The Brock Turner case has ignited a viral firestorm. There are issues of race, privilege, and gender inequality at play. There has been victim blaming, blame-shifting, and far too little actual blame for Turner himself by way of the justice system. These are all real and serious issues, and it’s perfectly natural for people to want to share their outrage. But outrage isn’t enough.
In Joe Biden’s powerful open letter to the survivor of the Stanford Rape Case, he writes the following:
Like I tell college students all over this country — it’s on us. All of us.
We all have a responsibility to stop the scourge of violence against women once and for all.
The Vice President — who absolutely has the authority to write a letter like this — is demanding change. Rape does not exist in a vacuum, it is perpetrated by people known to the victim far more often than by strangers. It’s become ingrained in our culture (hence the phrase “rape culture”), and has been well nourished by longstanding sexual attitudes. This is not an excuse for rape, nor is it a valid crutch for Brock Turner, his father, or his childhood friends to lean on. But there’s no escaping the fact that the prevalence of rape on college campuses is something we, collectively, are tangled up in — even if we’ve been out of college for as many years as Biden has.
Though he stands 100% with the unnamed victim of the crime, the Vice President also points to the need for everyone to talk honestly about rape when he writes:
We will speak out against those who seek to engage in plausible deniability. Those who know that this is happening, but don’t want to get involved. Who believe that this ugly crime is “complicated.”
He’s right that rape isn’t complicated. But the conditions that rape culture thrives in — like a special brand of toxic mold — need to be reversed. Because, as Biden points out, the statistics haven’t changed much in 20 years.
Every study on the sexual attitudes of men at college campuses will depress you. A survey released in 2015 found that roughly 32% of men would have “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if no one would find out. When the word “rape” was used, the number dropped to 13.6%. One of the natural conclusions here is that college-age men either don’t understand or are willfully misconstruing what rape is. This is unforgivable and it is their responsibility. But Universities and athletic departments owe it to society to be involved.
Another study published on May 30th, just days before the Turner verdict, found that more than half of the intercollegiate or intramural athletes surveyed had used coercive behaviors in order to pressure someone into sex. The behaviors on the survey included lines like, “I used threats to make my partner have oral or anal sex” — virtually all of them met the legal definition of rape.
“What our study tells us is it’s not just about improving knowledge of what is rape and how to treat women in relationships,” Sarah Desmarais, a forensic psychologist and a member of the team conducting the survey told Newsweek, “but attitudes about equality, and detailed knowledge about roles of responsibility.”
The effect of these attitudes aren’t tricky to understand. In 2015, another massive survey, this one by the Association of American Universities, discovered that 23% of undergraduate women and 5% of undergraduate men said they were victims of non-consensual sexual contact. This contact ranged from penetration to sexual touching and was due to force, incapacitation from drugs or alcohol, or coercion.
For a college-age woman, universities are minefields and Biden is right to call all of us out for our responsibility to eliminate the conditions where rape culture festers. He’s ordered us to take these conversations further than social media (although those interactions can spark change too) and to be active citizens and responsible bystanders. As Biden said:
…to see an assault about to take place and do nothing to intervene — makes you part of the problem.
He’s right. By seeing warning signs and not getting involved, making excuses, and blaming victims, our collective society has been complicit for far too long. Rape culture exists, we are all deeply mired in it. As Biden says, it’s high time we make an active choice to become part of the solution.