“Did you know that nine out of 10 people enjoy gang rape?” That’s what one of my male friends gleefully told me over dinner last night. It’s an old joke — too old to score many shock points — because I’ve heard it five times this semester. At least.
Gang rape was the jocular subject of the night, because we’d just heard an athlete greet his friends at the table behind: “Hey, how are my gangbangers?” Now, I know from experience that not all athletes conform to the hard-drinking, wife-beating, gang-rapist stereotype. But if we accept that most athletes really want to dispense with this image, then these guys were definitely letting their side down.
When people joke about rape, they’re trying to be transgressive — so part of me is a little relieved that the friend who tried to shock me recognized that rape isn’t something most people want to laugh about. That’s why he thought he’d have some fun and stir up drama with a rape joke. It’s up there with a dead baby joke, one might think — tacky, but not a Trojan horse for advocating mass infanticide.
But those who think that rape jokes poke healthy fun at an establishment sensitivity about rape miss the point — we sure as hell should be sensitive about rape. The more rape jokes we tell, the more get used the idea that rape should be something light, casual, even quotidian.
And on college campuses today, rape is indeed quotidian. According to several surveys between 20 and 25 percent of women experience rape or attempted rape in their college careers. Those are statistics based on independent interviews of women by women about their sexual experiences because that’s the only way to get a clear picture. Police statistics won’t help us much — according the Center for Public Integrity, 95 percent of campus rapes are unreported.
It’s not surprising that women don’t feel comfortable reporting rape. Campus culture is not sympathetic to women who accuse its members of rape. On Monday, a sophomore at American University claimed that going to a frat parties and drinking alcohol is the same as consenting to sex. It followed a similar article in The Daily Princetonian three weeks ago. Accordingly, women who cry rape after student parties are just making it up.
It is horrifically difficult to pursue a charge of rape. No one who believes it’s fun to make a malicious accusation has ever read the report of a rape trial, tried to discuss female sexuality with the average police officer or had a conversation with a bunch of college students about whether the length of someone’s skirt means she’s a slut. Under American law, the sexual history of a woman alleging rape is considered relevant evidence. In the eyes of a jury, any indication that she and the accused had a previous relationship (social, not merely sexual) or any indication of moral flaws makes her a culpable victim. Consequently, rape victims who face their accusers in court also face relentless grilling from defense attorneys — not only on the event in question but on their entire lives. Anything is fair game.
In my native UK, a 16-year-old girl was raped in a park by a fellow teenager who approached her as she sat on a bench. When she brought the case to trial last fall, the defense attorney forced her to hold up the pair of knickers she was wearing on the day in question and discuss whether she thought they were slutty. She hanged herself a few days later. None of the reports I have read suggest that American courts are different. Last year, a woman in Pennsylvania killed herself in remarkably similar circumstances.
Rape on college campuses is particularly hard to prosecute because most victims already know their attackers. Courts tend to assume that rape between acquaintances isn’t “real” rape — when in fact, being raped by an acquaintance can be more traumatic in some senses than “stranger rape” because it involves a breach of trust.
At the heart of this assumption that acquaintance rape isn’t “real rape” is an even uglier assumption: that “everyone is up for it, all the time.” In a world of Girls Gone Wild, where the Ying Yang Twins are invited for Spring Fling, it’s not hard to see why. The average guy at a party may well think that most girls at the party are there for sex — this doesn’t mean that he has the right to enforce intimacy when a girl is too drunk to consent.
In one of my favorite musicals, “Guys and Dolls,” the straightlaced Salvation Army officer, Sarah, is taken to Cuba by the racy gambler, Sky, and — of course — ends up drunk and singing into a bottle. Sky has a reputation as a lothario, but against the audience’s expectations, he does the gentlemanly thing and tucks her up asleep for the night without taking advantage of her. The incident is key to making us, and Sarah, realize that Sky really is a romantic hero fit for her dreams.
The cultural and legal shifts required to reduce the rate of rape would take far more than a News column to scrutinize. But certainly, the high rate of rape on campus is related to the fact that many perpetrators (male and female) don’t view their actions as rape. So they don’t understand why their victims feel violated. If more men on campus understood that sexual culture on campus leaves women feeling so threatened, maybe they wouldn’t try to tell me rape jokes quite so often. Sky Masterson was a real man — and Sky Masterson didn’t tell rape jokes.
Kate Maltby is a senior in Saybrook College.