Pcvyc7w2 1488914244

Rape on campus: Athletes, status, and the sexual assault crisis

Former Vanderbilt football player Brandon Vandenburg was sentenced to 17 years after being convicted in a college rape case. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Rape on campus: Athletes, status, and the sexual assault crisis

Former Vanderbilt football player Brandon Vandenburg was sentenced to 17 years after being convicted in a college rape case. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

The feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon once argued that rape was not prohibited, but merely regulated. She was writing in 1989, four years before it became illegal to rape one’s spouse in all 50 states. At the time, rape was quite clearly regulated in some states: you could rape your spouse, just not anyone else.

MacKinnon, though, wasn’t talking only about the law; she was talking about what happened outside the law, too. She was saying something far more provocative: No matter the law, certain strategies for gaining sexual compliance are sometimes allowed, and certain people can get away with sexual coercion and violence more often and more easily than others.

Learning about such experiences was, unfortunately, an inevitable part of writing “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus,” my book about sex in college. To understand student experiences, I visited 24 institutions, read hundreds of firsthand accounts of hookup culture published in college newspapers, collected 101 student journals about life in the first year and reviewed the now-extensive work on hookup culture by social scientists, which included survey data summarizing 24,000 student responses.

One outcome of this work was an understanding of the role that status plays in organizing sexual activity on campus. Status shapes who has access to sex, with whom and with what consequences. All things being equal, high-status students benefit from hookup culture, while low-status students suffer harm or exclusion.

LSU Tigers wide receiver Trey Quinn is hoisted up by fans, Oct. 25, 2014. Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports via REUTERS

Among the most high-status students on campus are athletes — especially men who play the most celebrated sports. These students carry the kind of privilege that MacKinnon described, and they often know it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time NBA champion, MVP and former UCLA star, once called out his fellow student-athletes on this issue:

I’m especially aware of the culture of entitlement that some athletes feel, as they strut around campus with the belief that they can do no wrong.“

On average, athletes are more likely than other students on campus to identify with hypermasculinity and to accept "rape myths” to justify sexual assaults. Evidence also suggests they’re more likely to be confused about consent and admit to having committed acts of sexual aggression.

In writing “American Hookup” — in listening carefully to students and documenting how they choose and talk about their sexual partners — I came to understand how high-status athletes are able to persist in holding and acting on these beliefs if they choose to, and with greater impunity than their peers.

Here is what I found.

Sex and status on college campuses

In the culture of sex that dominates college campuses today, status is what sex is all about.

Many college football players are adored — almost worshipped — by their peers. AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth

In some ways, status simply gives athletes sexual access. Students who follow hookup culture’s rules choose to hook up with people they think will enhance their own popularity. As one of the female students who submitted to me a semester-long journal wrote: “It’s almost bragging rights if you hook up with a guy with a higher social status.”

“The whole point,” wrote another in her journal, “is to get some and then be able to point the person out to your friends and be like, ‘Yeah, that guy. That’s right. The hot one over there. I got that.’”

Hookup culture is about “having game”: It’s about “scoring” with someone your peers think is “worth” getting, someone who “counts.” In that game, as one of my male students put it, “sex is a commodity.”

If hookup culture is status-based, then high-status students like athletes are at an advantage. “It automatically sounds better,” explained another one of my female students, to say “I hooked up with a guy on the football team” instead of “I hooked up with a guy.” As a female student at Duke put it:

“Frat stars and athletes — those are the only ones that matter. I mean, honestly.”

Since their star status gives athletes plentiful opportunities to hook up, athletes sometimes find themselves following a hookup script that bears a queasy resemblance to sexual assault. As the students in “American Hookup” reveal, it’s expected in hookup culture that students will get people drunk with the aim of having sex with them; be sexually persistent, even forceful; pull peers into secluded parts of a party; and proceed quickly to sexual intercourse, even when their partners are near incapacitation.

In this way, I found, hookup culture both catalyzes and camouflages sexually coercive behavior: It instigates it at the same time that it makes it invisible. This puts high-status students like athletes at substantial risk of engaging in sexually violent behavior, if only because they have the most opportunity to play out this script. They may also be unlikely to be interrupted when they’re crossing the line.

Paul Harrison raises awareness of sexual assault on campus in the wake of the Stanford University rape case involving student athlete Brock Turner. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Status undermines bystander intervention

Encouraging and training students to interrupt sexual assaults before they begin — what we call bystander intervention — is one of the most promising prevention strategies. However, the social power of some athletes may make it harder for peers to interrupt a potential assault when they see one happening. Students are in a social hierarchy and they know it.

Arguably, it’s one thing to pull a drunken peer out of the arms of some guy who lives down the hall; it’s entirely another to do so when he’s one of the most prominent and well-loved students on campus.

When bystanders don’t intervene, it’s left up to victims to come forward and prevent future assaults themselves. But the decision to report is almost always difficult and fraught, which is why 80 percent of campus sexual assaults go unreported. When students have been victimized by celebrated athletes, how much more bravery is required — especially if the victim doesn’t have equal standing on campus?

Victims fear that their anonymity may be compromised and, when it is, they could be subject to the wrath of those who liken athletes to gods.

Status and institutional protection

In cases where victims do decide to report the assault, they sometimes discover that their institutions are as inclined to protect the perpetrator as their peers.

Evidence suggests that in some instances, administrations protect athletes named as perpetrators of sexual assault. A U.S. Senate survey of 440 colleges and universities found that staff or administrators sometimes discourage victims from reporting, downgrade an assault’s severity, delay proceedings while athletes finish their season or graduate, or simply fail to follow up altogether. When athletes are found responsible for sexual assault, they may suffer only trivial consequences.

In just the last five years, there have been at least 19 controversies surrounding university administrations’ response to reports of sexual assault. For example, despite forced changes in leadership, Baylor continues to be embroiled in investigations and lawsuits, facing allegations that the university was “deliberately indifferent” to reports of sexual assault involving student-athletes. In January 2016, Florida State settled for $950,000 with a former student who alleged that “university officials concealed and obstructed the sexual assault investigation so that [Jameis] Winston could play football.” Though some of the institutions have enacted policies in response to similar allegations, there has been controversy over administrative response to sexual assault at: Amherst, Columbia, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Hobart and William Smith, Boston University, Loyola University at Chicago and the Universities of Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Niagara, North Carolina, Richmond, Tennessee and Tulsa.

I would also argue that many colleges and universities have a problem in the form of a perverse incentive: Because of the relationship between higher education and sports, protecting student-athletes — especially in high profile sports — can be akin to protecting the institution itself.

The status quo

Catharine MacKinnon’s comments, almost 30 years later, still have the ring of truth. Certain people can get away with sexual coercion and violence more often and more easily than others. On college campuses, hookup culture is part of why.

Intervening as a bystander is difficult enough already, but my research has shown that students are even less inclined to do so when it means confronting someone with substantially more social power. And when men and women are assaulted by high-profile athletes or other high-status students, they may fear that reporting will bring further suffering — this time at the hands of their peers and their institutions.

There are things we can do.

A report submitted to the US Senate showed that many colleges and universities aren’t currently in compliance with the law and fail to follow the best known practices for prevention, reporting and adjudication.

Institutions need to follow those practices consistently, even — and this is the hard part — when it harms their reputation or bottom line.

Of course, I expect there will still be the perverse incentives faced by administrators tasked with protecting both students and the institutions they represent, as well as the devotion students have to their schools’ star athletes. To my mind, colleges need to institutionalize a different relationship between higher education and sports. In other words, to make real inroads against sexual assault on campus, the status that both athletics and athletes enjoy should be reduced.

More broadly, in my view, students need to be enabled to question whether sex should be about status at all. Must casual sex be an inherently competitive game with winners and losers? Or, could partners be chosen for their generosity or a shared affinity? Students could place a premium on pleasure and personal growth instead of popularity. Until they change their minds about the role sex plays on campus, sexual misconduct will continue to be more regulated than prohibited.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.