While Society Argues Over Rape Culture, Who Is Helping The Victims?

by Daniel Newcomer

Managing Editor Will Dana's letter, written as a preface to the much-anticipated Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism report on the failures of Rolling Stone's UVA rape story, held harrowing undertones extending beyond the failures of the Rolling Stone editorial team.

In the letter, Dana wrote,

Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.

Print publications and mass TV media have been awash with criticisms and revelations regarding Rolling Stone's “A Rape on Campus” since its publication in December of 2014.

With the Graduate School of Journalism's report, published on Rolling Stone's website earlier this month, the matter seems to be settled: Rolling Stone failed, only highlighting the dire effects bad journalism can have on its subjects and an audience.

Dana's letter and the report show, clearly, how rape survivors and the national discussion regarding rape culture have been damaged.

Rolling Stone's main source for the “A Rape on Campus” piece, Jackie, has become an anti-feminist rallying point, where critics of a rape culture hold both her and Rolling Stone as proof some women lie about rape.

According to the website Force: Upsetting the Rape Culture, the idea behind rape culture is “people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate, rape.”

Emilie Buchwald, the author of "Transforming a Rape Culture," states rape culture is a “complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women.”

Everyday Feminism presents 25 examples of rape culture's passage into the normality of a male-dominated society.

Critics of a rape culture point in the other direction, calling it a “hysteria,” like in Caroline Kitchens' March 2014 essay in Time magazine, titled, “It's Time to End 'Rape Culture' Hysteria.”

In 1993, associate professor of psychology at Clark University, Christina Hoff Sommers, wrote in the publication The Real Issue about her findings on rape culture, saying,

Rape is perpetrated by criminals, which is to say, it is perpetrated by people who are wont to gratify themselves in criminal ways and who care very little about the suffering they inflict on others.

The discussion on the existence of rape culture and the importance placed on this phrase is not new, and its association with feminism has left the idea open to stocky claims of exaggeration.

Yet, there is one reality regarding the idea of rape culture and its criticism.

While supporters and critics battle over the legitimacy of this idea, many rape survivors are stuck on the sidelines seeking the care and help they deserve from friends, family, society, universities and the legal system, to enjoy a happy and successful life.

Understanding rape culture

Elite Daily had the pleasure of sitting with Scott Berkowitz to further discuss this issue in the spirit of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Berkowitz is the founder of the National Sexual Assault Hotline as well as one of North America's leading anti-sexual violence organizations, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN).

Founded in 1994, both the hotline and RAINN have helped more than two million people.

And according to Berkowitz, “rape culture” is not a term RAINN uses, and not because the organization doesn't support or disregard the idea, but instead it's because, in Berkowitz's words,

We tend to talk in much more concrete terms. There are systemic problems. Right now, only about 1/3 of victims report to the police, and even those that do, don't get justice. There's problems with the system all along the way.

He continues,

And the fact is that most rapists are serial criminals, so when you leave one on the streets, that creates more victims later. So there is a cycle, these systemic things that are stopping us from eliminating rape or from reducing it as far as humanly possible.

The evidence for rape's prevalence in society is certainly eye-opening. On the RAINN website, statistics used for the alarming prevalence of rape come from the US Department of Justice, where high numbers inevitably cause both concern and skepticism.

For example, every 107 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted. Ninety-eight percent of rapists never spend a day in jail or prison. Two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

These are unbelievable numbers. In the time it's taken you to get to this very sentence in this very article, there has been another sexual assault committed.

And to be honest, Berkowitz admits they use the most conservative numbers available, as “the problem is bad enough at the most conservative numbers.”

The malicious false rape claim

False rape claims, which have recently made national headlines and sprouted a myriad of heated debates on rape culture, have not garnered a reliable statistic. The pendulum swings from two percent by feminist groups to eight percent, the number most commonly associated with the FBI.

The Rolling Stone article inadvertently shot skepticism of rape claims, and the article's publication led to real-life effects: vandalism at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in Virginia, and a growing fear among survivors that people won't believe them.

With a spectrum of statistics and the idea of prevalent false rape claims, whether maliciously or recreationally, Berkowitz emphasizes the role of the victim and the essential role of the first person the victim contacts.

He says,

One message we try to get out to friends and families is that [the first person's reaction] really has a big influence on everything that comes after. How quickly survivors recover, whether they decide to report to police, there's a lot of things that your initial reaction can influence.

Berkowitz also states reporters and lawyers have professional roles to play, and delicate education processes are important for helping victims understand the skepticism they'll meet when reporting. However, it's also true advancements in police interviewing techniques are informed by how people respond to trauma, and journalists can certainly take advantage of these techniques as well.

Survivors and victims who decide to report their claim to the press and/or police need to feel comfortable that no matter how sparse or detailed a story, trained professionals in trauma can respond accurately.

Like any crime, however, false accusations do occur, and they hold significant weight in the rape culture dialogue. Berkowitz levels,

I've met thousands of rape survivors and I've never met one who would describe it as 'glorious.' There are a lot of disincentives to report a rape, and there aren't many incentives.

Where to go from here

The idea of rape culture, though it does expose a complete lack of respect for women and may, in some cases, reflect pockets of society continuing to treat women like objects, does little in terms of facing the issue at hand: proper care for victims and a proper legal system.

In regards to RAINN's public policy efforts, Berkowitz said he's committed to "making the system more responsive to victims and ultimately leading to justice for more.”

There are few who'd argue rape isn't a prominent issue that needs to be addressed carefully, and many would agree the finite pool of media space and discussion room has not been targeting the problems that can be fixed in universities and within the legal system.

Support organizations such as RAINN and the National Sexual Assault Hotline, however, are doing everything they can to help, empower and protect victims, survivors and their loved ones.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it's not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and RAINN also provides detailed online guides for friends and family members helping a loved one through this difficult time.

Citations: Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report (Rolling Stone), Rolling Stone threw a rape victim to the misogynist horde (The Guardian), Itu2019s Time to End u2018Rape Cultureu2019 Hysteria (Time)