EDITORIAL: Addressing the Rape Culture on College Campuses

by SwimSwam 38

June 08th, 2016 Lifestyle, News, Opinion

Below is an editorial written by Alex Zelin and Nicki Johnson, both of whom work with the organization Defined Lines, which is a group that studies the impact of bystander intervention on college students’ attitudes toward a number of areas concerned with sexual violence. In addition to their academic work, Alex is a swammer, having trained at SwimMAC Carolina and spending two years on the varsity swim team at the University of Mary Washington.

More information on Defined Lines and the co-authors of this editorial is available at the bottom of this page.

The editorial below reflects the perspective of its authors and is not necessarily indicative of the perspective of SwimSwam, its owners, or any members of its staff. We will consider all well-written submissions at share [at] swimswam.com.

By now, most of you have probably read about the sexual assault case involving Brock Turner. In fact, that might even be why you clicked on this article. Brock Turner‘s rape of an unnamed woman in January of 2015 (we chose woman instead of victim because it seems wrong to us that she be stuck with the identity of ‘victim’ for the rest of her life if she doesn’t choose to) has become a national tipping-point and lightning rod for an issue that has been a problem for a long time: the issue of rape culture and its place on college campuses.

Think back to when you were first accepted to college (or, if a younger reader, how excited you may be to attend college in the future). You were ecstatic, right? Maybe it was because you could live out your dreams of becoming a doctor or an architect. Maybe it was because you were excited to meet new friends. Maybe it was because you were about to join a great athletic team. Maybe it was because you couldn’t wait to go to all of the college parties.

Maybe you were nervous about a few things, too. Like being away from home for the first time (I think my entire first load of white t-shirts came out a different color after I did laundry for the first time. I lost some good swimming t-shirts that load). Or finding your way around campus without looking too “obviously” like a freshman. Or even running out of money and having to figure out a way to order-in more pizza.

I bet you didn’t worry about being sexually assaulted. Of course, why should you be worried? Most schools post low campus sexual assault rates, while all proclaiming they are a safe school for students. I mean, you wouldn’t have chosen a school where there was a potential for you to get hurt, right?

Well that is where the problem arises. Even with Title IX, rapes and sexual assaults are occurring far too often on college campuses, and the majority are never reported. But the goal of this editorial isn’t to talk about Title IX (that is a totally different article altogether), the goal is to talk about the prevalence of rape culture and how it has, and continues to, negatively affect all of us.

Just to brainstorm for a second – what are the consequences of drinking too much?

  • Falling down (I, Alex, would know. I’m an expert even when not drinking. I, Nicki, can sadly second that claim.)
  • Potentially misplacing keys, wallet, phone, etc.
  • A nasty hangover the next day
  • A long ride with the porcelain express (read: the toilet)

What is not a consequence of drinking too much? Getting sexually assaulted and/or raped.

What about the consequences of wearing minimal clothing?

  • Depending on where you are in the US and the season, you could freeze your behind off or get a pretty wicked sunburn.
  • Falling down can result in bruises and scraped knees, elbows, and palms.

What is not a consequence of wearing a minimal amount of clothing? Getting sexually assaulted and/or raped.

If I were naked, passed out drunk, and lying on a couch in the middle of a house party, I would not be raped unless there was a rapist present. But all too often, the first questions victims are asked are “how much did you have to drink” and “what were you wearing?”

Why don’t we ask the same of victims of other crimes? For instance, “Well, you were carrying a designer handbag. Of course you were the target of a mugging,” or, “What did you think would happen driving around in a luxury car? You were advertising your wealth to thieves.” These questions seem pretty silly, right? So why do we ask them of rape survivors? The answer to this question is simple, rape culture.

So what is “rape culture?” Martha Burt defined rape culture in 1980 as, “a pervasive ideology that effectively supports and excuses sexual assault.” You are probably thinking, huh? And trust me, you are not alone. So let’s break it down into language we can all appreciate.

Since the time of our birth we have received messages from numerous outlets – parents, friends, teachers, the media, to name a few. These messages include things like, “a woman should be seen and not heard,” “men do not take no for an answer,” or “men are stronger than women, so clearly they are the superior sex.” Also, we hear many messages about relations between men and women such as, “men and women cannot be friends, men always want sex” or “she probably slept her way to the top.” We even hear messages about relations among women like “I only hang out with guys, women are so catty,” or “Did you see what she was wearing? What a slut!” Finally, the cherry on the top, we receive messages that violence is okay and in some cases even desired, “Chicks like it rough, if they say they don’t they are just playing hard to get,” or, especially common on the playground, “he only hit you because he likes you!”

All these messages together make sexual assault a common occurrence. If “no means try harder,” how could we expect anything different? If the first thing a survivor hears is, “well, you shouldn’t have drank so much, you know men can’t control themselves,” then why would she report her assault? If the assailant is never punished (as in the majority of cases), or even if he is punished, the punishment is small and cushioned with sympathy for the loss of his “bright future,” why wouldn’t he do it again? This is what Burt meant by a culture that “supports and excuses sexual assault,” or a rape culture. And rape culture is especially prominent on college campuses.

To highlight the frequent occurrence of sexual assault on college campuses, the most commonly cited rate of completed or attempted rape among women in higher education is between 20-25% over the course of a college career (and this is expected to be an underestimate due to the low rate of reporting). That means that approximately 1 in 4 women will experience attempted or completed rape during their college experience (Fisher, B.S., Cullen, F.T., & Turner, M.G. (2000). The Sexual Victimization of College Women. National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.). Beginning to reconsider what you should worry about during college?

Further, to highlight the experience of support and excuse of sexual assault on college campuses, the majority of colleges do not want you to know this is a problem! Their low posted rates, as mentioned earlier, don’t share the full picture. In fact, the problem is so bad that a recent documentary discussing the prevalence of rape on college campuses, ‘The Hunting Ground,’ was almost banned from appearing on television. If you haven’t watched the documentary, we encourage you to see it!

Are you outraged yet? Yes? Good. Don’t worry, we won’t leave you there, as that can result in disregarding everything we’ve said in an effort to maintain your own feeling of safety and sanity (we get it). There is a lot you can do to help get rid of rape culture! Here are some suggestions:

  1. Share this article on social media
  2. Talk to your friends and family about rape culture
  3. If someone tells you they were sexually assaulted, believe them (remember, sexual assault is WAY more likely to be unreported than lied about)
  4. Watch ‘The Hunting Ground’ – even better, hold a screening at your house, university, school, etc.
  5. Speak up when you hear any of the messages discussed above (or related comments)
  6. Volunteer at your local rape crisis center
  7. Ask your community (e.g., school, university) what they are doing to change rape culture
  8. Call the police if you believe someone is being sexually assaulted
  9. Vote (if you can) for political leaders who believe rape culture and sexual assault are important issues to address
  10. Be an empowered bystander – choose action over inaction, similar to the bikers in the Stanford case. See this video for some ways to be an empowered bystander

**for purposes of consistency the language in this article uses female pronouns for survivor and male pronouns for perpetrator; however, sexual assault can happen to anyone regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc.About the Authors:

Alexandra (Alex) Zelin is finishing her Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at the University of Akron and is excited to start as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this fall. Her research focuses on gender, gender inequality, and sexism in the workplace. She became involved in Defined Lines during her third year of graduate school and has been an active member ever since, giving numerous bystander intervention trainings. Alex is a “swammer,” hailing from SwimMAC Carolina and swimming for two years at the University of Mary Washington before injuries kicked her butt (literally).

Nicole (Nicki) Johnson, Ph.D. is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the University of Akron and has accepted a position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education & Human Services at Lehigh University beginning Fall, 2016. Nicki’s degree is in Counseling Psychology and the focus of her research is the prevention of gender-based violence. Nicki is the founder of Defined Lines’ a “bystander-plus” prevention program for college students, incorporating traditional bystander rape prevention programming with feminist consciousness raising techniques and community action. 

Defined Lines started as a research group studying the impact of bystander intervention on college students’ attitudes toward a number of areas concerned with sexual violence. The aim of the intervention is to give people information, break myths, and empower people to be proactive bystanders in situations that span the spectrum of sexual violence. From jokes, to cat calls, to assault, we were emboldened by the words of Gloria Steinem, “Whenever one person stands up and says, ‘wait a minute, this is wrong,’ it helps other people do the same.” Continue the conversation on Facebook and our website!


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Great article – thank you.

swim mom

I second what Shanmac said. Bravo!


Very well said. However, one small criticism I have is that this article (and every other article I’ve read) focuses so much on the fact that Brock is male and the victim is female. Statistics may tell you that the most common case of sexual assault is similar to this story, that doesn’t mean we should form biases in the same way. Sexual assault can occur between every possible combination genders and sexualities. Statistics may also tell you that a far greater amount of engineering and computer science majors are male, but that doesn’t mean we should only encourage boys to pursue those areas of study. The takeaways and lessons learned from this horrible case apply to whether you are… Read more »


Hi BP123, we definitely agree!! A problem with the way the English language is set up is that there is no common, singular version of “they,” which provides no reference to gender. Regardless of how drunk someone becomes or what he/she is wearing, he/she is never “asking for it.” For continuity within our piece, we assigned “she” to victim/survivor and “he” to perpetrator, but also noted at the end that we recognize sexual assault can occur to anyone regardless of gender and sexual orientation. Rape culture affects men who are sexually assaulted because a response heard most often is “well you’re a male, how can you be sexually assaulted?” because, according to rape culture, “men always want sex and should… Read more »

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