Let me say right off the bat it’s not my intention to blame parents for actively creating college rape culture. Rather, this post is meant as an appeal to parents of small children — children who will all too soon be college age — to take an honest look at rape culture’s impact on today’s older daughters and then ask ourselves: How could we not want to do everything in our power to help change this culture?
As hard as it might be, this has to include examining how we might unintentionally be contributing to it, because the reality is our children are under our influence long before that of alcohol, athletic departments, fraternities and college cultures.
Changes at the university level are finally addressing college sexual assault from the top down. But the only reason the people in charge are doing it now is because of pressure from the ground up. Young women, our daughters, exhausted and enraged by the lack of support around the criminal trauma of sexual assault, have taken matters into their own hands and demanded to be heard through social media and their own college networks.
We know from psychology that it’s harder to change ideas and behaviors once they’re formed. By the time our children are 18 many of their beliefs have already taken hold. This is why it’s so important for parents of young children to understand they have the power to influence the development of their daughters’ and sons’ values, also from the ground up, with an eye toward building a culture that’s safe and fair. I’m not talking about teaching boys to hold doors open for girls. I’m talking about parents taking the lead in actively teaching our children to value human dignity and human empathy — in both sexes.
When our daughters get to college, their sexual dignity deserves the protection of laws and college administrations; but, more formatively, prior to that it deserves it from us from an early age. Speaking on The Diane Rehm Show Daniel Rappaport, Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator at American University said of the heartbreaking situation survivors find themselves in, “Very often parents are not as supportive as a survivor may want, and even more, a survivor will come in and be afraid of their reaction.” Parents, this is our wake up call: our daughters’ fear of our reaction comes from what we’ve trained them to expect from us, otherwise the fear wouldn’t have cause to be there in the first place.
In the same program, Diane Rosenfeld, professor at Harvard Law School and its Director of the Gender Violence Program, noted there’s been an incredible rise in multi-perpetrator sexual assault (or gang rape), especially with regard to fraternities and sports team. She reports there’s a culture of silence that has to be changed in order to address it. Based on what she sees in her role, she also cites alarm at the rising prevalence of what she terms “target rape” which she explains is, “not date rape and it’s not acquaintance rape because often they barely even know the person… It’s when guys… get together and say, I’m going to go out and get laid tonight… I’m going to get somebody drunk and get laid tonight. And it’s like… you’re unconscious. And I see this all over.”
It can be argued that the germination of this culture of silence and lack of support regarding female sexuality, and the blanket acceptance of male sexuality, albeit in milder forms, begins in our homes. The freedoms of male sexuality are assumed in our society even as female sexuality is one of the things we tend to hide and avoid, and in doing so we lend more potency to male sexuality in all its forms — even violence.
Women and girls in my research have taught me it’s common for mothers to dodge sexual education conversations with their daughters from toddlerhood forward, even though our daughters are coming to us for that information. Surprisingly, we still don’t tend to teach our girls the correct names for their body parts, honestly answer their questions about sex, or prepare them for menstruation before they get their periods. Most women and girls in my study said that by the time they were teenagers they’d given up on getting any information or emotional closeness from their mothers around the topic of female sexuality.
It’s also common for fathers to step back emotionally and physically once their daughters start to sexually mature, leaving their daughters feeling abandoned or as if they’ve done something wrong to initiate this distance. Fathers routinely joke about protecting their daughters’ virginity while their sons are often given free rein. Girls tell me they’re upset by the double standard when they’re treated with a sense of mistrust and overprotection even as their brothers are afforded trust and allowed freedoms. When I ask if their brothers have done anything more than they have to earn their parents’ trust, girls often roll their eyes and say, “No!” Girls complain they’re denied permission to go to parties their brothers are green lighted to attend. They observe that their brothers usually aren’t treated with the same scrutiny they are: Where are you going? With whom are you going? Will a parent be there? Will there be alcohol? Mothers and fathers agree we of course do this in an effort to protect our daughters from the potential sexual aggression of boys. Equal effort is not made, however, when it comes to our role in protecting our sons from a failure to behave toward girls with compassion, respect and empathy.
Many of our daughters come to expect from us a lack of support of their sexual development, and most of them go on to develop a sense of shame around it. That on its own is upsetting enough. But when we add the variable of our sons bearing witness to this dynamic, its disturbing nature is magnified.
The number of colleges and universities being investigated for their mishandling of sexual assaults currently stands at 76, and that list has been growing steadily since its inception. A problem this huge doesn’t just appear out of thin air. It’s contributed to individual by individual, family by family, group by group, institution by institution. It’s in motion long before our children are college age.
Colleges and universities don’t manufacture rapists. We raise these boys in our homes, in our communities, and in the institutions that represent our beliefs; and some of these young men will be ripe for further indoctrination by the violent, sexist climates our schools are repeatedly revealed to be protective of.
Evidence of this pre-college sexism was glaringly apparent in the Steubenville, Ohio case in which members of a high school football team were convicted of raping an unconscious girl while both male and female students stood by and did nothing to help her. When the convictions were handed down it was the rape survivor who received death threats from the community for making life difficult for the darlings of the football team. Of this deplorable behavior the New York Times reported:
The trial… exposed the behavior of other teenagers, who wasted no time spreading photos and text messages with what many in the community felt was callousness or cruelty… State officials have interviewed almost 60 people — students, coaches, school officials and parents — but 16, most of them juveniles, have refused to speak to investigators.
More recently, on picture day at Commack High School in Commack, New York, five male seniors posed in t-shirts that spelled out the word “RAPE?” with a sixth lying on the ground in front of them with his hands bound. In a television interview the boys were described as, “Good kids who made a stupid mistake.”
As for higher education sexual assault, the stories of colleges’ and universities’ mishandling of them by almost every level of staff and administration are too numerous to go into in depth here, but what follows is a list of links to some of them. And as you read them, keep in mind that a University of Oregon study revealed that 90% of rape victims there never reported it.
Yale: Where” No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!”
Amherst: Where the college has Angie Epifano locked up in a psych ward while her rapist is allowed to graduate with honors.
William Hobart and Smith: Where Anna is “bent over a pool table as a football player appeared to be sexually assaulting her from behind in a darkened dance hall with six or seven people watching and laughing. Some had their cellphones out, apparently taking pictures…”
Williams: Where after being raped by a member of the hockey team, Lexie Brakenridge is surrounded by members of the team and pelted with beer cans. (In Pakistan this punishment would be meted out with stones.) Says Brakenridge, “The ways in which the Williams administration handled it made it exceedingly clear that I was not welcome on that campus, and that I was essentially being used as an example of why people should not come forward.” Three other Williams students told her that after seeing how she was treated they decided not to report their sexual assaults.
Brown: Where Lena Sclove waits three months for the school to act while her rapist attends classes and she has to see him in the library, the quad, the campus center and the dining hall.
Although we don’t participate in this overlap consciously, the themes our homes and institutions of higher education may have in common are these:
- A culture of silence around female sexuality
- A double standard around male and female sexuality
- Making light of this double standard
- Placing the onus on our little girls and young women to, all on their own, get the information and support they should be getting, in the spirit of safety and well being, from those in positions of authority.
We’re the ones responsible for raising the girls and young women who will be at risk of sexual assault, and we’re also the ones responsible for raising the boys and young men who will be at risk of perpetrating these acts of violence and degradation. In addition, we’re the ones raising the children who will become either the bystanders who passively observe acts of danger and violence, or the people who stand up on behalf of those in harm’s way.
Joyce McFadden is a psychoanalyst and author of the groundbreaking book Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women. Based on her unprecedented study of 450 women, in which women could talk about whatever was important to them, it was the women of her study who determined the book’s topic: how girls learn about sexuality from their mothers. Currently being taught in university women’s studies programs, Your Daughter’s Bedroom is considered “an empowering resource for mothers and daughters everywhere” by Publishers Weekly, and “a fascinating and empowering text for women of all ages” by Kirkus Review. In 2014 she spoke at the United Nations as the U.S. expert on girls’ sexual development and its relation to their overall confidence, participating with co-panelists from WHO, UNESCO, UNICEF and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in announcing the United Nation’s first-ever policy on puberty education and menstrual hygiene management. McFadden has an MSW from Columbia University and five years of postgraduate training in psychoanalysis, is a faculty member, training analyst and clinical supervisor at the Training and Research Institute for Self Psychology,
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We are grateful to the Author, Joyce McFadden for her kindness, research, and reasoned reflection.