n July, a case that had become a rallying cry for campus activism against sexual assault came to a conclusion of sorts—with a victory for the accused man. Columbia University settled a lawsuit brought by 2015 graduate Paul Nungesser. It stemmed from an accusation of rape hurled at Nungesser by fellow Columbia undergraduate Emma Sulkowicz, who famously carried a mattress around campus to protest the school’s alleged mishandling of her complaint.
The lawsuit charged that Sulkowicz’s activism amounted to gender-based harassment of Nungesser and was condoned by the university, which had allowed her to make a senior art thesis of her mattress-toting. The settlement included a public statement from Columbia that not only reaffirmed that Nungesser had been exonerated in an investigation conducted by the school, but also acknowledged that his final year on campus following his exposure as an accused rapist was “not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience.” He found himself shunned by most of his classmates, harassed by activists, and depicted naked in two revenge-porn drawings by Sulkowicz, exhibited in a campus gallery as another part of her art project.
The acknowledgment was as close as the university could bring itself to repudiating Sulkowicz’s crusade, which had been hailed on the cover of New York magazine three years ago as the harbinger of a new “sexual revolution on campus.”
While other activists have continued to support “Mattress Girl,” her revolutionary halo has been tarnished considerably in those three years. New information provided by Nungesser (first disclosed by this author in The Daily Beast in early 2015) showed that in the weeks following the alleged rape, the two had had banter-filled Facebook chats in which Sulkowicz discussed coming to his parties, talked about having a “Paul/Emma chill sesh,” and gushed, “I love you Paul!” in response to his birthday wishes.
Sulkowicz’s defenders have argued that victims of sexual violence often act in ways that seem irrational to outsiders, particularly when the assailant is someone close to them. (Sulkowicz and Nungesser had been close friends and had been sexually intimate on two prior occasions.) While this is no doubt true, the totality of the circumstances makes Sulkowicz’s account highly improbable—particularly since her rape claim did not involve an ambiguous incident that a victim could initially excuse as a misunderstanding, but a sudden physical assault in which she was choked, hit in the face, and anally raped so violently that she screamed in pain.
But even as Nungesser finally got a measure of satisfaction, progressive opinion was exploding in outrage on a related matter—the fact that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was suggesting that fairness to the accused should be a high priority in campus sexual-assault proceedings under Title IX, the federal gender-equity law. DeVos has invited advocates for accused students to her “listening meetings” on the issue, along with activists championing victims. In response, psychologist Peggy Drexler, a Web columnist for CNN, decried her initiative as “a huge step back for women’s safety, and equality in general.” Drexler had even harsher words for Acting Assistant Secretary Candice E. Jackson, who had spoken sympathetically of meeting with a mother who said her son had become suicidal after being falsely accused. “Jackson’s words,” Drexler wrote, “specifically serve to perpetuate rape culture.”
ot long ago, the concept of “rape culture”—at least as applied to contemporary liberal societies in North America and Western Europe—existed only on the fringes of radical feminist activism and academic rhetoric. Yet in the past several years, this term has become ubiquitous in mainstream left-of-center discourse; indeed, in many bien-pensant quarters, the very denial of its existence is nothing less than heresy. When some musicians tried to organize a boycott of a Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra benefit concert because conservative author and radio host Dennis Prager was guest-conducting, the offenses imputed to Prager included the assertion that “there’s no culture of rape at our universities.”
For feminist ideologues, campus rape culture is only part of the bigger picture: Rape culture is everywhere. It is a concept that goes back to the mid-1970s. Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape portrayed rape as deliberate male terrorism against women, playing a “critical function” in patriarchy as “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” The same year, activist filmmakers Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich produced a 35-minute documentary film titled Rape Culture; one of its stars was radical feminist philosopher Mary Daly, indicting America’s “unholy trinity of rape, genocide, and war.” (In later years, Daly would go on to advocate a genocide of her own, or at least a “drastic reduction of the population of males,” as a “decontamination” of the earth and its only hope for survival.) The film asserted that, as a review in the journal Women & Health put it, “rape is almost the logical consequence of… split sexual roles” encouraging masculine aggression and feminine passivity—not the act of deviant individuals, but a dominant “social ideology” perpetuated by mass culture.
In later polemics, “rape culture” has been defined in broad, ambiguous, and highly debatable ways. Thus, the foreword to a 1993 volume of essays titled Transforming a Rape Culture asserts that “[i]n a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself” and that “rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.” How many women actually see sexual remarks, even unwanted ones, as part of a “continuum” ending in rape? Does Western culture actually condone physical terrorism against women? What is “emotional terrorism”?
Nonetheless, the feminist critique of cultural attitudes toward rape has had some resonance in part because the abhorrence of rape in Western society did coexist, for a long time, with undeniably ugly attitudes. Today, we are horrified by stories of young women in some Third World countries being coerced into marrying their rapists, but similar practices once existed across Europe, and as late as the 1970s in Italy. Only 40 years ago in the United States, a complainant’s “unchaste character”—from extramarital liaisons to birth-control use—could be officially considered a strike against her credibility in a rape trial, and failure to fight back or escape in a threatening situation could be treated as consent. Some of these practices were related to the genuine difficulties of sorting out the facts in cases based on conflicting accounts, with no clear evidence of physical force; but they also reflected prejudice against women who were seen as undeserving of sympathy.
It is also true that cultural depictions of sexuality have often blurred the line between male sexual conquest/female “token resistance” and actual forced sex. But, notably, the most prominent examples of romanticized rape or quasi-rape in fiction—from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to pulp romances like the 1974 bestseller Sweet Savage Love, by Rosemary Rogers—come from female authors and appeal mainly to female readers. This suggests that these scenes represented, more than anything else, a female ravishment fantasy (whether one believes that it reflects an innate desire to be “swept off one’s feet” or societal pressures that allow women to enjoy fantasies of illicit sex only if they are not responsible for it).
In any case, even in less enlightened times, the idea that rape was “a social ideology” in Western culture is an absurd exaggeration. One reason that evidentiary standards for rape were so high was that rape carried extremely severe penalties. In popular culture, depictions of acquaintance rape as a loathsome crime certainly predate modern feminism—for instance, in acclaimed movies such as Johnny Belinda (1948) and Peyton Place (1957). In the 1959 film Compulsion, a young man’s attempt to force himself on a female friend on a picnic date is unambiguously treated as a terrible act that he himself knows to be criminal.
In the present day, arguments intended to demonstrate a pervasive rape culture in Western societies typically rely on dubious logic, distortions, and out-of-context facts. Thus, the Vancouver, Canada, rape crisis center Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) lists “kids who call losing a sports game ‘getting totally raped’” as evidence of “rape culture.” But losing a game is also called “getting slaughtered,” and the words “kill” and “torture” are routinely used in a metaphorical sense. Does that make us a “murder culture” or a “torture culture”?
In a January 2013 Web column for the Nation, the feminist pundit Jessica Valenti rattled off a catalogue of examples to show that “rape is as American as apple pie”—for instance, we have politicians who “call rape ‘a gift from God.’” That’s a reference to Richard Mourdock, the 2012 Republican Senate candidate from Indiana who infamously explained his no-exception anti-abortion stance by saying that “life is [a] gift from God…even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape.” Besides misrepresenting Mourdock’s remark, which was a tone-deaf pro-life statement, Valenti failed to mention that it was universally condemned and likely cost him the election in a race everyone thought he would win.
Valenti’s examples also included “a woman’s rape case fall[ing] flat because she isn’t married.” That sounds downright medieval—until you look up the story and find an unusual case temporarily stymied by a technicality. The victim, an 18-year-old California woman, had been sleeping next to her live-in boyfriend; after the boyfriend left, a male acquaintance staying at their house overnight entered the bedroom, slipped into the bed, and sexually assaulted her while she was still asleep. Waking up, the victim initially mistook him for her boyfriend and responded positively; as soon as she realized what was happening, she screamed and tried to push him away. Prosecutors charged the man with rape by fraud, based on impersonation of the boyfriend. But the law at the time, originally crafted in 1872, applied only to impersonation of a husband. The California Supreme Court had to reverse the conviction; however, it sent the case back for retrial, recommending that the defendant be charged with rape based on non-consent due to unconsciousness and that the statute be updated. The rapist was eventually convicted and imprisoned, and the law was changed.
Writer and activist Soraya Chemaly sees rape culture in the fact that 31 states supposedly allow a rapist who impregnates his victim to sue for custody or visitation. In reality, these states have not yet passed laws explicitly barring such suits. Even attorney Shauna Pruitt, who advocates such legislation, has written that the problem is not support for rapists’ parental rights but lack of awareness that such claims exist—ironically, in part due to the assumption that pregnancies resulting from rape will be aborted.
Another list of rape-culture facts was offered in a 2014 Time Web column by Zerlina Maxwell, in response to an earlier piece by conservative writer Caroline Kitchens that criticized “rape culture hysteria.” Among them: “Rape culture is when survivors who come forward are asked, ‘Were you drinking?’” But one reason for such questions is that current rhetoric about sexual assault routinely conflates consensual drunk sex with rape. Thus, in late 2013, activists at the University of Ohio-Athens rallied in support of a female student who filed a rape complaint with the police after learning that a viral video showed her in a late-night drunken public sex act that neither she nor her partner could remember. (The woman was receiving oral sex and being manually stimulated.) Both the video and eyewitness testimony showed that, while both parties were quite inebriated, the woman was fully conscious, able to walk unassisted, and an eager participant in the sexual encounter—even telling the man to continue when he asked if she wanted to stop. While the man was not charged, letters to the campus newspaper decried the incident as evidence of “rape culture” and “survivor-blaming.”
Maxwell also asserts that “rape culture is when we teach women how to not get raped, instead of teaching men not to rape.” This is a peculiar formulation. First of all, we do “teach men not to rape” through a criminal code that threatens them with severe punishment if they do so. Second, since when is developing an early-warning system against a crime an example of endorsing the crime? We encourage people to install burglar alarms; that does not mean we are creating a burglary culture.
Maxwell invokes dire statistics: “Is 1 in 5 American women surviving rape or attempted rape a cultural norm?” That 1-in-5 figure is based on Centers for Disease Control surveys in 2010 and 2011 loaded with leading questions so shoddily worded that they elided the distinction between rape and consensual drunk sex. Indeed, in response to similar questions, men in the survey reported being “forced to penetrate” a woman during the past year with a frequency similar to women’s reports of rape. Either the CDC numbers greatly inflate sexual violence, or “rape culture” is a two-way street.
The issue of male victims highlights another problem with rape-culture theory. Early feminist polemics against “rape culture” often treated child sexual abuse as another form of patriarchal violence. Thus, in the introduction to the 1982 collection Voices in the Night: Women Speaking About Incest, editors Toni McNaron and Yarrow Morgan asserted that “approximately one out of three girl children experiences sexual abuse” and that “approximately 97 percent of all victims of sexual abuse are girls.” By now, however, much more is known about sexual victimization of boys; Maxwell herself states that one in six boys is sexually abused while growing up. But if such abuse is also part of “rape culture,” this should throw a wrench into the radical feminist analysis. What sort of misogynist, homophobic patriarchy encourages sexual exploitation of male children, mostly by other males?
No serious person would dispute that there are all too many real cases of sexual violence in which shockingly vile attitudes and behavior are displayed not only by the offenders but by others around them. The notorious 2013 rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two teenage football players were convicted and jailed for the rape of a severely intoxicated girl featured text conversations in which one of the perpetrators and his friends joked about the assault and shared nude photos of the unconscious victim. It is undeniable that some of the adults in the community were more concerned about the fortunes of the Steubenville High football team than they were about the girl, who was from out of town.
But human depravity is hardly limited to rape. If, as Valenti suggested in her Nation piece, the Steubenville boys’ readiness to share photographic evidence of their deeds is evidence of a culture that tacitly accepts sexual assault as a male prerogative, how does one explain the actions of teens of both sexes who have recorded videos of themselves committing other criminal acts toward victims of both sexes—including girl-on-girl beatings and, in a Maryland case that happened a year after Steubenville, two girls who committed serial sadistic assaults on an autistic boy?1
n the most basic level, rape-culture rhetoric undermines the essential principle of the presumption of innocence. Its central circular argument is that if anyone fails to believe a claim of rape, that person is displaying a “rape culture” mentality. “If we use proof in rape cases, we fall into the patterns of rape deniers,” Sulkowicz told an audience at Brown University in 2015. Maxwell puts it bluntly: “We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says.”
This dogma is reinforced by factually shaky claims about the extreme rarity of false accusations: In a widely praised 2014 YouTube video, the feminist blogger Rebecca Watson asserted that only 2 percent of rape allegations are false, so you have a 98 percent chance of being wrong if you don’t believe someone who says she was raped. But, as the Massachusetts attorney Edward Greer demonstrated in an exhaustive analysis published in Loyola at Los Angeles Law Review in 2000, this claim has no basis in research and appears to be a fake fact circulating among various ideologically aligned sources. A more common claim is that 6 to 8 percent of rape reports are false. But even this is based on fuzzy data and rooted in an almost literal presumption of guilt: the belief that when the truth or falsehood of the accusation cannot be established with full certainty, it should be accepted as true (presumably even if the accused has been tried and acquitted).
A corollary myth is that only 1–3 percent of rapists are ever punished—a claim that inspired a wildly popular Internet infographic but received a three-Pinocchio rating (out of four) from the Washington Post Fact Checker, hardly an anti-feminist source. The figure is based on garbled statistics that not only lump together rape and other forms of sexual assault—including threats of sexual violence—but disregard the fact that one assailant may have multiple victims.
Nonetheless, “Believe the survivor” remains a powerful battle cry. The National Organization for Women, America’s premier feminist group, seems willing to extend this principle even to proven fabulists—such as Jackie, the heroine of the 2014 Rolling Stone story on a horrific fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia that was quickly exposed as a hoax. (Evidence showed that the supposed mastermind was a nonexistent beau Jackie had impersonated in emails and text messages in an attempt to spark the romantic interest of a male friend on whom she had an unrequited crush.)
When UVA dean Nicole Eramo, who had sued Rolling Stone for maligning her as a callous bureaucrat, demanded access to Jackie’s communications with the magazine and the author of the piece, NOW denounced her in an angry open letter to university president Teresa Sullivan: “It is exactly this kind of victim blaming and shaming that fosters rape culture, re-victimizes those brave enough to have come forward, and silences countless other victims.”
While there were no suspects in the UVA case, the same mentality is on display when specific men are accused. After Columbia settled Nungesser’s lawsuit, a Yale Law School student named Dana Bolger, the founder of the activist group Know Your IX, referred to the “settlement [with] Sulkowicz’s rapist” on Twitter.
There is no doubt that rape and sexual assault happen in the college environment, and that the campus culture of drinking and random sex (even if it is not nearly as prevalent as many conservatives believe) leads to many encounters that are ugly and emotionally traumatic even if they fall short of the legal definition of sexual assault. But it is also noteworthy that so many highly publicized campus rape stories have faltered under scrutiny.
Jackie’s story of fraternity rape at UVA remains an exception in that it was exposed as false beyond any reasonable doubt. But Sulkowicz’s claims look increasingly unlikely, especially since her new interviews point strongly to habitual mendacity. (A recent Daily Beast story quotes her as saying that it was Nungesser, not she, who publicized his identity—even though there is an extensive record of her admitted efforts to make his name public.) Several of the stories featured in the 2015 campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground have been effectively debunked in critiques by the veteran journalist Emily Yoffe, the legal scholar Stuart Taylor Jr., and the Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk.
If rape culture in America is real, why does the case for it rest on so much fabulism?
1 The Steubenville case also generated another persistent pseudo-fact of “rape culture”: the claim that, in the CNN report on the sentencing, CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow and host Candy Crowley expressed vast sympathy for two perpetrators and literally did not say one word about the victim. In reality, after describing the teens’ emotional reaction to the sentence, Harlow went on to note, “very serious crime here, both found guilty of raping this 16-year-old girl.” And, after a legal expert discussed the impact on the offenders’ lives, Crowley chimed in with a reminder about “the 16-year-old victim, her life never the same again.”