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The “Rape Culture”?

More than a few people in attendance two weeks ago at the Bones Gate presentation on preventing sexual assault commented on the thoughtful questions and the mild demeanor of the brothers present there. The mood was no surprise to me; however perhaps some folks were expecting raw-meat eating animals and evidence of the “rape culture” that is broadly believed to exist in sticky basements?

I asked a young alumnus who had been a member of a supposedly out-of-control frat for his take on his brothers’ attitude to sexual assault even in their wildest moments. I have known him for several years and trust his integrity completely:

One of the hot topics about higher education these days is the culture. Specifically, much of the focus (outside of hazing) is on the existence of a supposed “rape culture.” The focus of my observations here will be whether or not the common description of the “rape culture” in fraternities discussed by academics (many of whom have never gotten within 50 feet of a fraternity in their lives) is the same as the general culture found in Dartmouth fraternities.

Obviously my experiences will neither confirm nor deny the existence of a generalized “rape culture” at Dartmouth, and my insight can generally only be taken as one alum’s observations based on his experiences in one fraternity. And much of this can only be written about in general terms as time has faded this 10’s detailed memories of the beer-soaked past.

With all of that said, rape jokes or boasting about rape was never a thing that I heard. There was clearly a level of respect and envy given to those young men who prolifically “hooked up” with women whether that meant intercourse or fellatio or “dance floor make-outs.” To a large degree these men were much more celebrated at brotherhood events than men with a wonderful girlfriend whom everyone liked. So, while there was much open praise like, “Congratulations to Bother X for hooking up with this hottie,” there was never, “Congratulations to Brother X who raped Ms. Y.”

Of course such a machismo culture did lead to questionable situations that, when combined with alcohol, surely led to some young women being sexually assaulted. I believe that it is in this way that the “rape culture” is most prevalent at a place like Dartmouth. While there is no active promotion of rape, and if a Bother told the Fraternity that he had forcibly raped a girl, he would likely have been condemned, the constant positive reinforcement and pressure directed at hooking up leads to a consistent search for sexual conquests for many men.

Further, when observing a Brother and a very drunk woman, the common course of action would be to look the other way rather than to inquire about the well-being of the young woman. I think this was driven by a desire for your brothers to be sexually successful and a desire to not be a “cock-block.” One final impact that might be felt was a likelihood to support a brother if he was accused of rape in any situation where the credibility of the parties mattered. About the only thing that could pressure the fraternity into punishing a brother whom a woman accused of rape was if the woman’s sorority threatened to socially punish the fraternity as a whole.

I also never witnessed any overt acts of rape or attempts at rape. For example, I never knew anyone to spike a drink with roofies or any other type of “date rape drug.” However, I did know of brothers who greatly enjoyed urinating in the punch. Gross and unsanitary, yes. Rape, no.

It is important to stop sensationalizing a fictional “rape culture” in order to address the culture and associated behaviors that do exist. Painting fraternity men as animals who constantly joke about rape while plotting rapes with their brothers does no good except to embitter the accused and distract attention from the things that could be fixed.

Lest one be tempted to decry social mores that place a premium on sexual triumph, let’s keep in mind that such a attitude is hardly limited to fraternity brothers, as I noted a few years ago in a post about sororities entitled Girls Just Wanna Have Some.

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