Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a five-part series on sexual assault at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Today’s story focuses on the meaning of rape culture.
After several screenings on campus earlier this year, CNN will air “The Hunting Ground” for a national audience Thursday at 9 p.m. When the documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it was billed as “a piercing, monumental exposé of rape culture on campuses, poised to light a fire under a national debate.”
The film, which examines Notre Dame and other universities’ handling of sexual assault cases, generated a renewed sexual violence discussion at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, but Saint Mary’s junior Lauren Zyber said most students still don’t know what “rape culture” is or why it’s a problem.
“I think rape culture exists because people don’t know it’s a problem,” Zyber said. “A lot of the time women are taught ‘watch out for yourself,’ ‘take care of yourself,’ ‘don’t dress this way,’ but we also need to educate men, especially at a young age, to not do the raping. … I think there is a lack of awareness on both sides.”
Abigail Palko, the associate director of the Notre Dame gender studies program, said rape culture is “the idea that we have cultural norms and/or ideas about what kinds of behavior is okay that make it more likely for rapes to happen.”
Rape culture can manifest in a number of ways on campus, including the communities in which students live, student alcohol use and abuse and the language used to talk about consent and sexual violence.
Palko said scholars who study rape culture often look at spaces like fraternity houses, and though Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s do not have Greek life, those types of communities still exist on campus.
“I know we don’t have frats or sororities, but we have a very strong dorm culture here, and … those environments — when there’s excessive alcohol, when there’s unhealthy understandings of sexuality and sex ed and very tight homosocial bonding — those kind of environments are more likely to lead to increased rates of sexual assault,” she said.
Notre Dame senior Shannon Sheehan, the director of Loyal Daughters and Sons, a student-run performance that shares anonymous stories of gender issues and sexual violence, said the single-sex dorm system at Notre Dame creates a power imbalance in intimate interactions.
“Systems like parietals and single-sex dorms really just heighten the sexual tensions we have on campus and encourage victims to feel shame about being assaulted because they could have been doing something that was against the rules,” Sheehan said. “So at Notre Dame, if you’re [a girl] going to a guy’s dorm to hook-up, or if you’re going to a guy’s dorm for a party, you’re entering their space, and there’s a power dynamic in place.
“Personally, I’ve heard experiences of this and there are a lot of girls who don’t feel like they can speak up, like they can’t say no, especially if it’s in a situation where they’re breaking parietals. You might be drunk, you might think it’s a great idea to go back to a guy’s dorm, and then realize ‘I don’t actually want to be in this situation,’ but there’s really no way out without straight up accusing the guy of assault or risking getting in trouble.”
In recent years, the University administration has begun to use the dorm communities as spaces for students to lead sexual violence prevention initiatives, most recently the GreeNDot program.
“Sometimes our dorm cultures can be places where students can find themselves in situations that they’re not comfortable with,” Gender Relations Center Director Christine Caron Gebhardt said. “… [But] I think our dorms can be used in a positive, cultural way. We have strong connections to our sense of community and identity to our dorms. And it can be a place where if the community sets forth the expectations, that we all set as a campus and reinforces that.”
By viewing residence halls principally as Christian communities, University Vice President for Student Affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding said the dorms can powerfully counteract rape culture and sexual violence.
“I emphasize … the influence that halls do have within our culture,” Hoffmann Harding said. “They’re formed fundamentally to build Christian community, and for each one of you to know one another individually. And that dovetails so well, and so nicely into this concept that we speak about so often, which is to be our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. And to the extent that we cultivate and live that within our communities, I think that makes Notre Dame’s possibility for the prevention of all violence, as powerful as any place in the country.”
Advocates have termed the time between the beginning of the school year and Thanksgiving break, the sexual assault “red zone,” when a higher proportion of assaults occur. Saint Mary’s senior resident assistant Natalie Hartman said first-year students are particularly vulnerable to campus drinking culture during this time.
“I think the drinking culture is prevalent in different settings and context, but first years are the most susceptible to it,” Hartman said. “They are in all new surroundings, new places, with new people. … Everything is new.”
Conversations surrounding campus sexual assault often include an indictment of binge drinking on college campuses, and Hoffmann Harding said, like most schools, the majority of Notre Dame’s sexual assault cases do involve alcohol.
“Notre Dame’s cases that are reported to us are typical of what you would read nationally, in terms of the challenges,” she said. “ … And the majority of our cases do involve alcohol, in one form or another. And as a result, it is a significant concern for us.”
Caron Gebhardt called alcohol “the number one date rape drug,” and said it can make consent a murky issue.
“[Alcohol] can often be utilized in different ways,” she said. “It really is impactful on the ability to provide consent. And so a lot of the ways in which violence prevention has focused on the role of alcohol in either avoiding consent or how it impacts the ability to both receive and seek consent.”
In many national conversations about campus sexual violence, Palko said, people tend to blame alcohol for causing sexual assault.
“In the national context, I think [alcohol] tends to be more a causal [relationship to sexual assault],” she said.
Sheehan said alcohol does contribute to a rape culture at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, and can facilitate instances of sexual violence, but does not necessarily cause perpetrators to assault someone.
“A lot of times, sexual assault in college is linked to alcohol abuse,” she said. “But, in fact, there are a lot of college campuses where there’s a huge binge-drinking problem, but there actually is a very small sexual assault issue. So Princeton is a great example: a lot of alcohol abuse at Princeton, a lot of binge drinking, but very, very, very low rates of sexual assault.”
Language and consent
Beyond the dorm and alcohol cultures, Sheehan said sexual violence can often stem from a lack of understanding of what she called “enthusiastic consent.”
“It’s not reaching for a condom, or going back to someone’s room,” she said. “At any point during a sexual encounter, you can stop, or you can say, ‘I’m not comfortable with this anymore,’ and if one of parties continues — a girl or a guy — that is considered assault and that is considered rape.”
Furthermore, Sheehan said the language people use to talk about sexual assault contribute to a rape culture that is more hostile to survivors of assault.
“Rape is the only crime where the victim becomes the accused,” Sheehan said. “You would never tell someone, ‘Oh, it sucks that your TV was stolen. You shouldn’t live in that neighborhood [or] you should have a security system.’
“No one says, ‘Are you sure your TV was really stolen? Are you sure you didn’t give it away? Did you invite that burglar into your house?’ But that’s the language that’s used around rape.”
With campaigns and programs like GreeNDot and “It’s On Us,” Caron Gebhardt said the culture surrounding sexual assault at Notre Dame is improving and can continue to progress by making small changes unaffiliated with established programs.
“Cultures set norms, and if in the culture as small as dorms or as large as campus or a nation, the norms are either unspoken or not set forth, then people fill up the norms with the behaviors that they do,” she said. “ … And so how you combat rape culture, is you create spaces where those things that allow for rape culture — isolation, manipulation, apathy, objection of women — you slowly create situations where those things can’t happen.
“You don’t give a perpetrator an opportunity to be able to engage in behaviors that could harm another person. Because it’s not just set forth by a policy, it’s set forth by certain people’s messages and behaviors that they send every day. By what they say, by what they do, and how they engage with each other.”
Ultimately, Zyber said, even the smallest actions, and simplest conversations contribute to a cultural shift to hopefully end sexual violence.
“I think we can all make a contribution to make it better, and that’s what gives me hope,” she said. “ … Just being aware of it and talking about it has so much more power than we think it does. I appreciate both campuses opening up in dialogue about this because I think that’s the best way to start moving towards a solution.”