It may seem now like history, but the essential issue surrounding Donald Trump’s dismissing his remarks about groping women without consent as just “locker room banter” is still very much with us.
In fact during the presidential debate in which those remarks were raised, though it was taking place on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, neither candidate chose to bring awareness to the fact that one in five women and one in 16 men on campuses around the country graduate each year as survivors of sexual assault.
“Locker room banter” isn’t innocent; it is rape culture, and we have a responsibility to put an end to it. In a recent study on male college athletes, more than half of male sports players admitted to having “sexually coerced” a woman. Several of the actions listed in the survey, such as the use of threats or physical violence to make a partner have sex, meet some states’ legal definition of rape. Respondents also said they believe such rape myths as the one that holds that victims who were drunk are partly responsible for their sexual assault and that it isn’t rape if a woman doesn’t fight back.
At this point in the school year, students on college campuses are in the “red zone” — the period between students’ arrival for fall semester and Thanksgiving, when the majority of sexual assaults occur. Elected officials, students, faculty, and other campus professionals should all be asking how to prevent sexual assault from staying the norm.
During a decade of working with college students, I have been a confidant of hundreds of survivors of on-campus sexual assault. Survivor-led organizations are paving the way toward important legislative change and providing support to fellow survivors. Many high schools are beginning sexual consent education before students enter college. But there is more we can do to change the campus environment and end rape culture.
1) Believe survivors. We must first take survivors’ stories seriously. It starts with three simple words: “I believe you.” The impact of assault takes a profound toll on survivors, who often experience long-term physical and mental health effects. One-third of women who survive sexual assault contemplate suicide.
When students come forward to say they have been assaulted, we must believe them. This simple act can be transformative to their well-being. If we silence and shame survivors, we perpetuate common myths, which allows the cycle of violence to continue.
2) Know the facts. We must dispense with the idea that rapists lurk in the bushes and only attack in the dead of night as a helpless victim walks home alone. The truth is that most incidents of sexual assault on campus are committed by individuals familiar to their victims, sometimes an acquaintance met at a party, sometimes a trusted friend.
3) Call out rape culture. During the presidential debate, Anderson Cooper corrected Trump’s “locker room banter” comment, naming his description of groping women without consent as sexual assault. We must respond when we hear friends, community members, or even people in locker rooms making statements that perpetuate rape culture — whether it’s about convincing someone to be sexual with them, getting someone drunk, or even abusing one’s power to touch people without their consent. Since the debate, several athletes shared that they don’t condone or participate in locker room banter. This helps. When we don’t stand up to the language of rape culture around us, we implicitly condone it.
4) Act. Bystanders must intervene when others are in danger. Collecting car keys from those drinking at a party protects that individual and everybody on the road. We need to extend that same vigilance to people who might be in danger of sexual assault. Whether potential victims can’t consent because they are inebriated or don’t consent but are ignored, we have a moral duty to intervene. If someone is taking another person to a room, and that person is in a state in which consent cannot be given, we have a responsibility to intervene. Sex without consent is rape. Intervening protects our friends, loved ones, and yes, even complete strangers.
At Hillel International, we engage with hundreds of thousands of college students at more than 500 campuses across the country every year, and we see an active response to rape on campus and supporting survivors as part of our mission. We are an outspoken partner in the White House’s It’s On Us initiative promoting bystander intervention as a means to reduce the unacceptable prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.
As Jewish tradition tells us, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” As individuals, we may not have all the tools to eliminate the scourge of sexual assault on campus, but as a community we have the responsibility to educate ourselves and others in order to increase campus safety and support survivors.
The difficult and lengthy process of changing cultural norms will require engagement and investment from all corners of campus communities, including athletic departments, Greek life, religious organizations, campus health centers, faculty, and administrators. Many have already stepped up to join the challenge; we invite all organizations with a presence on college campuses to join us in this critical work.
We must all say definitively that words matter, that “locker room talk” condoning or perpetuating rape culture is unacceptable, and that we will not stand idly by when we hear language that threatens or demeans anyone.