“Party Rape” and the Celebration of Lack of Consent

Kelly Oliver

In the last week, three stories have appeared in The New York Times about campus rape: one about six women coming forward to report their experiences with a suspected serial rapist at the University of Wisconsin, another on Brigham Young University changing its blame-the-victim policy that made reporting rape while under the influence of alcohol an honor code violation for the victim, and the latest, an article on changing policies on campuses regarding alcohol in an attempt to stem growing problems connected with campus parties, including sexual assault. These are small steps forward in what has become an epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. As the details of these cases make clear, the problem of campus rape involves a toxic combination of lack of reporting on the part of victims, the prevalence of rape myths that continue to blame victims, and the party culture on campus that spawns sexual assault even if it doesn’t cause it.

While rape is not new, the celebration of lack of consent at the heart of party rape is new. Sure, some men and boys have always “taken advantage” of women and girls using drugs and alcohol. But never before have we seen the public and open valorization of sexual assault and rape that we are seeing now, especially on college campuses. For example, a few years ago, Yale fraternity brothers marched around the freshman dorms chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” Just this Fall, there were similar chants and banners welcoming freshman at Ohio State University, Western Ontario University, and Old Dominion. And, last year a fraternity at Texas Tech was suspended for flying a banner that read “No Means Yes.” Another frat was suspended at Georgia Tech for distributing an email with the subject line “Luring your rapebait,” which ended, “I want to see everyone succeed at the next couple parties.” And, in 2014 at Williams and Mary, fraternity members sent around an email message, that included the phrase: “never mind the extremities that surround it, the 99% of horrendously illogical bullshit that makes up the modern woman, consider only the 1%, the snatch.” Then there was the chant used at St. Mary’s University in Halifax to welcome new students: “SMU boys, we like them young. Y is for your sister, O is for oh so tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab that ass.”

Unfortunately, the list goes on and on. Every Fall, on campuses across the country, we see this sort of celebration of lack of consent, degradation of young women, and valorization of rape. These examples suggest an aggressive campaign on the part of some fraternities and some men on campus to insist “No” means “Yes,” and consent is not only irrelevant, but also undesirable. In the St. Mary’s chant, the lack of consent is openly valued, “N is for no consent.” They make it plain that actively seeking sex without consent and luring “rapebait” is their goal. Studies confirm what these seemingly endless examples indicate. For example, one study found that “nearly one-third of college men admit they might rape a woman if they could get away with it” (Bekiempis 2015). And another study reports that half of the (college) men surveyed admitted to using some form of sexual aggression on a date (Wolitzky-Taylor 2011 582).

Recent cases of creepshots found on fraternity websites are further evidence that men who prey on women sexually also enjoying debasing them. “Creepshots,” by definition are photographs of women’s bodies taken without their consent. Lately, several fraternities have been busted for posting creepshot photographs and semi or unconscious girls. Last year at Penn State, along with creepshot photographs of unconscious women in extremely compromising sexual positions, one fraternity website included derogatory comments about the women by fraternity members.

In addition, several recent high profile rape cases include creepshot videos taken by perpetrators or by-standers that show perpetrators and spectators joking and giggling, while abusing half-naked unconscious girls. For example in a Steubenville Ohio rape case, high school football players assaulted an unconscious girl while bystanders joked and made disparaging remarks about her. One of the perpetrators defended himself, saying, “It isn’t really rape because you don’t know if she wanted to or not.” This sentiment makes clear that for these boys, if a girl is unconscious, and neither affirmative nor negative consent can be given, “sex” with her doesn’t count as rape. These boys imagined their unconscious victim might be consenting, perhaps even “wanting” it.

Given the use of rape drugs and alcohol to render girls and young women unconscious, the incidence of unconscious rape is truly incalculable on college campuses. In the case of party rape involving drugs and alcohol, women may not even know they were assaulted. They may wake up wondering but never sure. In the last decade, the prevalence of alcohol accompanied sexual assault has led the U.S. Department of Justice to identify a distinct type of rape, “party rape,” which they define as one that “occurs at an off-campus house or on or off campus fraternity and involves…plying a woman with alcohol or targeting an intoxicated woman.” In terms of sexual assault, party rape makes colleges and universities “hunting grounds” for sexual predators, many who never consider their activities rape, and who never consider themselves rapists. For these boys and young men, it’s a fun part of fraternity life and the party scene.

Certainly, not every man who parties is a rapist and not every woman who parties is a rape victim. Studies show that multiple variables, including individual psychology, rape myths and rape culture, and particular contexts such as fraternities rife with gender inequalities lead to rape (Armstrong 2006 484-5). The use of rape drugs to intentionally incapacitate college women is particularly reprehensible insofar as it is not only premeditated rape, but also these drugs are in themselves dangerous, even lethal in high doses (Zorza 2001).

In 2014, at the University of Wisconsin, for example, several girls ended up in the hospital after they were served punch spiked with Rohypnol at a fraternity party (Mejia 2014). This fraternity engaged in a “rape conspiracy” by planning sexual assault and intentionally drugging unsuspecting women. As long as college men continue to see women as sexual prey or trophies, rape will continue to plague college campuses. As an aside, I just learned of a new fingernail polish that detects rape drugs in drinks—a possible stocking stuffer for the high school and college girls on your Christmas list. Girls dip their fingernails into their drinks and the polish changes colors if rape drugs are present. The need for this product is evidence of a growing problem.

Addressing party rape is compounded by the fact that women don’t report it. When alcohol is involved only 2.7 percent of victims report their assaults (Lisak & Miller 2002; Wolitzky-Taylor et. al. 2011). Just recently, The New York Times reported that six college women had come forward to report sexual assault at the hands of Alec Cook, a senior at the University of Wisconsin. Many of the women were reluctant to come forward until one woman’s experiences were made public. One of the women reportedly just wanted to “put it behind her and forget about it.”

The combination of a party atmosphere with alcohol flowing, and the acceptance of rape myths that include victim blaming or fantasies that victims actually enjoy rape, myths that may begin in pornography but are perpetuated by fraternities and in jock culture, makes colleges and universities especially fertile hunting grounds for serial rapists and men who are willing to force sex. The existence of rape myths such as “victims are responsible for their own rapes,” “victims are sluts and are asking for it,” or “no” really means “yes,” are prevalent on college campuses and part of fraternity and sports cultures. Until last week, even Brigham Young’s honor code discouraged reporting sexual assaults because they could be considered a violation of the code on the part of the victims. Several studies show that college athletics and fraternity culture perpetuate a classic double standard whereby men who have sex, even force sex, are “studs,” whereas women who have sex are sluts (Burnett 2009; Adams-Curtis & Forbes 2004). Perhaps this is why groups of young people happily watch, and even record, unconscious women being sexually assaulted without intervening or calling police.

Rape has become a spectator sport in which rapists pose for the camera and victims are subject to “creepshots” distributed or posted as trophies or entertainment.

While there always has been rape, including gang rape, the public valorization of “nonconsensual sex” and its display on social media is new. If in the past rapists acted in the shadows and kept their acts a secret, now they chant in public, record their sexual assaults, and post pictures for fun online. Rape has become a form of public entertainment where, rather than report the crimes, perpetrators or bystanders take pictures with their phones and then distribute them to share and enhance the experience.

Ironically, in some recent high profile cases, because the victims were unconscious–and in some cases didn’t even know they had been raped–rape was easier to prove, try, and convict. This suggests that the “testimony” of unconscious girls is more believable than that of conscious ones. While the testimony of young women is challenged, discounted as He-Said versus She-Said, the recent phenomenon of creepshot photographs of rapes, and recording of unconscious rape victims taken with cell phone cameras, has brought about some high profile convictions. As one detective said in the Vanderbilt rape case, “pictures don’t lie”.

As strange as it seems, recording instead of reporting is becoming more common. Girls are finding out they’ve been raped when pictures taken by the rapists or bystanders are posted on social media or sent around as text messages. For example, in the high-profile Vanderbilt case, the survivor had to be convinced she’d been raped by her then boyfriend and his football buddies. Police showed her surveillance videos from the dorm, and cellphone photos from the perpetrators cameras, before she believed them. The Vanderbilt case is rare, too, in that it has yielded convictions and minimum sentences of 15 years for two of the perpetrators, thanks to the efforts of campus police; the other two perpetrators are awaiting trial.

According to police on beaches in Florida in popular Spring Break destinations, they’re increasing discovering rapes via social media featuring pictures of unconscious girls being assaulted. For example, last year, a young woman discovered she’d been gang raped on Panama City beach when a video appeared on the nightly news. Hundreds of people watched. Reportedly, she was drugged with a drink offered to her on the beach and then two Troy University (Alabama) students sexually assaulted her. Perhaps as troubling as the sexual assault itself is the fact that rather than help the victims, bystanders watch or take videos and post them online, and pictures of unconscious girls in compromising positions are sent around like funny cat videos.

Even Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was convicted of sexual assault, took pictures of his victim and shared them on a social media site–as part of his “twenty minutes of action,” as his father called it. If you’re wondering what some fathers are teaching their sons, consider another case this Fall at Illinois State University where a father allegedly bought alcohol for his under-aged son, then drugged a co-ed so his son could rape her.

While rape and debasement of women are not new, the use of social media to do so is. Whereas in the past, pornographic pictures were produced for mass consumption but sold privately, even wrapped in brown paper and sold only to adults, now the Internet is filled with pornography and creepshots of women. Rapists hamming for the camera, and taking creepshots of unsuspecting unconscious girls, are part and parcel of the sexual assault in the age of social media.

The prevalence of sexual assault should make us take very seriously any endorsements of “boys will be boys” sexism, or so-called “locker room talk” of grabbing women against their will. The sheer numbers and the outrageous sentiments of chants like that at Yale “No means yes, yes means anal. My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac. I F— dead women” are depressing signs that sexism is alive and well. But, take heart. There are also individuals and groups fighting back with various forms of activism and art. And the very fact that this type of sexist behavior makes headlines, and a few campus rapists are actually being prosecuted, even serving jail time, is a step forward.

The above is a guest post and supplement to Kelly Oliver’s article in “The Stone,” the philosophy blog of The New York Times. Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and the author of Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape.

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