Indicting inaction against university rape culture
The year is 2009. Jasmin Enriquez is in the midst of her first year of college at Pennsylvania State University, and in the thick of juggling classes and schoolwork, she has also started seeing someone. One night, the two find themselves at a frat party, where alcohol is abundant and the atmosphere is buzzing. He hands her drink after drink and she takes each drink without giving it a second thought. It was in the name of having fun, she thought. After all, she trusted him.
That night, he raped her while she was sleeping.
Unfortunately, Enriquez’s story is not an uncommon one — in fact, according to the Association of American Universities’ 2015 study “Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct,” one in five women experience rape or attempted rape on college campuses every year. Every year, hundreds of thousands of women share a strikingly similar experience to Enriquez’s — one in which they find themselves in an unwanted sexual encounter with another person, be it a complete stranger, or, more often that not, a trusted friend.
Kylie Angell is another one of many women who experienced sexual assault as a college student. During her time at the University of Connecticut as a nursing student, she was sexually assaulted in her dorm by a friend. What followed was a tumultuous experience in which her assailant was first expelled but then allowed back on campus, despite the charges made against him.
Both Enriquez’s and Angell’s stories are indicative of the culture of rape and sexual violence present on college campuses throughout the country.
There are a plethora of factors that lead to instances of rape and sexual assault, but the absence of consent is ultimately the deciding detail. During sexual encounters, consent is manifested through the verbal affirmation of “yes.” But despite a seemingly simple definition, the contexts in which it consent is expressed or not expressed becomes incredibly complex.
As was the case with Enriquez, the addition of alcohol into a sexual encounter can make it more difficult to discern if a sexual interaction constitutes “rape.” Alcohol is widely considered by doctors to be the most common date rape drug. Because of alcohol’s inebriating effect and its ability to lower inhibitions, many perpetrators invoke alcohol when pursuing a woman to make the prospect of sex more likely. In fact, numbers from the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study show that 89 percent of assaults occur when the survivor is incapacitated as a result of consuming alcohol. And in a college setting, with the bevy of frat parties and house parties happening during weekends, alcohol only becomes more accessible.
Enriquez believes consent acts as a foundation for healthy relationships, a building block that makes sure people are consistently respected. She said understanding consent — that people have a choice to say yes to engaging in sexual activity — can improve how society treats survivors of sexual assault.
“When people understand consent and understand what it means to give and not give consent, I think that that will play into the big picture of how we treat victims of sexual assault, because right now I think people don’t understand what consent is in general,” she said.
Before the rape, Enriquez said no one had discussed the concept of consent with her.. While she doesn’t believe that knowing about consent at the time would have changed the outcome of her situation, she said if more people were educated about consent, then the number of people who believed her may have been higher.
Another difficulty behind consent can be traced back to the vicious cycle of rape culture and victim blaming. Oftentimes, when instances of sexual assault occur, victims become the subjects of scrutiny more often than assaulters. Enriquez said this attitude about rape and consent stems from the lack of understanding people have for victims of sexual assault and an apathetic attitude toward marginalized groups in society.
“I think a lot of times it comes back to the fact that we devalue women and minorities and people that don’t have power or privilege,” she said.
Instances of rape are often seen as encounters that occur in the dead of night between strangers, Enriquez said. However, this is not the reality, as 90 percent of rapes were committed by someone known to the victim. According to the 2000 report by the National Institute of Justice, “The Sexual Victimization of College Women,” 90 percent of sexual assault survivors knew their offender. In both Enriquez’s and Angell’s experiences, the perpetrator was someone they both knew and trusted. This type of rape is more commonly referred to as acquaintance rape, in which the survivor is familiar with the assaulter.
This misconception that rape only occurs with a stranger, Angell said, can make it difficult for the survivor of acquaintance rape to come to terms with the fact that they were sexually violated by a person they thought they could trust.
“If society tells them that the only way to be raped is in a dark alley by stranger at gunpoint then they’re not going to … believe themselves when they are raped by somebody they know in their dorm room, for example, by someone that they’ve been friends with for two years,” Angell said.
Both Enriquez and Angell note the distinct trauma that accompanies acquaintance rape, and the psychological factors that accompany the emotional pain. At the time, Enriquez said, she did not know that what had happened to her classified as rape because she didn’t think rape could occur between people who are dating.
“I desperately wanted to believe that it didn’t happen because I didn’t want to believe that someone who I thought cared about me could do something so mean and gross,” she said.
Angell said acquaintance rape is especially confusing and disorienting because not only is there a violation of the body involved, but also a violation of trust as well.
“You have someone that you thought you could trust and then they violate your body and they do one of the most horrible things someone can do to another person and they rape you and they take away your security and that really is very confusing,” she said.
The issue of sexual assault and rape on college campuses is one that has dominated public discourse in the past few years. Several high-profile cases regarding sexual assault on a college campus have fallen under the national spotlight, such as Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz’s project of carrying a mattress around campus to symbolize her experience with rape on the university’s campus.
Because more people have come forward about their experiences with sexual violence, many institutions have taken steps to provide more resources to help sexual assault survivors, as well as more sexual assault prevention measures. However, Angell said the only reason colleges have begun to discuss issues of consent and sexual violence is because of the work of many young activists who are in refusing to stay silent about their experiences.
Despite these illusions of progress, Angell said one of the explanations for this increased focus on rape and sexual assault is because money has gotten involved and lawsuits have been filed against universities and school districts across the country. The fear of dealing with a high-profile rape case and a tarnished reputation Angell said, has also influenced colleges to start paying attention to rape and sexual assault on their campuses.
“I think that unfortunately our society is clearly capitalistic and you know when the money gets on the table then people are gonna listen,” she said.
Although more survivors are coming forward to share their stories, most women continue to remain silent about their experiences, often not reporting their cases to the authorities or their college. According to the 2000 study, “The Sexual Victimization of College Women,” fewer than 5 percent of victims report to law enforcement. Enriquez is one of the many survivors of rape and sexual assault who chose not to report what had happened to her. She said she did not do so because she was afraid that nobody would believe her.
And for the cases that are reported, many are bungled by the university. This presents a puzzling conundrum: how is it that colleges continue to mishandle cases of rape and sexual assault despite wanting to further address this very real and pervasive problem? Angell said the answer lies in the misguided intent of the colleges.
“A lot of sexual assault cases are mishandled because schools are either … trying to cover it up. So their intent is not to help the victim, it’s to protect the school which inadvertently protects the perpetrator and releases that perpetrator to go and do it again to other people,” she said.
Although schools may be sincerely trying to address the problem, Angell said mishandling the cases they receive from their students consequently damages the survivor even more. Angell is one of the few women who reported her case to the university. However she said the handling of the case — in which her perpetrator was expelled but then allowed back on campus — felt like a betrayal. Angell said schools have a responsibility to be prepared and open when dealing with incidents of sexual violence.
“If they’re open as an institution, then it’s their responsibility to take care of these things, just as a hospital is responsible for taking care of its patients, just as a car mechanic is responsible for taking care of the cars that come in there,” she said.
The complications behind rape and sexual assault on campus seem to spike when the alleged perpetrator is an athlete. The tightly woven fabric of sports culture in the college environment can make it even more difficult for the survivors to receive justice. The most recent of these cases involves NFL superstar Peyton Manning during his college football stint at the University of Tennessee. Revealing that the case was continuously buried by the university athletics department has only highlighted the power of the sports empire to cover up cases of sexual assault for the sake of protecting reputation and prestige.
When sexual assault survivors come forward and say they were sexually assaulted or raped by an athlete, Angell said it is the immense social pressure from teammates, coaches, trainers and athletic directors that influences the attempts to cover up the story.
“There’s like this huge impetus for them to discourage the victim or survivor from reporting,” she said.
Angell also said when team members side with their fellow athletes, it is because of a dual combination of not wanting to be associated with the incident and not wanting to admit that rape and sexual assault happens.
“Just like so many people in our society, they don’t wanna admit that rape and sexual assault happens so often,” Angell said. “And that’s why they end up blaming victims or discrediting them or saying their stories aren’t true and not listening to them.”
Angell said the onslaught of social media can further contribute to rape culture among young people. Dating apps like Tinder, which is most popular among the college-aged crowd, could lead to a budding relationship or a hookup. Enriquez said these apps only fuel misconceptions about consent and further feed into rape culture.
“I definitely think that there is this misconception that if someone shows interest in you via a dating app, then that you have the right to do whatever you want, which is obviously not the case at all but I think people tell themselves that it is,” she said.
In addition, the rise of the popular phrase “Netflix and chill” — which signifies when two parties get together upon the premise of watching Netflix but then end up hooking up or having sex — has created a sense of expectations among young adults, Enriquez said.
“Just because someone says they want to come over and watch Netflix with you doesn’t mean they want to have sex with you,” she said. “No, it doesn’t mean they want to kiss you or anything — it means they want to watch Netflix with you.”
As the conversations on rape, sexual assault, abuse and sexual violence continue in society, both Angell and Enriquez believe that to successfully dismantle rape culture, education must start at an early age. Both women work in nonprofit organizations dedicated to educating people about sexual assault — Enriquez is the founder of Only With Consent, and Angell has recently began work with Stop Sexual Assault in School, along with having her story told in the documentary, “It Happened Here.” Angell said one of the first steps in addressing sexual assault is facing the problem head on.
“Prevention for sexual assault and for a brighter future is recognizing one that we have a problem, that violence against women and violence in general is very pervasive in our society and then once we recognize that we can start to address the problems at its core,” she said.
Despite widely regarded beliefs that young children should not be exposed to sex in an effort to preserve childhood innocence, both women advocate for teaching children early on and introducing them to the topics of rape and sexual violence. Angell said the concept of consent is difficult for college students to understand because of the lack of education on the topic during their adolescent years.
“So by avoiding these conversations and not talking about it in sex ed and having inadequate health classes when kids are young, it sets up college kids for failure in terms of obtaining consent when it comes to relationships or encounters,” she said.
By knowing about consent at an early age, Angell said, children can be better prepared when they get older if they happen upon a situation where sexual consent becomes murky. Enriquez also said no true progress will be made until rape culture and the facts that influence it are dismantled. An advocate for building consent culture from the ground up, she said it will take an entire shift in mindset where people are open and believe in the concept of consent and preventing sexual violence.
“That’s how a full consent culture is gonna happen — when everyone jumps on board,” she said. “And it’s up to all of us to see it as valuable and important and a very critical part of our culture for change to happen.”
Celisa Calacal is a sophomore journalism major who is skeptical of what the academy calls the “truth.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.