Image Credit: Atlantic City Press
In September 2018, Stockton University, the mid-size, public, liberal-arts university where I have worked since 2010 announced to its faculty, students, and staff, that it would launch a campaign called “Culture of Respect.” Beginning in July of the same year, the university had become embroiled in a total of nine lawsuits about sexual assault, on and off campus. The suits alleged, among other things, that university staff discouraged young women who reported assaults internally from going to the police, and that they had been negligent in acting against a so-called “unaffiliated” fraternity which called itself “Pi Kapp,” and where several of the alleged rapes were said to have occurred. One man, a 2015 graduate of the university and a member of “Pi Kapp” was named in four separate suits. The articles, which were published in a range of places, from the local press, to NJ.com, to WHYY (Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate), to the Daily Beast, included graphic photographs of young women’s necks and chests and collarbones, studded with feminine jewelry, marked with bruises the suits alleged were the result of violent sexual assault.
The articles posted week by stifling summer week. They both shocked me, and worked to confirm things I had long suspected, which had begun to solidify in the spring 2018 semester. When you teach at a university, your life is measured out in 16-week increments—here is the spring when all those guest speakers visited my Writing Senior Seminar. Here is the fall I traveled to Belfast. And there, right there, is the spring two young women from my class showed up in the Writing Center on a mid-February morning and said, “We need to talk to you, now,” and the realities of my life, my work, and my classrooms began to painfully coalesce.
Culture of Respect is an independent curriculum specifically dedicated, and developed in response to, the crisis of sexual assault on college campuses. According to its website, it was founded in 2013, “by the parents of college-age students who were alarmed by the high rate of sexual assault on college campuses and the lack of comprehensive resources for survivors, students, administrators, and parents.” Its board is comprised of a range of people, from (among others) the presidents of various impressive colleges to Diane L. Rosenfeld, the Director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School. It was late August when I discovered Stockton was planning to implement this as a campus-wide program. My initial skepticism at the title disappeared when I read their literature. Rather than aligning with respectability politics that undermine the work of anti-rape activists and academics—what is typically implied by words like “respect” and “civility”— Culture of Respect is a comprehensive, nuanced response to college rape. The website hosts research and resources, and advocates for best practices in preventative campus programming, citing, “The 2013 amendments to the Jeanne Clery Act [which]… require institutions of higher education to offer prevention programming to all incoming students.” Rather than direct institutions toward a singular approach, Culture of Respect describes itself as a “clearinghouse to help institutions identify those programs that best meet their needs.” I breathed a tentative, proverbial sigh of relief.
Earlier that summer, many of my colleagues in the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program had begun an email chain discussing how best to respond to the Stockton rape allegations. For weeks, the news had darkened the summer like sun spots, with scant official communication to faculty or staff from the administration. What was the “party line?” What were we to say in response to students’ questions, during the rapidly approaching fall semester? Or, for that matter, to parents in our communities whose kids were about to attend, or were currently attending, Stockton?
This lack of communication was part of a larger pattern. Beginning in December 2014, higher ups at the university had begun to make sweeping changes without consulting the faculty, or even, as was the case with its purchase that month of the Showboat in nearby Atlantic City, the Board of Trustees. We went to bed on December 11 not part of a university that rashly bought defunct casinos, and woke up December 12 to the news in the Atlantic City Press that our institution had spent $18 million on a building they planned to turn into an “island campus” and which they claimed would be open for business the coming July. By the end of the spring semester, the deal had collapsed, the faculty had voted no-confidence in then-President Herman Saatkamp, and the state was threatening to take over the university.
This led to multiple corrective actions. Notably, for faculty, a Task Force for “shared governance” was formed, under the auspice of reclaiming clear channels of communication between administration, faculty, and staff, and, hopefully, preventing future similar disasters. The end result of the “Showboat deal,” as it came to be known around campus, was a complicated sell-back to a real estate developer; then-Provost Harvey Kesselman, who had taken a job as president of the University of Southern Maine, terminated that position before it began so he could stay on as acting President of Stockton, as part of a deal that would keep the state from taking over the university. A year later, Kesselman was hired as the president of Stockton University (which is also his alma mater), a position he still holds.
On August 6, a group of WGSS faculty gathered at my home to talk about ways to use our shared expertise about rape and rape culture to take direct action on our campus. On August 8, President Kesselman published an official response to the sexual assault allegations in the Atlantic City Press. The same day, I published a personal response to his letter on my Facebook page, which was shared by Stockton’s Gender and Sexual Violence Teaching Circle, on theirs. On August 16, I was contacted by a reporter from WHYY, who had read my response, and wanted to talk with me; we agreed to an interview that would take place at my home, the following week.
The term “Rape culture” is broadly defined as the normalization—and sometimes, the glorification—of sexual violence against women. Derived from sociological ideas about the ways gender, sex, race, and culture interact to produce social norms and behaviors, it became enshrined in feminist theory with the publication of Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Roughly a decade later, Ms. magazine, which was founded by Second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem, published Robin Warshaw’s I Never Called It Rape, their comprehensive study of rape on college campuses—which was also the first comprehensive study of rape, ever. I Never Called It Rape brought terms like “Date/Acquaintance Rape” and “No means no” into the American vernacular. The Ms. study noted, among other disturbing trends, that 25% of the women surveyed were the victims of a sexual assault. Most knew their attacker.
I grew up in the era of “No Means No.” I was born in 1980. I learned about rape from television. I can’t pinpoint the first time I heard the word, but my understanding of it comes into consciousness with the television show Beverly Hills, 90210, which debuted in 1990, when I was in the fifth grade. My friends and I never missed an episode, and one, in particular, shocked us. “Slumber Party,” which aired January 31, 1991, centers on a sleepover party at the teenage main character Brenda Walsh’s house. Part of the tension of the show hitches on mid-Western rubes Brenda (and her twin brother Brandon) adjusting to life in the fast lane of Beverly Hills, where they have just moved. In this episode, Brenda has a sleepover party for her new California friends; one of them, Amanda, humiliates all of them with endless bitching about how childish the evening’s proceedings are. Then, she goes after Kelly, the prettiest, most popular girl in school, by asking her, during a game they call “Skeletons in the Closet” (which is like “Truth or Dare” on steroids) to detail when and how she lost her virginity. Kelly grins sheepishly and tells a standard, sweet story about choosing to have sex with her longtime boyfriend, Steve. When she finishes, Amanda says something like, “That’s nice. Now tell the real story.” Staring shame-faced at the ground, Kelly details a violent rape by a senior that she says occurred when she was a freshman, during a party in the woods. “He didn’t even use a blanket,” she says, beginning to cry.
Rape culture functions in part by clinging to outdated, hyper-gendered modes of language. In the episode I just described, this shows up in two ways. First, Kelly is asked to make a narrative out of her “virginity,” with the idea that virginity is a thing that can be captured or possessed by the person she has vaginal sex with for the first time. Virginity does not apply to oral sex—this is one of the many ways Bill Clinton’s characterization of his affair with Monica Lewinsky reeked of rape culture. Virginity is (usually) clung to by a woman and “taken” by a man (“Is there where you got your V-Card punched?” Abby Flynn asks Liz Lemon, in the 30 Rock episode “TGS Hates Women”). In other words, the “loss” of virginity here connects to aggression, and violence—I have something you want. To get it, you have to take it. Moreover, Amanda’s question (and persistence) sexualizes rape, which is in reality an act of violence and power—not sex. When Kelly first answers the question, she tells a story that is about consensual sex, about desire. She’s laughing and smiling. But the happiness she feels about sex is taken from her when she is forced—as we, the viewers, are forced—to identify sex with violence, rather than with love and desire.
Three years later—in another episode about rape, called “Take Back The Night”—the character who raped Kelly shows up in the flesh. She dates him.
I didn’t start my career teaching about rape and sexual assault, although my education was largely focused on Women & Gender studies. I began teaching in 2009, after I completed my MFA in creative writing, and taught composition courses almost exclusively until the spring of 2014, when the WGSS program at Stockton hired me to teach the foundational course for Stockton’s WGSS minor. Since then, I have taught it every spring. In spring 2018, I taught two sections.
I did not design the course, but it has come to be my favorite one to teach, and the place I teach best. The students are required to design and execute an “Activism” project, in which they choose an example of campus gender inequity, and raise awareness about it through feminist activism. Some of those projects were so successful, they are now institutionalized—one group’s 2014 “SlutWalk,” for instance, is now the annual “Stockton March to End Rape Culture.”
In 2015, I was one of the featured speakers at the March. There, I read, for the first time, an essay about my own rape. In 2005, a person I knew drugged and raped me in my home. In 2008, I wrote about this event—in the heavy, veiled language of metaphor—in a poem that I submitted as part of my master’s thesis. In 2012, while I was researching an article, I discovered that the person who raped me shared his German last name with a prominent sociological theory of power and control put forth by the sociologist Max Weber. I scribbled down two paragraphs about this. Then, I dropped the pen like it was a poison snake. In 2015, I picked the pen back up, and turned the two paragraphs into the aforementioned essay I read at the March. I published it the following year.
In other words, it took me a decade to write down the words, He raped me, without getting violently sick.
The day my students walked into the Writing Center and declared they needed to speak with me, we went to a quiet, isolated room in the Center, and they told me that a woman visiting their dorm from another university that weekend had been raped at an off-campus party. The students reporting this to me were not present at the party, but were in their rooms when she returned, with other floormates, to the dorm late that evening, intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness. They said the young women she had been out with, who were also Stockton students, were distraught. One of them had walked into the room where the rape was going on, and seen her friend unconscious beneath a young man she recognized as of her classmates. She screamed at him to stop. He bodily removed her from the room, and locked the door. By 5 am that morning, my students had convinced the young woman, who was beginning to realize something terrible had happened, to go to the hospital, which sits not a half mile from their dorms, and leases its land from the university—AtlantiCare, known locally as “Mainland,” since it has a counterpart in Atlantic City.
“Did she have a rape kit done?” I asked.
“No,” they reported. “They don’t do them there.”
“How is that possible, they lease land from a college campus,” I said, furious. “So, what happened?”
“They told her they would call her a taxi to Atlantic City, where they do them. But it was six in the morning. She wanted to go home. She was really upset.” Later, as I went with them to report the incident, I would bring this fact to the attention of a Stockton staff member—they don’t do rape kits at Mainland!— expecting them to be similarly shocked and moved to action. But they blinked at me, and said, “I know, you have to go to the city.”
Like everything else in this story, this is part and parcel of rape culture, specifically rape myths—Atlantic City is made up almost exclusively of people of color, with an historical Black working class. Its surrounding areas are largely white and privileged. Rape myths (which intersect with racism and classism) dictate that more rapes would happen, and therefore necessitate a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) nurse, in Atlantic City, as opposed to on, or near, a college campus.
Rape facts tell us otherwise. And tell us how much the lack of a SANE nurse in a hospital in walking distance from a dormitory would discourage a victim from getting a rape kit. And therefore, from reporting, because of a lack of evidence. Which, as it turns out, this young woman did not do.
“But, wait,” I said. “You’re telling me someone saw this happen? Someone from your floor? So she knows who did it?”
“We all know him,” my one student replied. “He tried to assault my sister last fall.”
An important facet of understanding and teaching about rape culture is the concept of rape myths versus rape realities: rape statistics, rape facts. In spring 2019, my students were reading and discussing Janey Williams’ podcast This Happened, which details psychosocial dynamics in the aftermath of sexual assault in a close-knit community. Rape culture, Williams says, riffing on the feminist philosopher Kate Manne’s theory of “Himpathy” from her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (which the class also read), produces a strange phenomenon, which Williams calls “pity for the perpetrator.” For instance, when Williams tells her own mother, with whom she has a close and loving relationship, that her ex-boyfriend and close friend has sexually assaulted her (and presumably drugged her beforehand), her mother replies, “That poor, poor boy…”. Williams, for her part, in her own narration of her assault and its repercussions, says she, too, did not immediately speak about it because she wanted to protect her attacker, who was also—as is often the case—her friend, and former boyfriend. Kate Manne essentially says that this instinct is a pro-social skill for which we are ultimately rewarded. Women, in our society, are understood to be givers; men are doers. When we side with the doers, even if they harm us, we get a reward for it—protection, promotion. When we side with the givers, especially when they are victims of the doers’ sexual violence, we violate a social code and have to be punished.
“Does this resonate with anyone?” I asked my class. “In either your personal or institutional experience?”
A student raised their hand. They said they had once been told by a friend that her boyfriend raped her. “But I didn’t take her side because, well… she had her stuff.”
“What kind of stuff do you mean?” I asked.
“She cheated on him in the past, so…” The student trailed off into silence, leaving us to understand that previous acts of infidelity excused—or maybe even caused, in their mind, rape. Another student piped up from the other side of the large classroom: “That doesn’t mean shit, man. That doesn’t make it OK.”
A third student muttered, in the front row, “I mean, what is she hiding, though?” with their eyes cast down.
“What is who hiding?” I asked.
“Janey Williams, from the podcast,” they responded. “There has to be something she’s not telling us.”
“What leads you to say that?” I asked back, gently.
“Because why else would he do that, if she didn’t make him think it was OK?”
Lest a reader think this kind of conversation, in the face of survivors’ testimonies and the theories of Ivy-League philosophers’, is an unusual response, I assure you, it’s not. The mythology of rape says that it’s is an “ancient sex crime of abduction and murder,” and that the epidemic of campus sexual assault is “wildly overblown” and “hysterical”—to quote Camille Paglia’s 2014 article, “The Modern Campus Cannot Comprehend Evil,” written in response to the rape and murder of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. Rape myths promote this false dichotomy—that there is “real” rape and “false” rape. “Real” rape is what happened to Anderson—an “ancient” crime at the hands of a total stranger (despite the fact that, according to the Rape and Incest National Network, less than 20% of all rapes are committed by a stranger). “False” rape, according to Paglia, occurs on campuses.
Rape myths are made of tropes, or genre conventions. Tropes are hugely important to communication, both interpersonal and public; they live at the heart of creating shared language and shared experience. Unfortunately, the realities of rape culture have yet to catch up with the tropes of rape mythology—have yet to make their own set of genre conventions. Rape facts tell us that most victims know their attacker; rape tropes are dark alley attacks by nameless strangers. Rape facts tell us that it does not matter what we are wearing when these assaults happen; rape tropes bandy about the length of skirts and the plunge of necklines. Rape tropes keep the crime at bay, keep it, as Paglia’s exaggerated terminology claims, “ancient,” i.e., far away. Distant. These are not the rapists you’re looking for. Move along. Rape facts point to the reality that rape is contemporary—present and accounted for. Evil lives down the road in a dilapidated house with some Greek letters carved into a tree in the backyard. Rape facts walk into your job on a Monday morning to tell you their floormate spent part of her Saturday night watching her friend sexually assaulted, and that they just saw the perpetrator in the hallway.
This past year, Paglia was proved correct about at least one thing she wrote in that article—the modern campus cannot comprehend evil. Or, at least, the one where I worked seemed incapable or unwilling to do so. My relief that the Culture of Respect would tackle, and try to prevent campus sexual violence head on disappeared when I attended the “Culture of Respect: Town Hall Kick-Off!”
In January 2020, partly at the urging of the author and her colleague, Dr. Betsy Erbaugh, who wrote to senior administrators asking as much in March 2019, Stockton University adopted the actual Culture of Respect.
My colleagues and I sat waiting for the anyone on the stage to say the word “rape” aloud. No one did. Instead, a long-tenured professor interviewed several administrators about their non-sexual violence related work in gushing tones, and the audience was told they could write down questions, which would be pre-screened and asked anonymously by a campus worker at the end of the event. The moderator said, “It’s so important to talk about these things in the university setting, which has always been the place for cutting edge ideas and social movements.” Not today, it’s not, my friend and colleague, sitting next to me, texted me at precisely that moment. Behind me, multiple students from my spring 2018 section of Women, Gender, & Sexuality, who had worked the previous semester to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus, sat stony-faced, waiting for someone to talk about the lawsuits.
But no one did, and we left, deflated and depressed. In the coming weeks—and as of this writing—we received weekly emails about on-campus Culture of Respect events, and my fear—that the word “Respect” would be used as a smoke-screen to avoid the adoption of best practices for ending rape on campus, and would instead connote broad respectability politics—came true. Yes, there was the (very) occasional event dedicated to sexual assault; but there was also the stated intention that, rather than adopt the Culture of Respect’s explicit and singular devotion to stopping campus rape, Stockton wanted us to be civil. To respect one another. This was understood by many of my students, colleagues, and by myself to mean not naming rape for what it was, and for, instead, having events like “Coffee With Cops” and “Domino Night,” and a screening of Selena sponsored by Los Latinos Unidos, with the implied idea that giving lip-service to diversity can somehow end sexual assault.
In fact, it cannot. There are scores of academics, activists, and educators (like Kate Manne, like Stockton’s own Elizabeth Erbaugh and Deeanna Button, like the activist group End Rape on Campus) who engage in empirical research to deduce the best practices for helping survivors and stopping perpetrators. This was part of what Stockton’s WGSS faculty wrote in our letter to President Kesselman in August 2018—we knew what we were getting into, and we wanted to help. We knew how to help. We understood seemingly small things, like the fact that the mandatory reporting statute—a federal policy that states you are required, as a campus staff or faculty member, to report a sexual assault if it happens on campus, or involves one or more students at your institution off-campus—actually discourages reporting. That student victims, when you tell them, If you tell me this thing, I have to tell the authorities, often shrink back in terror, and tell no one, get no help. Beyond the obvious moral problems that arise from this law, on campuses, it’s also a retention issue—when students are raped, they tend to fall apart: stop coming to class, fail courses, drop out, disappear.
Rape destroys lives. That’s the point. I write this as both a survivor and a witness. Rape did go a long way, all those years ago, toward destroying my life. I survived, but now, as one of the faculty members at the central locus of this culture, I watch the same thing play out in my students’ lives, semester after semester.
I now find this incredible, but when my students came to me about the sexual assault in February of 2018, I had never before heard of “Pi Kapp,” the “unaffiliated” fraternity where that assault—and, we would soon discover, so many other alleged rapes—took place. As in most things, my students were way ahead of me. When I broached the subject that afternoon in class, at least two dozen students began to talk openly about their experiences there. No one spoke of being sexually assaulted, or witnessing sexual assault, in class; instead, they detailed women being forced to drink different colored drinks than the men. They talked about rampant drug use. They talked about the group targeting freshman in the first six weeks of the fall semester, what sociologists call the “Red Zone,” and when, according to the National Network for Rape and Incest, almost half of all campus sexual assaults occur. They talked about flirting with older men they assumed were just seniors or graduate students, and being shocked when they whipped out pictures of their children, and turned out to be in their late twenties and early thirties. Later, I would bring that up to a staff member, whose response was, “It’s worse than that; those guys are mostly local cops.” I never asked them how they knew this, because that, too, is how rape culture works—people make outrageous statements like they’re commonplace, and dialogue ends.
In the coming weeks, the students designed a series of projects to raise awareness about campus rape that challenged my pedagogy, the limits of my knowledge and experience, and my courage. When they decided they wanted a hashtag under which they might classify any image or Instagram post or tweet, they settled on #fuckpikapp and #sobasicallyfuckpikapp. My stomach sank as I imagined the university’s potential response to these phrases being tweeted out into eternity with images of Stockton’s woodsy campus in the background. Rape culture and respectability politics go hand in hand and dictate many things, not least of which is that, in discussing the violation of bodies and lives, we have to be polite. We don’t say things like “Fuck Pi Kapp.”
But we also don’t take action against the individuals that evoke such responses, or the groups that harbor them. In 2014, when the Obama-Biden administration issued the findings of their campus sexual assault task force, which included detailed protocol about how to take sufficient steps to end rape on campus, many feminist academics felt we were in the midst of real change—even if changing the culture was an uphill battle. We felt that we our research, teaching, scholarship, and activism on and off campus had validation and a kind of administrative teeth we had been seeking for years. But with the election of Donald Trump—and his appointment of Betsy DeVos, a woman who has publicly stated that under the Obama-Biden era guidelines “everyone loses”—the little headway we have made is being rapidly rolled back.
One reform, in particular, would devastate victims in a situation like the one we find ourselves in at Stockton. It states that schools would have limited responsibility, and limited liability, to investigate reported assaults that happen at off-campus locations, such as fraternity houses and off-campus apartments. If this goes into effect, the places my students—so many of them—described as intentionally dangerous to women, would have, given what we know about how few people report assault as a general rule, near impunity to operate as though these suits never happened.
In September, Joe Hernandez of WHYY published an article partly based on his interview with one of my colleagues and myself. In it, he noted that my students, as the spring 2018 semester drew to a close, had tried to involve themselves in institutional change. I had told him about how, as April turned to May and the cherry blossoms scattered from their boughs and the students were filled, as I am often filled, with the sense that, in fact, knowledge is power, that they thought they could use what they gained that semester to stop rape, or at least prevent it. Or at least make someone with relative institutional power address it, out loud. In a real way. As such, they decided to write to the some of the people responsible for orientation in the hopes that they could be involved with talking directly to entering students, with no parents or no staff or faculty present, about the dangers they faced at a place like the house I’ve described above. They talked about their fact-finding mission, and they talked about their facts. They quoted literature. At the end of those classes, 70-plus students hand-signed that letter, and sent it off. And were turned down.
When I spoke to the staff member about the lack of a SANE nurse at AtlantiCare, they told they had a meeting with President Kesselman that afternoon, and they would bring it up with him. They texted me that night, ecstatic—upon hearing this news, the president told her he would do everything he could to make sure AtlantiCare had a SANE nurse, as soon as possible. That was a year ago—February 2018.
It took a while, but as of this writing, there is now a SANE nurse at AtlantiCare.
When the WHYY piece ran, an upper-level administrator countered my narrative about Stockton refusing my students’ request to talk with entering students at orientation. In a series of emails, they denied that the students’ had been turned down. I wrote back, “But they told them the schedule was set already, and when I pressed, they did not respond.” The administrator remained firm in their belief that words did not mean what I thought they meant, despite my terminal degree in the discipline of writing.
When President Kesselaman published his article in response to the allegations of sexual assault on Stockton’s campus this past summer, he encouraged victims to report the crime. He said, “We stand with you.” In my response to this piece, I said that this went against best practices. I said that my own home, where I was sexually assaulted in 2005, had no back door, and that this had become “a potent metaphor” in my own writing about that experience, in the ensuing years. Barely eight weeks later, Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford testified to Congress that after the sexual assault she alleged happened to her in high school, where she felt trapped by the configurations of doors in the room where the assault took place, she insisted during a renovation that her home have two front doors, or a second way to escape. That same month, a retired emeritus professor wrote to me that she had read my response to the university president, and that the idea of having “no back door, no escape hatch” resonated with her, as a woman of color in the academy. In other words, the lack of public discussion about rape keeps survivors from understanding what so many of us share—it keeps us in the metaphorical dark. We crave these tropes, this shared language. But the silence that surrounds rape deprives us of that—until we begin to speak.
When Dr. Blasey Ford testified against Brett Kavanaugh, I was teaching an introductory composition course, with a unit on “Kairos,” or the idea that persuasive language is often best employed during a precipitous historical moment. When I heard that Stockton was going to be part of a #BelieveSurvivors walk-out, I took my class there. Not, as I told them, so they would participate, but so they could witness a “Kairotic moment” in action. We attended, along with several other classes, without event.
But the same administrator was displeased, and had no problem telling my dean to discipline me for being “inappropriate.”
No other attendant faculty receive the same warning.
I have had colleagues tell me I’m on a suicide mission by speaking out like this about sexual assault. Like the aforementioned example, it’s a potent metaphor. After all, I am still junior faculty. It would be relatively simple to find a reason to get rid of me.
But if I, if someone, doesn’t talk, who is silenced? Whose life is ruined?
It is, to quote my Irish-Catholic aunties, six of one, a half dozen of the other.
If I speak, I might end my career. If I remain silent, what might happen to these students? Who might live, maybe forever, in a dark room without an exit? A house with no back door?
Emily Van Duyne teaches at Stockton University. She writes about Sylvia Plath, who was also a rape survivor. Her book, Loving Sylvia Plath, is under contract with W.W. Norton & Co. Her essays & poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Literary Hub, Harvard Review, The Rumpus, & elsewhere. She lives with her family in New Jersey.