The Problem With Pro-Rape Language at Colgate

From jam-packed work schedules to Tequila-fueled nights, Colgate students face major obstacles when trying to remain healthy. But while many of these obstacles are self-perpetuated (we don’t need to pull all-nighters and drink our livers away), last week, Colgate University Campus Safety was the one challenging us. On February 28, the student body received an email from Campus Safety stating that an alleged incident of sexual assault had occurred on campus. The email then advised: “As always, we encourage all students to remain aware of their surroundings at all times and to look out for one another at social events and in other settings.” Upon first read, this statement appears sensitive and supportive of our health. I, for one, felt comforted when I opened my inbox. But upon second read, its detrimental implications become clear. While delivered with good intentions, this response to sexual assault perpetuates rape culture.

We have all been taught to reject “rape culture” or the pervasive mindset that victim-blames, discourages victims from reporting their attackers and forgives said perpetrators. I mean, unless you lack a soul, it would be hard not to denounce it. But it takes more to combat this mentality than just proclaiming the importance of positive sexuality. In other words, 21st century rape culture is not fueled by explicitly misogynistic commentary as it was in the 1950s. Today, it gains momentum from subtler, more nuanced language.

Modern pro-rape language implicitly makes victims responsible for assaults instead of challenging perpetrators not to attack. I have no doubt that Campus Safety did not mean to communicate such a backwards message, but the language is nevertheless there. 

How so? Let’s break it down. The email approaches the alleged incident by warning students to “remain aware of their surroundings at all times.” There are two issues with this phrasing. First, it tells students that it is our job to avoid being assaulted, and second, it conflates awareness of one’s surroundings with control of them.

The phrasing puts unfair responsibility on the victim in the same way that telling a scantily-clad girl, “If you don’t cover up, you’re asking for it” does. In both situations, focus shifts away from the attacker and to the attacked. It makes sense why this move occurs; it can seem daunting to try to dissolve embedded notions of male entitlement and much easier to just ask everyone else to, you know, “look out” for “those people.” But this response is lazy and misguided. Just because sexual assault seems unstoppable does not mean we should resort to confronting potential victims and give up on warning perpetrators.

The phrasing also suffers because it conflates awareness of one’s surroundings with control of them. It does so by focusing on what the potential victim should do in a situation and therefore implying that the victim is in control of the situation. To get perspective on why the victim is not in control, let’s look at the forces surrounding a mugging instead of a sexual assault: say a person is walking home alone at night in a big city. This person is wary of criminals and so avoids dark alleys and hides his or her wallet from view. Regardless of these preemptive measures, this person can still be robbed. He or she does not have ultimate say over whether the mugging occurs, the mugger does. On that same vein, a potential victim of sexual assault cannot control whether he or she is assaulted, only the perpetrator can. Insinuating otherwise lays the groundwork for victim-blaming.

While I was disappointed with the email’s language, I am thankful that it has ignited conversation at Colgate. In just the past few months, other universities like the University of Connecticut and Amherst College have been forced to reevaluate their use of pro-rape language as well. The prior institution came under fire when University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst used insensitive language to address an instance of sexual assault on campus, and the latter institution sent an email, reminiscent of the one sent by Colgate Campus Safety, warning students prior to Amherst’s Alumni Weekend to “Keep an eye out for unwanted sexual advances. A lot of alums come back for Homecoming pretty jaded with the bar scene and blind dating of the real world and are eager to take advantage of what they now perceive to be an ‘easy’ hook-up scene back at Amherst.”

To put it plainly, this is an issue that the best and the brightest universities are grappling with. So remember, while pro-rape language is subtler than it was sixty years ago, this does not mean it is any less powerful. For the sake of our physical and mental health, let’s fight it.