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|How Date Rape is Communicated on Campus|
Every two minutes in the United States, someone is raped, and for a female college student the chances of being that victim are four times greater. Although national crime statistics indicate that incidences of violent rape are decreasing,rape continues to be underreported. A group of researchers in the Communication Department at North Dakota State University wanted to learn more about date rape, in which communication about the possibility of rape, the aftermath of rape, and rape itself is central to creating a rape culture on campus.
A rape culture is defined as a culture in which rape is a common, almost expected event. Typically it occurs as a consequence of miscommunication about sexual expectations. Several conditions foster a rape culture. First, rape myths, such as “‘No' really means ‘yes,'” create misperceptions. Second, campus groups, such asathletic teams or Greek organizations, tend to have an engrained rape culture. Third,alcohol contributes to a rape culture. Finally, a rape culture can exist when people are afraid to report rape.
Albert J. Weitz described four levels of overlapping influences that affect date rape: the culture at large, the perpetrator's perspective, what friends think, and the date rape event itself. How students talk about sex and rape, how they negotiate consent, and how they communicatively react to cases of date rape contribute to campus rape culture.
In focus groups with males and females, we asked questions about rape and sexual assault on campus. The comments we received demonstrate how communication fosters a date rape culture on campus.
Our main finding was that college students, especially women, are, in fact, silenced before, during and after the rape. This silencing occurs at all four levels: culture, the individual, the situational or interpersonal context, and the immediate context. Before the rape occurs, the campus as a whole (a culture) doesn't have a clear definition of date rape (“Rape is hard to define”). At the individual level, participants acknowledged how specific cases can lead to perceptions of rape. Comments included, “Behaviors and a woman's dress can suggest consent,” or “if they're not a friend, it's like they expect something in return.” Women prepare for risk on an interpersonal level as well (“My friends and I always look out for one another if there would be a bad situation”).
When rape occurs, ambiguity and the inability to articulate what occurred contribute to date rape. Most male and female college students reported believing that consent is a one-time act (you cannot change your mind). Thus, women questioned themselves and their friends (“Did you say it forcefully? Did you try to get off or have him get off of you?”).
Post-date rape awareness also is characterized by ambiguity and confusion. Particularly on an interpersonal level, trust has deteriorated and those who have been raped don't know how others will react to them. Comments such as, “I was so sure that she'd say ‘why are you even with him?'” convinced victims to avoid sharing their experience with others. On an individual level, participants in the study expected the victim to feel “dirty.” One woman said, “By saying you're a rape victim, that spells it out for you that you're not a pure girl anymore.” On the cultural level, women in this study acknowledged that they were reluctant to report date rape and supported silence. One participant said: “Are you going to believe us or are you going to believe him? He was really, really popular; it's his word against ours.” However, some study participants said they expected rape victims to report the crime (“You know, it's obviously not that big of a deal. It's not even going to court”), and felt that if the victim didn't report it, then nothing happened.
College campuses and communities tend to educate students about stranger rape, but not date rape. As a result, male and female college students are silenced from the outset, as there isn't a clear definition of date rape. The ambiguity and confusion at the cultural level leads women to deny when date rape occurs. Further, women tend to put their own communication skills on trial, wondering if they clearly communicated a lack of consent. After the rape, female students are reluctant to label the act as “date rape” and are unlikely to report it.
College students said that rape culture is a cyclical process. In this process, women reflect on what they should do beforethey enter a risky situation, and they reflect on what they should have done after a risky situation escalated to rape. After the rape occurs, both women and men blame the victim for not being more “sensible.” This vicious circle silences women by making them feel badly for not “doing enough” to protect themselves, while making women wonder what “enough” is.
While it's challenging to devise ways to break this cycle, we recommend the following. First, education about date rape for college students should focus all on phases of date rape: the culture at large, the perpetrator's perspective, what friends think, and the date rape event itself. Second, campus and national organizations should take date rape as seriously as stranger rape by talking about it and encouraging reporting. Third, campus communities should study the practical use ofupfront, pre-date statements (e.g., “I am looking forward to our date. But I want to tell you ahead of time, so there is no misunderstanding: I don't want to have sex.”). Overall, if students, both male and female, become more knowledgeable about rape culture through education and unambiguous communication about the problem, perhaps misperceptions about sexual expectations would be decreased, and the existence of a rape culture could be lessened.
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