Why Call It Rape Culture?

Editor’s Note: This article is also available in Spanish.

Note: The following is the redacted version of a talk scheduled to be given at the University of Ottawa on Friday, March 28, 2014, under the auspices of the Canadian Association For Equality (CAFE). Entitled “What’s Equality Got to Do with It? Men’s Issues on Campus and Feminism’s Double Standards,” the talk was initially delayed by a group of students who stated that, as hate speech, the talk must not be allowed. The students banged drums, sang songs, and blew a horn while organizers and campus security pleaded with them to save their objections for the Q & A period. Eventually, the talk was moved to another room, but there the heckling and interruptions continued. Finally, the fire alarm was pulled, thus ending the formal event.

It’s a strange experience to find oneself arguing in favor of something that seems self-evidently true but is publicly denied, and arguing against something that seems self-evidently untrue but is widely proclaimed—especially at a university, traditionally thought to uphold the rational pursuit of truth but too often now merely the guardian of sanctimonious platitude. There have been platitudes aplenty recently at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, where a small number of incidents has sparked talk of a rape culture. About this rape culture there has been much breast-beating and pious statement intended to promote the idea that university campuses, and our society in general, are hostile to women.

University President Allan Rock has declared these to be “very troubling times” for the University, and affirmed his commitment to “forge new strategies” to end “men’s violence towards women.” It is not my intention to focus in detail on the two incidents that so exercised Rock, about which I know only what has been reported in the newspapers. Instead, I want to look at the conversations that are taking place around the idea of rape culture and consider their unfortunate effects on the men who, in increasingly diminishing numbers, still work and study on campus.

The idea of rape culture derives from the rape crisis feminism of the 1970s and 80s articulated by such misandric writers and activists as Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, and Mary Daly. These theorists defined a stark polarity between men and women, positing that, under patriarchy, all women are oppressed, terrorized, and made vulnerable by systemic male violence, threats of violence, and a culture that objectifies and demeans them; and that all men benefit under this system, whether they rape or not.

Most people who speak for feminism today on campus declare energetically that feminism has become much more sophisticated and nuanced since then; that it employs “intersectionality” to take account of the many other social identities—of race, class, sexuality, and so on—that inflect the gender order.

But despite these reputed advances in feminist theory—really no advance at all, but merely a more detailed hierarchy of oppressions employing the same simplistic binary framework—the gender model is still firmly grounded in the view of the world articulated by Dworkin in her famous “I Want a 24-Hour Truce” piece, in which she declared that because of the fact of rape, no woman could be free in North America and no man could be held innocent. For Dworkin, all men must bear collective guilt because they live “in a world of his supremacy based on the existence of his cock and she […] in a world of humiliation and degradation because she is perceived to be inferior.”

Attempts to challenge this model by showing that rape is less common than feminist statistics show, or that men are also the victims of rape (see especially Peter O’Donovan’s recent compilation of statistics) as well as of false allegations of rape, are routinely met with dismissiveness or outrage by those who claim to value equality. Simplistic feminist assumptions about male privilege and aggression are evident in current campus discussions.

The two incidents connected with the University of Ottawa are, briefly, as follows. In February of this year, U of Ottawa Student Federation President Anne-Marie Roy discovered, via an anonymous email, that five male students, four of whom were involved in university politics, had made sexual statements about her on Facebook, a humiliating discovery for Ms. Roy.

The statements referred to the oral and anal sex that the participants wanted to have with her. The statements were not intended to be public and were not intended for her eyes. After she confronted one of the students, all five sent her an email of retraction, saying that they never intended to threaten her in any way, apologizing for the coarse and unacceptable nature of the statements, and resigning their university positions. Roy had every right to be angry and to confront them.

In a more sensible age, that might have been the end of the matter; however, the incident quickly became public at the instigation of Roy, who brought the matter to the Student Federation’s Board of Administration and stated publicly that the young men’s casual discussion reveals a rape culture that is “all too prevalent at university campuses.”

The incident has been widely reported in newspapers with the headline “Vicious Online Attack,” though the conversation about Roy seems to fit the category of aimless sexual fantasy more than attack. Nevertheless, high-ranking university officials lost little time in expressing their solidarity with Roy. Former Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, now Chancellor of the University of Ottawa, participated in a press conference in which she declared that rape culture was a widespread “disease,” not only at the University of Ottawa but on university campuses all across the country. It was getting worse, she maintained, and must be cured.

University President Allan Rock, formerly a Liberal politician in the Canadian federal government, also made a public statement, declaring himself “appalled” by campus rape culture as well as male violence against women generally, and stating his intention to set up a Task Force to make recommendations for improving women’s safety at the U of Ottawa.

About the other incident in question, there is less to be said as not much has been made public. It involves the suspension of the U of Ottawa men’s varsity hockey team over allegations of sexual misconduct following a complaint against a number of team members. Police from Thunder Bay, the scene of the alleged incident, are investigating the matter, but no charges have been laid. The U of Ottawa is also conducting an internal investigation. Some members of the hockey team (one of whom was not even in Thunder Bay at the time of the alleged incident) have said that they feel betrayed by the university, which is treating them all as if guilty of misconduct.

The two incidents have been reported by major Canadian newspapers, and one university administrator has called for the five students who participated in the online conversation about Roy to be suspended. This seems a severe punishment for words never intended to be made public. But rape culture hysteria authorizes an extreme reaction.

It is now an accepted truth among university elites that references to sexuality and gender, even in this case private words, have serious, even criminal, import—at least when spoken by men about women, though not the other way around. Men’s guilt in sexual matters is taken for granted, as is the need for dramatic declarations of sympathy for wounded womanhood. And while universities should be vigilant about women’s safety and well-being, the hypersensitivity about a non-existent rape culture does nothing to promote either security or sane thinking.

Something of the garbled logic around rape culture is evident in a March 6, 2014 statement issued by the Association of Professors at the University of Ottawa, which I received just over three weeks ago. The APUO is the bargaining agent for the University of Ottawa professors and other teachers, counsellors, and librarians. The specific concerns of the APUO relate to workload, benefits, salary negotiations, and grievances. I’m not sure why it felt it necessary to involve itself in the so-called scandals in any way, but it did. Under the heading “Rape Culture, Misogyny, and Sexism on Campus,” the APUO championed the cause of Anne-Marie Roy unequivocally:

The Association of Professors of the University Of Ottawa (APUO) expresses its support for the decision of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) President, Anne-Marie Roy, to break the silence about the rape culture on our campus. As Ms. Roy notes in her public statement, “The fact that the five men could so casually discuss and joke about me and the position students have elected me to hold in such sexually violent ways points to how normalized rape culture, misogyny and sexism are on our campus and in our society. This kind of behaviour has clear impacts on women; it creates an environment that is intimidating, threatening and toxic. Women on this campus and in our society deserve better.”

Notice immediately the presence of the familiar chestnuts and faulty argumentative techniques of rape crisis feminism: the phrase “break the silence” used by the APUO board, as if rape is never discussed on university campuses, clearly untrue; the elision in Roy’s quoted statement of any distinction between talk of “sex” and talk of “rape,” as if there is no material difference between a fantasy shared with friends, abhorrent as it may have been to her, and a plan actually to enforce the fantasy against her will; the misuse of language whereby something obviously unacceptable—something Roy knew would embarrass the men who engaged in it (and would not harm her own status in any way)—is said to be “normalized”; and finally, the exaggeration, in which one incident, already acknowledged and recanted, becomes proof of a much more serious and extensive social problem, a whole “environment,” amorphous and ever-present, that “threatens” women.

To all of this the APUO wholeheartedly agrees, and then in the very next paragraph, flatly contradicts its endorsement of Roy’s allegation:

 The APUO fully agrees with this statement and believes that the vast majority of the University of Ottawa students, support staff and faculty, both female and male, find gender based discrimination, intimidation and sexual harassment to be completely reprehensible and at odds with the most basic values of our community.

For anyone with any concept of what a culture is, it is nonsensical to say that “there is a rape culture on campus” and then to say immediately, without missing a beat, that “the vast majority” of U of Ottawa students, support staff, and faculty find the students’ words “completely reprehensible.”

We either live in a rape culture, in which rape is condoned and implicitly approved, or we don’t.

And when a group of university professors cannot keep their argument straight from one paragraph to the next, we are deep in the realm of ideological double-think of an Orwellian cast, the equivalent of mental auto-pilot. If such statements had no serious consequences, this would be matter merely for a chuckle at what passes for thought at university these days.

Unfortunately, our present moral panic has various consequences, including the potential to create a good deal of unfounded fear, as well as self-righteous outrage, amongst young women and to exacerbate what is already an anti-male environment on university campuses, where men are browbeaten to wear the hair shirt of collective guilt as potential rapists.

A now familiar element of the rape culture discussion is the extent to which rape crisis feminists seek to silence anyone who denies or even questions that a rape culture does prevail in our society. It is perfectly legitimate in disagreements to argue over facts and to point out flaws in an opponent’s reasoning. But it is not legitimate to claim that one’s opponent’s position is so heinous that it must not be heard at all. This is what rape crisis feminists do in constantly suggesting that merely to articulate an anti-feminist position produces the harm that feminists claim—a culture of intimidation and threat that is “toxic” for women—and that therefore such discussion must be prohibited.

A rape culture is one that accepts, tolerates, and even condones rape, blaming the victim when it happens and excusing the perpetrator. There are cultures in the world, certainly, where victims of rape are not given sympathy, where rapists are not punished for their crimes, and where victims are blamed. In Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, and Pakistan, one can find such cultures, where little girls have their noses cut off by their families because they appear to be acting immodestly, where acid is thrown in the faces of women who violate standards of female behavior, where girls are married off at age 7, 8, 9, and raped by their husbands, where female genital mutilation is practiced to keep women pure, and where women are honor-killed for having a boyfriend.

That is a rape culture. If Anne-Marie Roy actually lived in a rape culture, she would have done everything in her power to prevent the dissemination of the sexual comments made about her, knowing that such publicity would have led not to her promotion as a champion of women but to social, if not literal, death.

Feminists routinely deny, as a core article of faith, that rape is widely considered a heinous crime in North America. One perfect example of such denial, chosen almost at random, comes from mainstream feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte, who stated in a recent post (March 18, 2014) for Slate Magazine that rape culture is an essential term of anti-rape analysis. Outlining her disagreement with an American organization (the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) that rejects the term, she argues that “Rape culture is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social licence to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victim for their own rapes.” A “social license to operate” is a dramatic statement about the extent to which rape is reputedly approved and tolerated.

As we read on in Marcotte’s post, however, we come to see that in defending the phrase rape culture, she is not really interested in evidence-based argument about whether rape is condoned in North American society or not. Her primary interest is in protecting, through rhetorical fiat, the feminist right to define rape as feminists see fit: in other words, to define rape as anything a feminist says it is. Amanda Marcotte, we may remember, was hired to be the chief blogger for John Edwards’ presidential campaign in 2007, and she is the same woman who blogged about the case of three lacrosse players at Duke University who were wrongfully accused of rape in 2006.

Even after the charges were dropped against the athletes, she maintained caustically that the “poor dear lacrosse players” were not worthy of the presumption of innocence: whether found guilty or not, they were undoubtedly despicable men, morally if not legally guilty. Why? Because men rape women, and women never lie about it. This is the fundamental plank of rape crisis feminism that underlies discussions about rape culture.

For Marcotte, the term rape culture is necessary to highlight “all the cultural reasons that rapists are not held responsible” for their behavior. Here is her list of such so-called myths:

  • the myth that false accusations are common;
  • the myth that rapists are  just confused about consent; and
  • the myth that victims share the blame for drinking too much or otherwise making themselves vulnerable.

According to Marcotte, only by tackling these cultural problems will we be able to see clearly that rapists know exactly what they’re doing and punish them for it.

Marcotte’s list demonstrates the perfect feminist circle of illogic at work: if you believe that just because a man has been accused of rape doesn’t mean he is guilty of rape, then by Marcotte’s definition, you are a part of rape culture in suggesting that an allegation may well be false. If you were in conversation with Marcotte, you might stop her and say, ‘Hold on, I’m not talking about rape, let alone condoning it. I am talking about a false charge of rape.’

That’s a myth, says Marcotte. Women do not lie about rape (or do lie, but only in statistically inconsequential numbers). In Marcotte’s feminist world, there are only two options: the recognition of the rape that exists or the denial of the rape that exists. And if you “deny” by holding to the myth of false accusations (but see Edward Greer on the complex reality of false accusations), you are strengthening the rapist’s so-called social licence. To strengthen the rapist’s social licence is dangerous since it promotes rape. We see how easily the way is paved for the silencing of critics of rape culture.

It is in light of the embargo on reasoned analysis of feminist claims that one notes the slavish pro-feminism of the Snapshot Messageof Allan Rock, President of the University of Ottawa, in response to the Facebook incident and the investigation of the varsity men’s hockey team. The Snapshot Message is Rock’s regular means of communicating with the university community, sent via email. His rape culture statement of March 6, 2014 is politically correct claptrap of the first order, blithely discarding the presumption of innocence for members of the men’s hockey team and pathetically eager to declare his feminist bona fides to the extent of outlawing anti-feminist thought.

While stressing that the allegations against the hockey team are “unproven,” Rock falls in line with the rape culture position in assuming that they’re almost certainly true—at least to the extent that they reveal something real and repugnant about male sexuality. He notes that “these allegations, along with the disturbing on-line conversation about Ms. Roy, point to a need for a broader conversation” and “raise troubling questions about attitudes and behaviour.”

One must ask the obvious: how can unproven allegations point to or raise questions about anything? They may remain unproven, in which case there is nothing to point anywhere. It is disturbing to see a university president claiming a wide-scale problem based on one Facebook conversation and an unproven allegation. The assumption that the sexuality of young male athletes, even if not actually criminal, is aggressive and dangerous to women—deserving of public denunciation and disavowal—is an instance of reflex misandry by a top university official.

Rock does even more, however, than acknowledge “troubling circumstances.” He calls for a Task Force on Respect and Equality. And he makes clear that it will have a broad mandate. Here is one of the questions that concerns him:

 “Can we be clearer in telling our first-year students, our freshly hired faculty, our newly recruited staff that we will not accept words or conduct that suggest such violence is acceptable.”

Note that: “… we will not accept words or conduct that suggest …”

Not “… we will not accept violence” or “… we will not accept calls for violence or threats of violence …”

But “… we will not accept words or conduct that suggest such violence is acceptable.”

This is a very wide net to cast, a flexible and capacious definition of what the university will not accept.

The clear implication for men on the university campus: don’t even think about a joke, a comment, a compliment, an observation, a gesture, a facial expression, anything at all that might “suggest such violence is acceptable.” The University of Ottawa, in line with all universities across the country, already has a stringent and hyperactive sexual harassment policy that defines sexual harassment broadly as any “unwanted sexual attention,” including words. But Rock’s statement implies that further regulatory and punitive measures may well be necessary to keep men in line.

And if that doesn’t go far enough, Rock’s final words in his “Snapshot Message” are even more remarkable: “I conclude by saying that as appalling as these events and allegations have been, they have been a catalyst for a frank discussion […] and a fearless inventory of our practices and assumptions.”

Aside from the rhetorical overreach of this statement—what words would he use, one wonders, for an actual act of violence on campus that would be stronger than “appalling”?—Rock’s determination to conduct an “inventory of assumptions” is noteworthy. As a free-born citizen of Canada, I reserve the right to protect my assumptions from scrutiny by any University Presidential Big Brother. The last thing a university should be inaugurating is an inventory of assumptions. Violence and threats of violence are unacceptable. Period. Thoughts are free. The fact that the University of Ottawa’s President doesn’t understand that is unsettling.

Equally unsettling is that the President’s Message—like the APUO statement, like Amanda Marcotte’s  blog post, and like all the feminist models of rape and sexualized inequality on which they are based—takes for granted that sexual violence is a one-way street, with men as perpetrators and women as victims.

“Violence by men against women,” Rock asserts, “is all too common in our culture, our entertainment, and our attitudes.” Never mentioned in his document is the fact that men are also the victims of sexual assault (see the 2007 study by D.A. Hines finding the cross-gendered nature of coerced sex) and men are more likely than women to be the victims of violence generally.

Why is President Rock so eager that “women in particular” be offered an environment free of harassment? Likely it doesn’t even cross his mind, or the minds of anyone advising him, that men are deserving of compassion and protection too. And it won’t reassure equality-minded men reading the document to see his statement that “The University of Ottawa is known for the expertise of our feminist scholars and our legal analysts.” These scholar-ideologues almost certainly won’t have anything to say about male victims, since it is highly unlikely that they even acknowledge the reality of male victimization.

Partly as a result of the success of the feminist narrative—and partly for other reasons—the problems of men are largely ignored by a society trained to believe that men’s suffering matters less than women’s, if it is even recognized at all. If there is a culture on university campuses, it may well be a culture of indifference, and sometimes outright hostility, to men’s lives. We hear next to nothing about the challenges that men are facing in the early twenty-first century: the fact, very noticeable to anyone who cares to look, that the proportion of young men at university is at an all-time low and continuing to decline.

Where’s the public outcry and the panel discussions about the truly staggering fact that men on campus are now outnumbered by women by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1? What about other problems: the high suicide rate among young men, particularly men of undergraduate university years; the very poor performance of boys in our elementary schools; the life-long emotional and social problems of many boys who grow up without fathers; the depression many men battle as a result of divorce and the loss of access to their children?

Feminist activism has already been remarkably successful in creating a campus environment that focuses exclusively on women’s security and perspectives to the detriment of men’s. The SFUO (the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa) includes in its Statement of Principles a mandate to “act against the oppression of women [but not of men] … and other disadvantaged groups,” a mandate that has been used by other student unions to refuse accreditation to men’s issues clubs at the University of Toronto and Ryerson.

Like other Canadian universities, the University of Ottawa has a Women’s Centre (one that serves the “diverse needs of marginalized genders”) but not a Men’s Centre. It posts “Don’t Be That Guy” posters, which target all men as potential rapists, especially of inebriated girls, and which do not acknowledge that young men are sexually coerced by women. And it will almost certainly go the way of other universities in promoting draconian new guidelines to define women’s [but not men’s] sexual consent.

As a woman advantaged by feminist policies who has seen highly qualified men consistently passed over in hiring competitions, experienced the knee-jerk misandry of feminist colleagues, and witnessed the shaming of young men in university classrooms past and present, I want no part in rape crisis feminism. Right now, however, its status as the secular faith of the contemporary university seems depressingly secure.

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