Like 66 other universities, Dartmouth College is under investigation by the federal government due to its failure to adequately handle and report instances of sexual assault on campus. Critics of these colleges contend that Dartmouth is one of the worst offenders—it has allowed rape culture to permeate the campus, depriving victims of justice and support, they say.
To address some of these concerns, Dartmouth is sponsoring a summit on sexual assault this week. General admission is $300 per person, or $100 per student—a steep price, given that the most useful thing such a summit could provide is a dose of reality. Dire pronouncements like the infamous 1-in-5-women-will-be-raped-during-college statistic are ill-founded and probably gross exaggerations, given that rape rates have fallen dramatically over the last few decades. Rape still happens, of course, and when it does, victims should keep in mind that sexual assault is not an academic matter akin to plagiarism or cheating on a test: it is a crime, and should be treated like one. Students who believe they were the victims of a crime should call the police immediately.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the summit's organizers and presenters are giving students the plain truth about rape. Inside Higher Ed published details of some of the early presentations, and the report is disturbing:
Outside the Q&A session, the bulk of Sunday's and Monday's presentations explored a more abstract concept than federal regulations: the media that students consume. Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines," with its raunchy music video, was a popular example of entertainment that the presenters said "normalizes acquaintance rape."
Sexual assault on college campuses is a public health problem that affects all of us," said Jean Kilbourne, a media critic and filmmaker. "We need to pay attention to the environment. Just as it's difficult to be healthy physically in a toxic environment, it's the same with sexual assault in an environment that is culturally toxic."
Kilbourne has been studying advertising and its messages for decades; she said she believes advertising has never been more problematic in its depiction of sexuality and violence. Women are constantly depicted as objects, as being in danger, or as disparate body parts, she said. Grown women are infantilized, young girls are sexualized, and men are often depicted as controlling and even violent. [emphasis added]
Really? Never? That seems absurd. Advertisements are a reflection of culture, and the culture of past decades was undeniably regressive when compared to modern attitudes about gender, sexuality, and violence.
One does not have to enjoy Robin Thicke's music in order to reject the notion that it promotes rape, or is a symptom of a culture that is growing more pro-rape. Rape has fallen 80 percent since the 1970s!
Perhaps it's their optimism denial that makes activists on this issue so difficult to take seriously. Or perhaps it's their seriousness. Observe this lesson from an aptly-named presenter, Gail Stern:
In Sunday's opening session, which focused on the telling of rape jokes, Gail Stern, who develops programs and curriculums about sexual violence, outlined many of the same issues discussed Monday. At one point, Stern stood in front of a large Venn diagram, with one circle labeled "things that are funny" and another labeled "rape." They did not intersect.
Colleges must make it clear that rape jokes have no place on a college campus, Stern said, reminding the audience of some particularly egregious incidents, including a pro-rape chant that was shouted by St. Mary's University students during the college's annual "Frosh Week." It had been a tradition for five years. Colleges should also make sure that any artists, speakers and entertainers brought to campus aren't promoting similar messages, she said.
Colleges should not do that. If they vigorously protected students from ever encountering a potentially offensive work of art, or speech, or piece of entertainment, they would be daycares, not institutions of higher learning and critical thinking. In fact, public universities are actually obligated to permit students and faculty to air uncomfortable ideas and give provocative commentary. Private institutions, like Dartmouth, may resort to censorship in the name of feelings-protection if they wish, but the caliber of the education they offer will certainly suffer when professors are afraid to have unfettered conversations with their students.
Universities with bad track records of handling sexual assault can provide services to victims. They can give more accurate reports to the federal government. They can encourage students to behave responsibly (to that end, the policy most likely to further curtail rape would be a lower drinking age).
But when bad things happen, activists shouldn't blame tasteless jokes or Robin Thicke songs. They shouldn't expect that any good would come of outlawing them, either.