful. We have federal, state, and campus-wide legal policies, like Title IX, Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, and the MIT Mind and Hand Book, respectively, to protect people from “hate speech” and harassing language and behavior, and in many cases this legislation was hard-won by communities of survivors and activists. Moreover, MIT as a private university has more autonomy in regulating speech than many people think it does.
We also find the free speech defense harmful and misinformed because what supposed “free speech” advocates fail to realize is that those fighting against rape culture are usually not trying to make it illegal for anyone to speak their mind. Indeed, it is rare to find anyone pushing for legislation to ban rape “jokes” or misogynistic language — both of which contribute to rape culture. Rather, people who speak up against such language do so because words have consequences. When someone makes a joke, the group being laughed at matters. When you make an offensive comment about rape, the comment targets rape survivors — and when you defend such statements with your “right to free speech,” you suppress survivors into silence and trivialize their traumatic experiences. Writing people off as “easily offended” or “sensitive” perpetuates rape culture through the normalization of sexual assault, and perpetuates a culture of shame and silence for survivors.
In the next part of this series, we will continue to discuss the specific steps we can take as a community to eradicate rape culture.
Cory Hernandez is a member of the class of 2014, Mitali Thakor is a graduate student in the department of Science, Technology, and Society, Charlie Andrews-Jubelt is a member of the class of 2017, and Chacha Durazo is a member of the class of 2014.