Challenging Rape Myths on Campus: A New Book Looks at Higher Education's Poor Track Record in Confronting Sexual Assault

By Goral, Tim | University Business, November 2015 | Go to article overview

Challenging Rape Myths on Campus: A New Book Looks at Higher Education's Poor Track Record in Confronting Sexual Assault


Goral, Tim, University Business


A study released in September by the Association of American Universities found that 12 percent of students across 27 universities had experienced sexual assault by force or incapacitation since enrollment, and that 17percent of seniors had experienced this type of sexual assault while at college. Sara Carrigan Wooten, a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Research at Louisiana State University, says the report comes as no surprise, as she has been researching the issue for a number of years. Her new book, The Crisis of Campus Sexual Violence: Critical Perspectives on Prevention and Response (Routledge, 2015), co-edited by Roland W. Mitchell, an associate director and associate professor in LSU's School of Education, offers a holistic understanding of the challenges colleges and universities face in implementing adequate and effective sexual assault prevention and response practices. In fact, says Wooten, the problem is so extensive and rapidly changing that a follow-on volume is already in the works.

You say we're using outdated definitions when discussing sexual violence.

I believe we are. When we say campus sexual violence, the image that snaps into our collective conscious is generally a white woman who has been assaulted, maybe at a fraternity or a party where there was lots of drinking and maybe drug use. Sexual violence in college is much broader than that and it's much more complex.

So, while we are still not doing as well as we must for straight white women, we also need to be thinking more expansively about who is affected by this. If we flip the script and we say any student--or even faculty member--can be impacted by campus sexual violence, then that changes the entire conversation.

You note that there was little acknowledgment of LGBT sexual assault before the AAU study.

I was happy that the AAU study asked questions of gender nonconforming, transgender students, and so on. But I would characterize it as a special interest focus of mainstream campus sexual assault research rather than being centered and normalized within that conversation. I don't think we know nearly enough about how gay men and lesbian women are experiencing campus sexual violence, about how gender nonconforming students are experiencing campus sexual violence. There's still so much work to do there.

At one point you discuss rape myths. Can you explain what is meant by that?

Let me give you some examples. The predominant rape myth for campus sexual assault issues is that the victim was responsible in some way for their own assault. It is oftentimes what leads students to feel that they should not report their assault.

A student goes to a party and drinks or maybe does drugs, or they accept a drink from someone that contains a date rape drug put in it. They drink it, they pass out. They wake up in the morning and they know something happened. But they feel that they were responsible because--and I'm putting this in extreme air quotes--they put themselves in that situation.

It is their fault that they were assaulted, and if they had not done any of those things, they would not have been assaulted. This is a really pervasive idea. It's a horrible rape myth because it functions to absolve any responsibility from the perpetrator of the actual sexual assault.

This idea that if victims just change their behavior that they wouldn't get assaulted is ludicrous.

And we can see that from a number of different angles. Another rape myth is women who wear short skirts are inviting rape, or women who go to parties alone are inviting rape, or women who binge drink in college are inviting rape. Those are all rape myths.

Every semester I have these conversations with my students. I say if you think that only attractive women in short skirts get sexually assaulted, then you are basically saying that rape is a compliment or it's flattering. …

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