Earlier this week, a fraternity brother at Georgia Tech made headlines after sending an email to the rest of the young men in his chapter with advice about how to take advantage of drunk girls. The email was entitled “Luring Your Rapebait,” and it detailed strategies for “success” that mainly rely on offering young women more alcohol until physical contact with them escalates.
Since the email has been made public, the individual who sent it has been suspended from the fraternity, and the fraternity itself will be subject to a university investigation. It has been roundly condemned by university officials, the fraternity, and many students — but, as Jezebel points out, there’s a subtle theme in the way much of that disapproval is being communicated.
“That is not something you send in an email,” one student told Atlanta’s local NPR affiliate. “You kind of expect it from some certain frats on campus, but, it’s kind of unexpected to actually see it put on the internet,” another student added. “This kid is going to go get a job, and forever this email will be something he’s written or said or whatever, and I mean, that’s not great,” a third said.
The takeaway from these students’ comments is that it was a very bad decision to put these things on the internet. Their statements aren’t actually condemnations of the attitudes that fuel rape culture in the first place, or expressions of horror that some women at the university have likely been subjected to these “rapebait” strategies. They’re expressions of concern that the frat brother has attached his name to something that fraternities are supposed to keep behind closed doors, something that might hurt his job prospects in the future.
This may seem like a meaningless distinction. After all, these students certainly don’t endorse the “rapebait” email in any way. But when it comes to successfully combating rape culture, those subtleties matter.
“Rape culture” is the term for a whole set of attitudes that further a society in which rape is inevitable, consent is invisible, and victims are blamed instead of supported. Obscuring the reality of the crime of rape — ultimately de-emphasizing rapists’ actions in favor of blaming alcohol, short skirts, “hook up culture,” or the rise of social media — is one of those problematic attitudes. And Georgia Tech is hardly the only example of this issue lurking beneath the surface of the coverage related to sexual assault.
The infamous Steubenville rape case was also back in the news this week. Last spring, a grand jury was convened to investigate whether any of the adults in the small Ohio town helped cover up the crime, and that jury made its first arrest on Monday. CNN broke the news — and used the lede of its story to obscure the sexual crime that was committed, in favor of emphasizing social media.
“The small town of Steubenville became a household name for the wrong reasons, thanks to social media,” the CNN piece begins. Social media did play a big role in the case, since many of the details about the assault were made public on Instagram and Youtube. But social media itself didn’t make Steubenville a household name for the wrong reasons. The fact that several members of the high school football team videotaped themselves assaulting an unconscious girl, joking about how she was “so raped right now” and “deader” than Trayvon Martin, is actually what caused that. Just like the Georgia Tech students, CNN is subtly suggesting that the issue wasn’t actually the attitudes that led to the behavior — it was the fact that the behavior was made public.
This has long been an issue with the media coverage of Steubenville. After the case came to light, outlets pondered the “social media lessons” that parents should teach their children, rather than suggesting that parents should teach their kids about consent so they don’t grow up to rape someone. And just like the student who wondered about the Georgia Tech frat member’s future job prospects, many articles covering the Steubenville case focused on the fact that the two perpetrators, who were found guilty in March, had ruined their “promising football careers.”
But it doesn’t end there. Social media is often lumped together with the rest of “teen culture” to bemoan an immoral society in which everything except rapists is to blame for rape. For instance, after pop star Miley Cyrus stirred controversy with her performance at the VMAs in August, many commentators suggested that Cyrus’ artistic decisions are actually feeding into a “teen culture” that promotes rape. But blaming a young woman’s dance moves — or a young woman’s clothing, or sexting, or Facebook, or the over-sexualized media — is simply a convenient way to avoid facing the reality that sexual assault happens because of a rapist’s choice to violate another person’s consent. People who rape are the only people who should be blamed for rape, and society’s rape culture is the crutch that allows them to keep getting away with it.
In order to come to terms with rape culture, society needs to come to terms with some hard realities about rape itself. Recent studies on the subject can provide some insight into this area. We know a couple things about rape as it pertains to young Americans: unhealthy attitudes about sex take root at a young age, rapists are likely to become repeat offenders, victim-blaming starts young and most rapists don’t take responsibility for their actions, and many rapists use emotional manipulation instead of physical force to coerce other people into having sex with them.
That may be uncomfortable to think about in the context of Georgia Tech, and many people may not want to connect the dots between a frat brother’s attitudes about “luring rapebait” and the larger institutional forces that fuel rapists. But the point isn’t that he wrote down those attitudes, or made the poor choice to hit the send button. The point is that he believed them in the first place.