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Rape and The Gatekeeper Narrative

By Marina N. Bolotnikova and Louis R. Evans

In an excellent piece that recently appeared on the opinion page of the Harvard Crimson, Crimson editorial executive Michael F. Cotter ’14 discussed America’s invisible epidemic of sexual violence as “an issue of failed law enforcement.” In order to diminish the incidence of sexual assault, he writes, “we must root out those who commit sexual assaults and prosecute them.” But one glaring question remained unaddressed in Cotter’s otherwise spot-on piece: What is it that makes our culture so unwilling to prosecute sex crimes? The answer is not lack of will, as such: Rape has passionate opponents and few defenders. However, social narratives surrounding sex create spaces and situations where predators can operate without fear of punishment.

Writer and activist Jaclyn Friedman has developed a sociological theory that outlines the deeply entrenched social framework that silences victims of sexual violence and shields their assailants. Sexual violence and the culture that overlooks it fits squarely within what Friedman refers to as the woman-as-gatekeeper model of heterosexual sex. The male initiator/female gatekeeper model is the bread and butter of our culture’s discourse on sex and sexuality. We are exposed to it everywhere: in films and TV shows, in popular music, and in conversations with our peers and even well meaning sex educators. In the gatekeeper model, men assume the role of initiators of sexual activity and women of “gatekeepers” who reluctantly grant their partners access to their sexuality.

Consider, for example, how commonplace are depictions of sexual encounters in popular culture in which women—particularly young women—express reluctance to engage in sexual activity, either through their body language or verbalized “no”s, before finally “giving in.” In one of the most telling examples of our culture’s hostile attitude toward female sexuality, the Motion Picture Association of America refused to give the 2011 film “Sucker Punch” a rating lower than R until female sexual pleasure was removed from a sexually explicit scene. After editing the segment so drastically that it appeared that the woman was being taken advantage of, the filmmakers decided to delete the scene altogether. The gatekeeper model is such an ingrained component of our cultural vocabulary that female sexual agency, when it is not invisible, is deemed obscene.

The problems with the gatekeeper model are many, but its most harrowing consequence is that it makes our culture unwilling to try incidences of sexual assault that do not look like “dark alley” scenarios in which women are raped by strangers. It has been well documented that the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are committed not by strangers in dark alleys, but in private spaces by assailants who know their victims. Yet in a culture where the dominant sexual narrative is one in which men are aggressors to whom women halfheartedly cede sex, sexual assaults committed by acquaintances or partners all too often go unprosecuted because they are evocative of the model that pervades our cultural vocabulary. Female victims are often told that they were “asking for it”—by wearing provocative clothing, flirting, or consenting to sexual activity with a partner and later electing to stop—because the gatekeeper model constructs men as sexual aggressors who are neither able nor expected to restrain their sexual urges and women as provocateurs who need to do little more than flirt to give their tacit consent.

This is certainly not to say that a plurality of men are “accidentally” committing sexual assault. Friedman’s work shows just the opposite—sexual assaults are committed by a small percentage of men, the vast majority of whom are repeat offenders. These sociopaths, said Friedman, “know exactly what they’re doing.” Indeed, rapists exploit the gatekeeper model. As predators, they look for the opportunity to strike without penalty, and when we create a sexual narrative that focuses on permission instead of affirmative consent, we create that space. Sexual assaults are too often considered a failure of the victim for having put herself in a situation in which sex was “expected” of her rather than a crime of the assailant.

The gatekeeper model is also harmful to male victims of sexual assault. Typically cast as aggressors of sexual activity, male victims, too, face hostility and skepticism. The myth that males can’t be victims of sexual violence, rooted in our cultural perception of men as sexually aggressive initiators rather than reluctant receivers, deters men from reporting sex crimes and prevents us from prosecuting the rape of men. Shockingly, until October 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s definition of rape—“the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will”—failed to acknowledge even the possibility of male rape. (In fact, an estimated 10 percent of rape victims are male.)

The gatekeeper model is ultimately not necessary. We can and should develop and live out more consent-positive models of sex (conveniently, this week’s inaugural Sex Week at Harvard is an excellent place to start). And every time we think about sex as something both partners want, enjoy, and actively seek out and share, we’re not just helping fight abusers and predators. We’re making our sex lives better, as well.

Marina N. Bolotnikova ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a Slavic languages and literatures concentrator in Eliot House. Louis R. Evans ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.

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