Don’t Tell Women They’re Responsible for Rape and Then Wonder Why They Call It “Unwanted Sex”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sexual assault statistics, and so has Sandy Hingston—she recently wrote an article in Philadelphia Magazine that is a lengthy attack on Title IX protection for campus assault survivors, explored through the lens of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management (NCHERM). I’d have to write a novella if I wanted to respond to all of it, so for the moment let’s focus on Hingston’s discussion of stats:

What’s interesting about the 2007 Justice Department report is that its researchers didn’t ask the 5,446 female students who took their online survey if they’d been sexually assaulted. They decided for the young women, who despite their on-campus training and support were deemed too ignorant to know.

Specifically, the survey asked whether students had experienced unwanted sexual contact, defined as forced kissing, grabbing, fondling, touching of private parts, and/or oral, anal or vaginal penetration via finger, mouth, tongue, penis or object. If students checked YES, as 1,073—one in five—did, that was deemed a sexual assault. Of those students, 682 were classified as having undergone attempted sexual assault, and another 782 completed sexual assault, with 651 of the latter saying they were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated or asleep at the time.

I’m baffled by Hingston’s outrage at the idea that when a student says they have been forcefully kissed, grabbed, fondled, touched, or penetrated against their will (as “unwanted” behavior indicates) a researcher would label the incident as a sexual assault. Is that NOT the definition of a sexual assault? Hingston frames this as paternalistic and seems to think it robs the participants of agency by not letting them identify their own experiences. While I am a firm believer in letting someone label their own experiences for crafting their own narratives and dealing with experiences, that wasn’t the point of this research. The question isn’t “how many young women say they have been sexually assaulted?” The question is “how many young women have experienced sexual assault, broadly defined?”

Why is the distinction important? Let’s say there’s a guy and a girl at a party dancing. Suddenly he pushes her against the wall and despite her obvious discomfort and protest, kisses her, gropes at her breasts and rubs his hand between her legs over her clothes. Eventually she pushes him off of her and walks out of the party. If you asked this girl a couple months later, “have you ever been sexually assaulted?” will she say yes? Maybe, but maybe not. Did she experience behavior that we define as sexual assault? Absolutely. For the purposes of trying to measure the frequency of sexual assault on campus, the latter is what’s relevant. This isn’t a question of how individuals define violence—we culturally and legally define violent and criminal behavior. We want to know how often it happens, which means knowing how often the behavior actually occurs not how often people say it occurs. Ask 20 college students if they have ever engaged in “criminal behavior.” Ask the same 20 college students if they have ever smoked weed or consumed alcohol before age 21. Don’t you anticipate more students answering “yes” to the second question even though technically you’re asking the same thing? This isn’t news. It’s not as though researchers who work on sexual violence are the only ones to ever ask inclusive, specific questions that don’t rely on self-identified behavior to uncover realistic rates. In fact, this is how you are trained to do effective research.

Furthermore, just because this student doesn’t feel as though she’s been sexually assaulted, there is still a guy walking around campus who thinks that it’s perfectly OK to shove girls against the wall and grope them. The whole point of providing definitions of acceptable conduct is to set guidelines for what is and isn’t acceptable at an institutional level and hold everyone accountable to the same standards. I may not think handing in a copy of someone else’s paper is a big deal because after all, I was really sick that week and I did all of my other work myself! But the school still calls that plagiarism.

But let’s turn away from research procedure and conduct codes for a second and think about the larger issue: the fact is that many students who have experienced forced, unwanted touching of a sexual nature don’t call it sexual assault. Here’s Hingston’s take.

Still, when researchers asked the young women themselves if they considered what happened to them “rape,” three-quarters of the “incapacitated” victims didn’t. Only three percent said they’d experienced physical or psychological harm. Only two percent reported what happened to campus security or police. Asked why they hadn’t, the women said they didn’t consider the incident serious enough (66 percent) and/or that it wasn’t clear a crime or harm was intended (36 percent). Half said they themselves were partially or fully responsible for what had happened. The gray looked pretty gray to them.

Because Hingston doesn’t specify which DOJ statistics she is referring to, I can’t address specific numbers. However, a couple of her stats match up closely with what was found in the Sexual Victimization of College Women report. Yes, a lot of young women say that they didn’t report incidents that could be defined as rape because they didn’t think it was serious enough or they didn’t think harm was intended. That is true. (Other reasons for not reporting include not wanting parents to know, thinking police will not take them seriously, and being afraid of reprisal from the assailant and the assailant’s friends). Hingston’s conclusion is: “See, it’s not a big deal! All these girls got drunk, experienced ‘unwanted completed penetration by force of threat of force’ but they don’t think it was all that serious. They don’t think the guy meant to hurt them. No harm no foul!” I, however, am left wondering: these women identified what happened to them as “unwanted,” yet they don’t identify it as rape or assault, nor would they call it serious or associate it with harm. What’s going on here?

The authours of the SVCW report address this briefly:

Women may not define a victimization as a rape for many reasons
(such as embarrassment, not clearly understanding the legal definition of the term, or not wanting to define someone they know who victimized them as a rapist) or because others blame them for their sexual assault. Which of these reasons is more or less correct cannot be definitively substantiated here because little systematic research has examined why women do or do not define as a rape an incident that has met the researcher’s criteria for a rape.

Although the authors cite a 1993 study in their list of potential reasons (Pitts and Scwartz, Promoting Self-Blame in Hidden Rape Cases), they are right—we don’t know why this gap in dictionary definition and self-definition occurs. (If someone has more updated research, PLEASE let me know!) But the point that we don’t exactly know is well-taken. It means that any theories about the answer are based on personal biases and personal and professional experience. Whereas Hingston argues that there simply isn’t assault happening, I would argue that this identification gap is a result of a number of different social and personal factors, including all of the ones listed by the report authors, and the widespread belief of a multitude of rape myths that keep people from defining their experience as rape if they are not “the perfect victim.” I would also guess that the popular narrative about women, drinking, and “responsibility,” also has a lot to do with it.

Because what it comes down to is, of course, “responsibility.” Hingston refers to a stat (that I can’t find) that about half of the incapacitated students who have experienced a “by-definition” rape feel responsible for what happened. She also says:

I have a college-age daughter. I tell Sokolow [the NCHERM lawyer in the story] that if she got drunk and had sex with someone, I’d jolly well expect her to take responsibility. He isn’t buying it: “She should have the right to strip naked and run through the streets and be unmolested. She didn’t make that happen; the molester did.”

Again, Hingston takes an “admission” of responsibility as an erasure of the incident. By her logic, a student who gets drunk and passes out, is raped, and then feels responsible for what has happened to her actually hasn’t been raped at all. By feeling guilt, the student is absolving the perpetrator. But whether or not the student calls it rape, feels responsible or doesn’t, reports the incident or doesn’t, the fact of the matter is someone had sex with her while she was unconscious. We call that rape. And we don’t want to see it happen to anyone, no matter what their perception of it is. I’ll say it again, we don’t create standards of conduct based on individual perceptions of personal harm, we do it based on collective ethics and standards.

Finally, I have no idea what Hingston means when says she would expect her daughter to “take responsibility” if she got drunk and had sex with someone. I feel really gross using someone’s daughter as a hypothetical though, so let’s just phrase this as though we were talking about any student. What does “taking responsibility” look like? Does she mean that once a student gets drunk that student is no longer “allowed” to say they have been raped or assaulted? Is being drunk a free pass for the other person to do whatever they want?

I’m going to assume that’s not the case (because it’s just too upsetting to believe). I’m going to assume instead that Hingston believes that there is a distinction between “rape” and “unwanted sex.” The former (sometimes called rape-rape) is associated with girls who don’t drink and aren’t promiscuous and scream for help as they are forcefully held down and raped. The latter is this nebulous thing that happens when a girl gets drunk, gets herself into a situation that she wasn’t ready for, and then feels bad about it afterward. Hingston implies that that second girl needs to suck it up and deal with her bad decision-making. She doesn’t get the “privilege” of being a rape victim because she did something stupid to put herself in that position.

But here’s one reality of “that girl.” That girl is out drinking at a party. She invites a guy back to her room to make out, and who knows where it will go…she figures she see how it feels.  They start kissing, and she starts to feel dizzy; she drank too much. As things go on, she’s mumbling incoherently. At some point she has stopped really moving much, the guy is just continuing to hook up with her. She blacks out, and she wakes up to find a used condom next to her bed. She feels awful and violated. But she doesn’t call it rape—she doesn’t know quite what to think, but a voice in her head tells her some version of what Hingston does: that she put herself in that position, she is “responsible.”

Meanwhile, this guy had sex with a girl who was visibly, according to most campus policies and many state laws, too drunk to consent. But we don’t hold him responsible. We don’t expect that at some point he would have tried to figure out if the girl was even aware of what was going on. He wasn’t blacking out, but we don’t expect that he would find it odd that his sexual partner wasn’t really actively participating in what was going on, just lying there and letting him “do his thing.” In fact, our only expectation of him is that he not use some kind of excessive force or threat to have sex with a woman who is shouting “no.”

I’m sorry, I’m repeating myself. I’ve told some version of this story over and over again. But I can’t say it enough—we spend so much time talking about who is liable and what can be proven in a court or at a disciplinary panel, when we SHOULD be talking about why that situation should not be happening. And it shouldn’t be happening no matter what you call it—even if you leave it at “unwanted sex,” WHY ARE PEOPLE HAVING SO MUCH UNWANTED SEX? But  maybe, just maybe, if we made it clear to students that what happened in the above situation isn’t what fun, healthy, consensual sex would be like (drunk OR sober), we could have a more balanced conversation about how to be responsible for ourselves and for each other.

For more on Hingston’s article, see Jezebel.

(Cross-posted from Change Happens. As an aside, this post was written with a female victim/male perpetrator paradigm because that’s how the article it was responding to was written.)

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 21, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of Philadelphia and messed up rape laws – did you see the CityPaper group of articles on sexual harassment and rape? It described why Pennsylvania laws give more legal advantages to rapists than survivors!

    http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/cover-story/Reality-Check-Pennsylvanias-Rape-Laws-Perpetuate-the-Myths.html

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