At this point, it has been well established that sexual assault on college campuses is an important issue. And practically everyone agrees that rape is bad. You’d be hard-pressed to find people who openly declare support for rapists, or say that rape is okay.
And yet, progress for campus sexual assault survivors is repeatedly stymied. The system for rape reporting continues to fail survivors. Between improperly processed rape kits and inadequate counseling services, sexual assault survivors on college campuses are routinely confronted with a system that seems to be working against them, rather than for them. Who is upholding this broken system, and protecting sexual assault perpetrators at the expense of survivors?
Rape apologists are. The problem is, they don’t consider themselves defenders of rapists. Instead, they call themselves defenders of liberty and due process before the law. They are the self-proclaimed champions of “innocent before proven guilty.” All they want is fairness and equality—that is, for the men who are accused of rape.
Rape apologists are the people who try to pass bills like the Safe Campus Act, which aims to protect the rights of the falsely-accused by prohibiting colleges from investigating sexual assault cases until the survivor reports the crime to police. Rape apologists are the people who confer pity and sympathy onto the men who are accused of sexual assault, bemoaning how they had such “promising futures” and calling their victims career-destroyers.
And rape apologists are the people who accuse women of “crying rape” to get attention or exact revenge against someone. As one men’s rights activist explains: “Sex is rape when the woman tells authorities it is rape, even if she never mentions it to the person she’s accusing of rape. If I make a pass at a woman, and for whatever reason she goes along with it, wakes up feeling bad about it, and goes to the police, I go to prison.”
While false rape accusations do certainly occur, they are vastly outnumbered by the number of actual rapes that go unreported. Rape is one of the most underreported crimes. Out of every 100 rapes, only 32 get reported to the police, only seven lead to an arrest, only three are referred to prosecutors, only two lead to a felony conviction, and only two rapists will spend even a single day in prison.
It is far more likely for a woman to not report a rape that actually happened than to lie about a rape that never happened, simply because it is extremely difficult to come out as a sexual assault survivor. As a matter of fact, it is extremely difficult for women to even admit to themselves that what happened to them was sexual assault.
That’s because we live in a world where heterosexual women have been socialized to expect sexual encounters that involve a heavily gendered script where the man is aggressive and persistent, and the woman is reluctant and unwilling. From catchy pop songs like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” telling women “you know you want it” because of the “blurred lines” of consent to heartwarming classic holiday songs like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that describes a man who relentlessly asks a woman to stay at his house despite her protests, the normalization of sexual assault and violation of women’s consent has been hammered into our collective consciousness.
As a result, women are often reluctant to use the language of sexual assault to describe sexual encounters in which their consent was disregarded or violated. When my female friends tell me about how they told someone they didn’t want to have sex but he went ahead anyway, they shrug it off as something that “just happens” because “boys will be boys.” And when these things happen to me, I shrug it off, too. We feel uncomfortable with what happened to us, but it seems too extreme, too stigmatizing, to say out loud that we have experienced sexual assault.
There are serious repercussions to coming out as a sexual assault survivor. While our society tends to respect and believe what men have to say, it constantly doubts and disbelieves what women say. When a woman says that she was sexually assaulted, our first reaction is not to believe her. Instead, we victim-blame her. We ask her how much makeup she was wearing, or how scanty her clothing was. We wonder if what happened to her was really “serious” enough to count as “rape.” And then we accuse her of crying rape to get attention or sympathy, or to get revenge on the man if the sex wasn’t good enough or if he broke her heart.
And as a result, survivors routinely fail to report their experiences as rape. A study showed that 50 percent of survivors did not report because they felt responsible for what happened, and 29 percent did not report because they did not want anyone to know and feared the backlash they would receive.
A society that does not take women seriously when they say they’ve been sexually assaulted is the same society that socializes men to not take women seriously when they say “no.” Women expect men to not respect them when they say “no.” We instead come up with different, more palatable ways to say “no” to men. We lie about having a boyfriend, we pretend we need to go to the bathroom, we devise innovative ways to say “no” without actually saying it because we know that when we say “no” it’s not the end of the discussion, but rather the beginning of a long and wearisome negotiation.
Therefore, the focus on false rape accusations is not only misguided, it is deeply harmful. When we spend so much time talking about these rare occurrences, we make it harder for actual survivors to muster the courage to report their rapes. We contribute to a structure that doesn’t take survivors seriously when they do report their rapes.
This only exacerbates the underreporting of sexual assaults that actually do happen, and this only further perpetuates and normalizes the silencing of women. And until we show that we as a society will listen to women when they say they’ve been sexually assaulted, we will continue to teach them that their voices, and their “no’s,” go unheard.
Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
Koestner's Calling It RapeIt must have been a slow news day. Last Wednesday, The Crimson, inexplicably, decided that not only was Katie Koestner's
Reassessing Rape ResponseInsofar as it can do so sensitively, Harvard should encourage victims to move forward with their cases and press criminal charges.
Reemphasizing Title IXWhile prosecution of attackers should remain a priority, we should not deny the important role universities can play in creating a culture of safety for its students.
Support Sexual Assault VictimsWe applaud the Harvard students, other activists, and government officials involved in drafting this legislation, and we urge Massachusetts legislators to pass it.
Sexual Assault IS Our FaultAs founders of the Our Harvard Can Do Better campaign, we write to clarify how rape culture operates and how it complicates the responsibility of community members.