RAINN Goes Against The Grain

This post was also published on Feminist Critics.


On February 28th RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) published their recommendations for the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which President Obama has charged with creating a plan to reduce rape on college campuses.

RAINN is the United States’ largest anti-sexual violence organization and is generally well-respected. They run the DoD Safe Helpline on behalf of the Department of Defense. So I think we can safely assume that RAINN does have some lobbying clout on this issue.

RAINN really went against many of the more common feminist talking points/strategies against rape in their recommendation. This hasn’t gone completely unnoticed among feminists as can be seen in this post on Feministing and in some of the comments on RAINN’s Facebook post about their recommendations to the White House Task Force. But I have to say I expected a bit more discussion of this in feminist circles, all things considered. So let’s look at what RAINN wrote which I think will be viewed as problematic by some feminists.

Rape Culture?

Contrary to most feminists I’ve heard, RAINN doesn’t think rape culture is an explanation for the prevalence of rape.

In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. … While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.

While that may seem an obvious point, it has tended to get lost in recent debates.

Ouch. They enclosed the term rape culture in quotes and the last line has some sting in it — subtly admonishing those who lost that obvious point. Although I’ve met feminists who dismisses the term rape culture and its use as an explanation for the prevalency of rape, I think it’s safe to say that rape culture is a mainstream and widely used term in feminist circles, and for many feminists it’s the major explanation of rape (along with patriarchy).

But RAINN aren’t done castigating yet:

This has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., “masculinity”), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape. This trend has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions.

So according to RAINN it’s not jocks, (toxic) masculinity or frat-boys at large who should be the focus of stopping sexual violence. The focus should be on the individuals at fault: the perpetrators. Failing to do so in fact makes it harder to stop sexual violence. So in an ironic twist one could argue that the term rape culture has itself become rape culture according to RAINN’s analysis.

Teach Men Not To Rape?

By the time they reach college, most students have been exposed to 18 years of prevention messages, in one form or another. Thanks to repeated messages from parents, religious leaders, teachers, coaches, the media and, yes, the culture at large, the overwhelming majority of these young adults have learned right from wrong, and enter college knowing that rape falls squarely in the latter category.

Here RAINN pointed out that educating young adults at college level that rape is wrong is a waste of time. They go on to point out that focusing solely on certain social groups or “types” of students (read: men) is a mistake:

Research supports the view that to focus solely on certain social groups or “types” of students in the effort to end campus sexual violence is a mistake. Dr. David Lisak estimates that three percent of college men are responsible for more than 90% of rapes. Other studies suggest that between 3-7 percent of college men have committed an act of sexual violence or would consider doing so. It is this relatively small percentage of the population, which has proven itself immune to years of prevention messages, that we must address in other ways. (Unfortunately, we are not aware of reliable research on female college perpetrators.)

From the last sentence in-between the parentheses I wonder what they consider reliable research or whether they haven’t heard of the bibliography of female sexual offenders at the Female Offenders site where a quick search revealed several papers with the word college in the title. I am pretty sure Denise Hines is a respected researcher and her paper: Predictors of sexual coercion against women and men: A multilevel, multinational study of university students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36(3), 403-422. (2007) seems relevant.

On the other hand, explicitly mentioning female perpetrators (even in-between parentheses) is a step forward.

To really drive the point home RAINN refers to David Lisak’s research:

Again, this research supports the fact that more than 90% of college-age males do not, and are unlikely to ever, rape. In fact, we have found that they’re ready and eager to be engaged on these issues. It’s the other guys (and, sometimes, women) who are the problem.

I am cautiously encouraged by the explicit acknowledgement of female perpetrators.

What We Don’t Know Is Important To Heed

But we urge the task force not to hurriedly endorse a single message or marketing campaign or rush to create a new one. The fact is, there is a real dearth of reliable data on what works. Because of this, the role of the federal government should be to encourage innovation and sponsor rigorous evaluation, rather than force the adoption of specific programs.

Not much to say except agreeing that it’s vital that we get reliable data on what works and don’t just rush out yet another “Don’t be that guy” campaign.

There is also insufficient research to know if one-size messages work, or if (and how) they should be tailored for audiences such as male or LGBT survivors or those with disabilities.

It’s nice to see that LGBT and male victims are on RAINN’s radar. Too many of the current campaigns ignore these victims (as well as female perpetrators) and when they do include these victims they often stand out as a token.
Research (David Lisak) has revealed some insights according to RAINN:

Importantly, research has shown that prevention efforts that focus solely on men and “redefining masculinity,” as some programs have termed it, are unlikely to be effective.

Redefining masculinity is a often offered by many feminists and pro-feminists as a solution to many ailments; rape being one of them.

Victim Blaming?

Despite lamenting the dearth of reliable research on what campaigns are effective, RAINN still makes some recommendations about what type of campaigns colleges should run:

RAINN recommends a three-tiered approach when it comes to preventing sexual violence on college campuses. A prevention campaign should include the following elements:

  1. Bystander intervention education: empowering community members to act in response to acts of sexual violence.
  2. Risk-reduction messaging: empowering members of the community to take steps to increase their personal safety.
  3. General education to promote understanding of the law, particularly as it relates to the ability to consent.

Notice #2. Suggesting that people take steps to reduce their risk of being raped is in many circles a sure way to be labelled a victim-blamer or a rape-apologist. Yet here RAINN is stating it outright — although it’s coached in positive terms as “empowering” and “increase […] safety”.
RAINN is aware of the risk of being accused of victim-blaming and has included four paragraphs trying to pre-emptively avoid this. Here is an excerpt:

As anyone who has worked on rape prevention knows, risk-reduction messaging is a sensitive topic. Even the most well-intentioned risk-reduction message can be misunderstood to suggest that, by not following the tips, a victim is somehow to blame for his or her own attack. Recent survivors of sexual violence are particularly sensitive to these messages, and we owe it to them to use them cautiously.
Still, they are an important part of a rape prevention program. To be very clear, RAINN in no way condones or advocates victim blaming.

Your Brother’s Keeper?

Bystander intervention messaging is an unproven, but promising, approach, and we recommend expanding its use in the context of combatting sexual violence on campuses. Changing social norms so that students feel a responsibility to watch out for friends, and intervene before a friend becomes a victim or perpetrator, should be encouraged and supported by the federal government.

Notice how they frame “bystander intervention messaging” as watching out for friend to protect them from becoming victims and not putting the onus on men to police other men (as exemplified by this Men Can Stop Rape: Where Do You Stand campaign poster).

What Constitute Rape Can Be Confusing?

RAINN acknowledges that what makes up consent can be confusing for students because they receive many contradictory messages of what makes up consent. The clearest example is consent while having consumed alcohol or drugs.

In our public education work, we consistently encounter confusion about the definition of consent, particularly in cases in which one or both parties have consumed alcohol or drugs. Students receive a tremendous amount of conflicting (and often erroneous) information about where “the consent line” is.
Some campaigns and websites claim that the ingestion of even a single drink renders someone unable to legally consent, while conversely others explain that anyone short of unconscious can consent (in fact, the standard varies by state; most common is an “incapacitation” standard, which itself is not always well defined in law). Still others giving advice to students use imprecise, and therefore unhelpful, words such as “buzzed” to describe the line.

I don’t think I’ve seen many feminists acknowledge this plethora of conflicting messages about consent while under the influence and certainly not that it’s a problem in itself that they exist.

Let The Real Courts Handle Rape?

RAINN states that the college should de-emphasize internal judicial boards. RAINN argues that they are ill-equipped to handle such a serious crime as rape (second only to murder).

[…]the simple fact is that these internal boards were designed to adjudicate charges like plagiarism, not violent felonies. The crime of rape just does not fit the capabilities of such boards. They often offer the worst of both worlds: they lack protections for the accused while often tormenting victims.

Some Criticism From Me

I have some problems with RAINN’s document; mainly that it’s outdated, with the statistics they chose to use:

One out of every six women and one out of every 33 men are victims of sexual assault – 20 million Americans in all.

That statistic is from the 1998 survey called Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey by the National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). In January 2012 CDC published their NISVS 2010 Report which included statistics on the prevalence of sexual violence and rape. Newer statistics from a less gender-biased survey ((although it was far from perfect with its gender-biased definition of rape)) — why not use the more recent statistics?

I have seen many different definitions of rape culture — some very gendered some more gender neutral. Some of the definitions included culturally accepted sentiments that increases the risk of rape. I personally have heard a few: “That wasn’t rape – a woman can’t rape a man”, “You got an erection so you must’ve wanted it” and some more. I am sure female survivors have several examples they can cite. I do think it’s worthwhile to address these sentiments and explain to people why they are wrong. Although some definitions of rape culture describe something I think is real, I think that the term itself is a misnomer which negatively impact the usefulness of that term.

RAINN argues for teaching students about the legal definitions of sexual violence, rape, consent et cetera and not to use non-legal terms like “date rape”. Sound advice, but I am still concerned about the fact that many forms of sexual violence against men (particularly with a female offender) aren’t legally defined at the moment. Hence we get news stories like this one from Maryland where two teenaged girls who among other things forced an autistic boy at knife-point to masturbate and to copulate with an animal — all while filming it on their phones. They weren’t charged with rape, nor sexual assault (or sexual offense as the legal term is in Maryland State Laws) and as such won’t show up in FBI statistics on rape and sexual violence. They were charged with aggravated assault and soliciting a subject for production of child porn.

RAINN also calls for more research and surveys by the federal government. This I would think is an uncontroversial recommendation and one I applaud.

There is one other area in which the federal government can play a productive role: using its research expertise to conduct frequent anonymous surveys on a variety of campuses, in order to measure the rate of sexual violence and the impact of individual campus prevention programs.

EDIT: Fixed some formatting issues and added some links that had gone missing.


3 thoughts on “RAINN Goes Against The Grain

  1. Pingback: RAINN Goes Against The Grain | Feminist Critics
  2. “But I have to say I expected a bit more discussion of this in feminist circles, all things considered.”

    Maybe the feminists are just “playing possum” on this subject, because they figure that raising the profile in ANY way would pose a greater risk than talking about it for any reason.

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