Before the First World War, those who wanted to scare bright women away from universities described an ‘infidel’ environment that would leave female students ‘barren’ and destined only for a life of ‘spinsterhood’. Studying was considered an affront to the feminine ideal; the sexually pure remained at home while the rebellious few were forced to have chaperones to protect them from predatory male advances. These ideas may seem like relics of the past, but going on the discussion about women on campus nowadays, it appears as if little has changed.
A recent Guardian blog describes university as a ‘toxic environment’ for women, dominated by an ‘insidious rape culture’; a ‘world of sexual assault, objectification and harassment’. Reports of vulnerable young women having to run the gauntlet of a university campus rife with ‘rape culture’ abound in both the UK and America.
But there’s one big difference from a century ago: today’s panics over rape ‘epidemics’ are not promoted by Victorian fathers but by female students. Being a feminist on campus in 2014 seems to mean calling for university managers to intervene in intimate relationships and to curtail free speech in the name of protecting delicate women from sexual threats.
Let’s be absolutely clear: there is no epidemic of rape in universities. Very few articles cite any statistics to support the assertion that rape is prevalent on campus. Those that do rely on national crime statistics; recently released data suggests that in the UK in the year 2012-13 there were, on average, 22 recorded incidents of rape per 100,000 members of the adult population. This would equate to just over four recorded rapes at a typical university. This is obviously four too many, but it is hardly testament to any sort of widespread ‘rape culture’. Rape Crisis, a UK charity that supports women and girls who have suffered from sexual violence, claims that in 90 per cent of rape cases women know their attackers, and that 52 per cent of women suffering serious sexual violence were attacked by their partners. The validity of applying such national statistics to a student population, which is generally young and living away from old networks of family and friends, needs to be questioned.
Other articles cite data from the 2010 NUS report Hidden Marks, which claims 14 per cent of students have experienced physical or sexual assault. Of these, 48 per cent say the perpetrator was not a student (challenging the notion of a university rape culture) and only 17 per cent of the victims reported the attack to the police or university staff because ‘they did not feel what had happened was serious enough’. Of this smaller number of reported assaults, the grouping together of physical and sexual offences makes it misleading to use this data to claim anything about rape culture.