What is rape culture? Rape culture refers to attitudes and beliefs about rape that discourage survivors from speaking about their experiences and reporting them to authorities. The topic is widely discussed in the current climate of politics and academia. Social pressure from students and politicians is compelling the legal system and universities to look more closely at the way they treat accusations of rape and sexual assault. This focus on rape has helped ensure justice in rape cases where the legal system has historically ignored and silenced survivors’ victimization.

While it is ridiculous to undermine rape and disgusting to justify the crime, it is also important to ensure that facts are used to deal with the issue. There are several misconceptions regarding rape which propel the concept to levels inconsistent with the actual state of the issue. In order to effectively discuss and address the issues surrounding rape and sexual assault in our society, it is key to ensure that the most accurate and relevant information is used.

Misleading information has influenced many students and politicians to inflate the problem to exaggerated levels. Universities maintain that rape is an epidemic, while politicians declare it to be a national threat to all women. In 2014, President Obama established a special task force to deal with sexual assault, claiming, “It is estimated that one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there … It’s totally unacceptable” [6].  This misinformation is leading to actions which address the hysteria, rather than the problem.

University administrations have significantly reformed the way they handle sexual assault cases, by, for instance, using tribunals to conduct hearings. However many of the students accused of sexual assault have claimed that the universities do not protect their rights in these circumstances. Defendants’ lawyers may not be able to speak on their behalf; they are not allowed to examine the evidence against them nor examine the testimony against them. Furthermore, many of the questions they posit may not be asked in the hearing. In order to ensure that proceedings are as fair as possible, we cannot be biased against students who are accused of sexual assault especially when this bias is often informed by false statistics.

Most statistics regarding rape culture are false and misquoted, or interpreted based on presupposed conclusions. A prime example would be the claim that only two percent of rapists ever face a day in jail. Despite being false, this study has been cited by notable organizations such as the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. The statistic is based on the notion that every single rape accusation is an actual case of rape [4]. A more accurate statement would be that only two percent of accused rapes lead to a conviction; after all, due to trauma and stigma, rapes are often reported years after the crime has taken place. This makes it significantly more difficult to procure accurate physical or circumstantial evidence.

In response, steps must be taken to ensure rape victims report as soon as possible to ensure the highest chance of procuring a conviction. As a society, we need to make sure that there is no stigma when reporting sexual violence and ensure that the environment for victims is as accepting and non-judgemental as possible. This includes training police and courts to be sensitive when dealing with these issues. By having more relevant information and more focused discussion, we will be able to pinpoint what the real problems are, and then find ways to address them. Thus, we will be able to better combat sexual violence.  

Furthermore, it is imperative that any study about crime and victimization uses accurate and relevant definitions. For example, the common saying that one in five women [5] will be the victim of rape on college campuses is based off a rather vague definition of rape. According to research done by End Violence Against Women International’s Kimberly Lonsway, one of the most cited experts on this topic, the definition of rape used in this study is inconsistent with the legal definition of rape for the majority of states as well as the general protocol and standard methodology of sexual assault research. According to the Bureau of Justice, statistics regarding rape and sexual assault on college campuses show that 1 in 53 women will be the victim of rape or sexual assault in their lifetime [1]. The “one in five” claim originates from a 2007 internet study where there was no way to corroborate any of the claims. There was a low response rate of 42%, vaguely worded questions, and a non-representative sample size [4][5]. Ultimately, any number of rapes is too many, and steps must be taken to effectively address the issue. But in order to do this, accurate statistics must be factored into the decision-making process.

Without a doubt, rape is a serious issue that leads to a lifetime of trauma and pain for victims. Its damage or prevalence should never be undermined.  However, no issue can be effectively tackled or addressed when the discussion surrounding it lies in the murky waters of falsehood and unreliability. Especially for a crime as reprehensible as rape, we should ensure that our discourse leads to the creation of solutions, not more problems. Women should not have to go through life afraid of being victims of sexual assault. This causes societal changes which not only limit women’s freedoms, but in some cases also lead to the harassment and wrongful incrimination of men before actual convictions have been made [3].

Misinformation is dangerous, especially when it pervades discussion about rape culture. The deleterious effects of misinforming the public can only be mitigated by the use of accurate information. This will lead to a more effective discussion regarding sexual assault where the focus is on the way to solve problems regarding sexual violence as opposed to inflating and expanding them.

Illustration: Lila Huang

[1] https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsavcaf9513.pdf

[2] https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/1996/96sec2.pdf    

[3] http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2014/08/14/Guilt-Accusation-How-Colleges-Deal-Campus-Sex

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2014/05/01/one-in-five-women-in-college-sexually-assaulted-the-source-of-this-statistic/

[5] http://time.com/3633903/campus-rape-1-in-5-sexual-assault-setting-record-straight/

[6] http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/feb/16/barack-obama/barack-obama-says-nearly-1-5-women-us-has-been-rap/

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