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Why Do Victims Minimize Sexual Violence?
Posted by On Tuesday, March 29, 2016

When asked why they didn’t report an incident of sexual assault, a common reason given by survivors is that they didn’t believe it was serious enough to report, or that it wasn’t clear that the assailant meant harm or had committed a crime at all. This outlook contradicts the popular understanding of sexual assault as always being traumatic. Trauma is processed and manifested in complex interactions with the environment in which they occur. Unacknowledged rapes, or experiencing incidents that fit the legal definition of rape but not labeling it as such, are a surprisingly understudied phenomenon considering its prevalence: among a national sample of college women, 73 percent of rape victims did not acknowledge what happened to them as being sexual assault. 

 

We do know some things about the phenomenon. Sexual assaults are more likely to be unacknowledged if they were committed by a current romantic or sexual partner, used less physical force, and resulted in less physical injury to the victim. Additionally, victims who were inebriated during the attack and did not have a clear memory of the incident were less likely to acknowledge the incident as having been sexual assault. Interestingly, 84 percent of victims of unacknowledged rape engage in one or two forms of resistance, such as verbal reasoning, or physical struggling. However, the enactment and violation of the resistance are later re-conceptualized as “miscommunication”.


The data also contains clues about why victims may conceptualize the event as something other than a crime. Those who acknowledged their rapes were more likely to disclose the event to a higher number of people, but also reported receiving more negative feedback from those people compared to victims who did not acknowledge their rapes. Both types of victims experienced similar negative internal states following the attacks, with acknowledged victims experiencing slightly more intense symptoms of PTSD, possibly due to the fact that acknowledged rapes tend to be more violent.

 

Unacknowledged rapes do not remain constant over time—it is likely that low initial acknowledgement rates are related to victims needing time to process the event in order to understand what happened to them. While only 25% of victims who had been raped within a six-month time period acknowledged their rape, 70.5% of rape victims whose rape occurred over three years ago acknowledged what happened to them. Unfortunately, this timeline can make prosecution difficult, as much physical evidence must be collected immediately following the assault.

 

The reasons for unacknowledged rapes are complex. Some studies point to hetero-patriarchal sexual script-building and maintenance during adolescence as important factors. Young girls and women conceptualize male sexual aggression as being a normal part of everyday life and do not consider minor or even major acts of physical aggression as anything other than “just how boys are.” Additionally, girls and women are often taught to police each other’s sexuality as a way to maintain their own moral reputations. That is, they commonly learn that women are meant to be gatekeepers of sex, and that outside perceptions of how hard a woman has “fought off” unwanted sex is tied to her perceived complicity in sexual assault. Therefore, acknowledging a rape opens the victim up to a barrage of scrutiny.

 

Importantly, the study also discusses the low rate of reporting and the minimization of sexual violence as being related to the victim’s perception of the enforcing institution as an extension of the patriarchal apparatus. Enforcing institutions are part of the same culture that gives rise to sexual violence, and are additionally imbued with institutional or legal power. Girls and women may therefore be wary of the forensic interview setting as being hostile to their sexuality, sense of agency, or their decision to use alcohol or drugs. As a result, women may dismiss or play down instances of sexual violence as a way to build rapport and maintain their own credibility in the face of biased reception.

 

Unacknowledged rapes carry with them the threat of future victimization, and that can be costly to both the victim as well as the community. However, denial may also serve an environmentally protective role for the victim when their social context makes it costly to be a victim. It is therefore vitally important for educational institutions to not only ensure that students are aware of reporting policies and practices, but that the social context in which reporting is carried out is one in which victims will feel that they will be supported and believed.

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Free Party Smart Workshop
Posted by On Wednesday, May 7, 2014

As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month we made our Bystander Intervention workshop freely available here on the CampusClarity blog. That workshop was so well received that we’ve decided to publish another one on Partying Smart strategies. Like the Bystander Intervention workshop, the Party Smart Workshop includes a PowerPoint, handout, assessment, and discussion guide.

Download the materials here:

  1. Party Smart TAI PPT
  2. Party Smart Discussion Guide
  3. Party Smart Handout
  4. Party Smart Handout_Answer Key
  5. Party Smart Assessment
  6. Party Smart Assessment_Answer Key

The Party Smart Workshop focuses on strategies for safe, smart drinking. While total abstention is an effective strategy for many students (surveys show that over 20% of college students have never used alcohol at all), some students do choose to drink. That’s why it’s important that students learn strategies for responsible drinking.

These materials cover crucial information about alcohol and its effects on the body, outline effective strategies for safe drinking, and challenge students to formulate their own plans for partying smart. Please feel free to use them however you see fit, and to share them with anyone you think could make good use of them.

We’ll be releasing more materials in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more free resources!

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Rewriting the College Hook-Up Script
Posted by On Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Popular media makes it seem like college today is more like the seamier corners of a Las Vegas club than the ivy-clad, brick-edifice institution of yore.  Students today, it seems, are more likely to hit the bottle than the books and more likely to get a booty call than a phone call.

But college life isn’t one big party as our media often portrays it. Indeed, the sensational portraits of college depravity, however well intended, might be doing more harm than good by reinforcing students’ misconceptions about college life.

Let’s take a look at some popular misconceptions about “hook up” culture, how they might be hurting our students, and how we can confront these misconceptions to enable students to rewrite the hook-up script.

Are Millennials are more sexually active than past generations?

Hook up culture is often portrayed as the crisis of the current generation of college students. The internet is full of accounts of the collapse of morality on college campuses. But scholars who study hook up culture trace its roots back forty years or more.

In her book on campus sexual culture, “Hooking Up,” Kathleen Bogle suggests that the shift to hook up culture was already underway by the mid-1970s. She believes hook up culture arose out of the turmoil of the wider cultural and demographic changes of the 60s. In that regard, it’s something that both current students and their parents experienced.

Other researchers put the origins in the early 1920s, when “with the rise of automobile use and novel entertainment venues…traditional models of courting under parental supervision began to fade” (Garcia et al.). Now we’re talking four generations of hook-up culture!

Indeed, a study presented this year at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting found little change in college students’ behaviors or attitudes regarding sex in the last 25 years.

The study compared the answers of two batches of college students, 1988-1996 and 2002-2010, on the General Social Survey. Attitudes and behaviors between the two groups were quite similar. For example, 65% of the first group reported having sex at least once a week compared to 59.3% of the second group. Attitudes regarding sex between minors, cheating on a spouse, and premarital sex also remained largely unchanged.

The researchers concluded, “[o]ur results provide no evidence that there has been a sea change in the sexual behavior of college students or that there has been a significant liberalization of attitudes towards sex.”

Is everyone is hooking up?

This summer, the New York Times published a controversial trend piece by Kate Taylor. Taylor reported that campus hookup culture was increasingly driven by young women, who were intent on “building their résumés, not finding boyfriends.” In other words, it’s not just men who are driving hook up culture: everyone’s doing it.

But while hook ups may dominate discussions about campus culture, not everyone is actually hooking up.

Indeed, according to the most recent American College Health Association Survey, over a third of college students have never had sex. And while 46% have had sex in the past month, the vast majority of sexually active students have only had one sexual partner in the past 12 months. In fact, 47% of college students reported being in a relationship.

That doesn’t sound like students intent on casual sex and one-night stands.

Why do we talk about hook up culture so much then?

Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Occidental college, suggests that it might have to do with who is hooking up: white, wealthy, heterosexual students. The status that these students’ race, class, and sexual orientation confer allows them and their habits to dominate national discussions of campus culture.

“Students feel that a hookup culture dominates their colleges not because it is actually widely embraced,” Wade writes, “but because the people with the most power to shape campus culture like it that way.”

Indeed, contrary to Taylor’s piece in the Times, Kathleen Bogle found that hook up culture was driven by men. In their interviews with Bogle, women were far less satisfied with hook up culture than their male peers.

In general, women preferred relationships, whereas men preferred casual encounters.

Bogle offered two reasons for this difference. First, the women she interviewed were interested in getting married earlier than the men. Thus many women were actively looking for a long term relationship that might result in marriage. The men simply weren’t.

Bogle also pointed to a persistent double standard in campus sexual culture. While men were praised for being promiscuous, women were stigmatized. If they behaved like men and pursued multiple partners, women risked earning derogatory labels like “slut.” Indeed, many men confessed that they wouldn’t date a woman who had had many sexual partners. Thus in order to protect their reputations, women sought out stable relationships.

So not everyone is hooking up and not everyone wants to. Instead the hook-up elites are imposing a hegemony over campus sexual culture.

What we talk about when we talk about hooking up

The problem with these misconceptions is that they make hook up culture seem inevitable. Indeed, when we press too hard on the prevalence of hook up culture, we might be sending students mixed messages.

On the one hand, we imply that students are randy and oversexed.  We insist that hook ups and no-strings-attached sex are endemic to college campuses.

On the other hand, we blandly tell students that they overestimate how much sex their peers are having.

Which message do you think students will remember?

If the vivid image of a college free-for-all is what sticks in students’ mind, then we may be doing them a disservice.

Students do tend to overestimate their peers’ sexual activity, making the behavior of a few outliers (the hook up elites) appear to be the social norm. Students then turn to these social norms to guide their own behavior, reinforcing hook up culture.

It is possible that by talking so much about hook up culture (even when condemning it) that we inadvertently reinforce the idea that the outliers are the social norm, that everyone really is hooking up.

Instead of just condemning hook up culture, we need to offer some alternatives. Or better yet, we need to elicit some alternatives from students themselves.

Rewriting the hook up script

According to Bogle, hook up culture is a social script: a set of cultural and social expectations surrounding dating that students internalize and follow. Bogle contrasts the hook up script with earlier social scripts, such as “courting” or “going steady,” which were the products of different social and demographic conditions.

Rather than just trying to correct students’ perceptions of their peers’ behavior or point to the flaws of hooking up, perhaps we might engage with students to write new social scripts, in order to get them involved in rewriting hook up culture.

What might that script look like? It’s hard to say. But it can start with conversations about dating, asking what men and women want to get out of their college experience and whether that includes meaningful intimate relationships.

In fact, research suggests that some women pursue hook ups because the risks of a causal encounter are actually less than those of a long-term relationship: “Bad hook ups are isolated events, while bad relationships wreak havoc with whole lives.”

The conversation about hook up culture can begin with freshman orientation, and it can continue in classrooms from gender studies to philosophy.

Getting students to see the fact and fiction of campus culture is a laudable goal. Getting them to understand that they aren’t simply passive subjects of culture, but active agents who can change it has the potential to make a real impact on campus life.

Students can be so intent on changing the world that they fail to see the change that needs to happen right around them.

There’s a well-known parable about two young fish swimming in the sea. An older fish swims up and asks, “How’s the water?” After the older fish swims away, one young fish turns to the other and asks, “What’s water?”

The point is, students are so immersed in the culture that surrounds them, they don’t even know it’s there. But it is. And it affects them. Unlike the two fish, however, students have the chance to find new waters.

Start a conversation with students and keep it going. Help them replace the hook-up culture myth with the script that fits their reality.

Awareness is the first step towards changing the “water” around us…some students may not even know they’re drowning in it.

Works Cited

Bogle, K.A. (2008) Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. New York: New York UP.

Garcia, J.R., et al. (2012) “Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review.” Review of General Psychology, 16, 161-176.

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