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THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL | Hey, Stanford! “Alcohol Culture” Isn’t the Problem. Rape Culture Is.

In the wake of the recent and infamous Brock Turner case, Stanford University has responded with a new policy to combat sexual assault on their campus.  Sexual assault is one of the foremost threats to student safety on college campuses across the nation, affecting one in five women and one in 16 men as of 2015.  The university’s solution?  A ban on hard liquor at campus parties.  The idea behind the policy is that limiting student access to large quantities of hard liquor will construct a safer campus environment.  But this presumption blames “alcohol culture,” or a culture of reckless partying, instead of addressing the real crisis at hand.  “Alcohol culture” is just another one of a plethora of excuses that perpetuates victim-blaming, normalizes sexual violence and denies the existence of a legitimate cultural problem: rape culture.

Emilie Buchwald defines rape culture as “[a culture that] condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm…In rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable.”  Rape culture teaches us that sexual violence is an expected part of life, that it is a possibility to be feared but not an event that merits surprise or outrage.  It is no more a tragedy than death – still tragic in some ways, but ultimately accepted as par for the course.  It is naturalized and normalized, and we thus become desensitized.

A rape culture is one in which the first responses I heard to a reported case of sexual assault on our own campus were: “She is probably lying,” “I hope he isn’t expelled” and “What about his basketball career?”  A rape culture is forgiving towards articles that laud the basketball team’s stats instead of express empathy towards the victim or initiate a call-to-action.

A rape culture is one that asks “How much did you have to drink?” and “What were you wearing?” instead of “Did she say yes? Then it’s a no!” and “Why would you continue without clear consent?”

A rape culture is one in which boys are raised to be rewarded for aggressive, dominant forms of behavior, encouraged to chase after girls from a young age and taught that having more sexual partners means they are more “manly,”  while little girls are raised to let boys pull their hair and push them because it means he likes you and are told to always travel in packs, to avoid wearing skirts that are too short or shirts that are too tight for fear of looking as if they are “asking for it,” to not walk home alone after dark and to not drink too much and to always carry pepper spray/a rape whistle/keys.

A rape culture gives rise to a population more outraged about the “wasted potential” of a college swimmer than they are by the fact that a young woman’s life was irrevocably altered by the rapist’s heinous actions.

To demonize alcohol rather than rapists not only denies the existence of rape culture, but also perpetuates the set of norms that created it in the first place.  It is a refusal to place the onus upon the individuals who are sexually violent and instead resorts to a convenient excuse (one which can only account for about half of all cases of sexual assault anyway).

In order to effectively combat the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses, we must contextualize these cases and understand that they do not happen because of the women who drink in the presence of men, but because of a rape culture that has constructed an environment in which the ever-present threat of sexual violence puts all genders at risk, even in their leisure.   We must admit that the dominant culture is one that answers a woman’s “no” with verbal and physical coercion and assumes a “yes” in the absence of a “no,” even when this silence is the result of a lack of consciousness.   We must admit that we live in a culture where “boys will be boys” is an excuse for sexual aggression, but girls who party are “loose,” “sluts,” “asking for it.”   To acknowledge the prevalence of such a culture is the first step in dismantling it.

Stanford’s actions, although well-intentioned, echo a pervasive public attitude characterized by denial surrounding sexual violence.  To admit that the United States — a beacon of freedom and egalitarianism —  is plagued by rape culture, would overturn all of our assumptions about the society we live in.  We are a First World country and hold ourselves to exceptional standards, wanting fervently to believe that we are morally advanced, and it is far easier to band-aid our society’s wounds with policy that offers superficial solutions than to admit their true severity, depth and origin.  That our culture is in dire need of reconstruction is a truth many Americans are not willing to accept, let alone act upon.

Just because a deeply-rooted cultural failing is an intimidating problem does not mean that it is a lost cause.  While Stanford deals in superficialities, Cornell students are taking matters into their own hands and digging straight to the core of the issue,  demolishing rape culture through education and empowerment. Annie Osborne ‘17, a student activist and the Vice President of Public Outreach for Consent Ed, shared her thoughts on how Consent Ed is working to make Cornellians more individually and socially responsible in navigating the roads between alcohol and consent:

“Fundamentally, Consent Ed aims to change our campus’ culture through positive education. We don’t exist to point fingers, but rather to ensure that before entering potentially risky situations, Cornellians of all genders are acutely aware of the legal definition of consent at Cornell well as arm them with the tools to look out for one another, particularly when alcohol is involved. We believe that the change needs to occur from within, and only through a dramatic cultural shift will we begin respecting each other in the ways needed to make a measurable difference.”

Culture is a product of our collective mentalities and actions, and each of us possesses the power to transform it. Let Stanford circumvent the issue of sexual assault with misguided policy while we cut to its core, each of us Cornellians bearing personal responsibility for the actualization of a radically transformed campus culture.  In this approach we serve as a model for healing our broken society: no more band-aids.

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