Colleges and universities have ramped up their response to sexual assault in the past decade, largely after the Obama administration released guidance around the federal law barring sex discrimination, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Though advocates credited the 2011 Dear Colleague letter with giving survivors more protections, others criticized it for reducing due process protections for those accused.
And yet rape remains a major problem on campuses. In her new book, Rape Culture on Campus (Rowman & Littlefield), Meredith Minister, an assistant professor of religion at Shenandoah University, discusses how administrators' fixes around sexual violence -- specifically at religious institutions -- have failed to address the underlying culture that fuels these incidents. Minister answered questions about her book and "rape culture" via email. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: Why are aspects of rape culture so ingrained in colleges? How did this come about?
A: Rape culture is not unique to colleges and universities, but it does take unique shape on college and university campuses. College and university campuses are often supposed to be so-called ivory towers, separated from and sitting above society. But this is just isn’t the case. The social issues that are problems off campus are also problems on campus. Some of those problems may be exacerbated or mitigated because of the unique living conditions of students on and off campus, but they do not go away. Rape culture is a problem on campus because it is a problem off campus.
Q: Is rape culture more present on religious campuses? If so, why, and do they have an obligation to mitigate this?
A: While I wouldn’t necessarily say rape culture is more present on religious campuses, these different types of institutions do present unique challenges when responding to rape culture. One of the things I talk about in the book is the different narratives colleges and universities draw on in order to respond to sexual violence, and I offer three different types of responses institutions resort to, including 1) the narrative of isolating the problem of sexual violence on college campuses to athletics or fraternities, 2) the narrative of the college as family and, finally, 3) the narrative of a morally pure, righteous college campus that expunges guilt. These three types don’t reflect every story spun in the wake of the crisis of sexual violence but they do provide a starting point for thinking about how stories shape institutional responses to sexual violence. The third type is more available to religious institutions, and Baylor University is an example of an institution that drew on this narrative as board members used language of values, care and morality in order to defend their choices to expunge the guilty, including the head football coach and the university president.
One other point is that state schools and historically Protestant institutions are more likely than evangelical institutions to have campus resources to mitigate the harms of rape, including women’s centers, so access to resources to both prevent and respond to rape can be affected by religious commitments.
Q: Have the recent new draft regulations from the Education Department around Title IX done anything to improve the culture at colleges and universities?
A: In a word, no. For a longer answer, the new rules are supposed to protect the rights of all students in a supportive, fair manner, but many have argued that they will make it harder to report and, thus, make schools less safe. These varied responses suggest that rape has become a political pawn that obscures the realities of sexual violence on college campuses.
Rather than accept existing ways of thinking about responses to sexual violence (Obama-era guidelines versus Trump-era regulations), Rape Culture on Campus offers a framework for understanding rape on campus and then draws on that framework to suggest how campuses can work to prevent and respond to sexual violence no matter who controls the White House. Instead of understanding rape as an individual, isolated phenomenon (or a set of individual, isolated acts), I argue for understanding the problem of rape in the United States as a broad cultural phenomenon with religious roots. While the problem of sexual violence is particularly rooted in religious assumptions about purity, it is not limited to overtly religious contexts. We need to think about sexual violence as a cultural problem, instead of an individual problem, and then to use that cultural framing to rethink three binaries that undergird responses to sexual violence: consent versus rape, victims versus perpetrators, and punishment versus justice. The new guidelines rely on these binaries and, thus, fail to offer a solution that will change rape culture on college and university campuses.
Q: The public at times has been quite critical of trigger warnings -- what is your opinion of this concept?
A: When faculty use trigger warnings in a classroom, they are often trying to make classrooms more equitable spaces precisely because classrooms are neither protected nor comfortable. Trigger warnings do not make classrooms safe, in part because a space that is always safe for everyone is impossible. But trigger warnings often express a hope to tip the scales of privilege, ever so slightly, to make the classroom safer for those who have inhabited its margins. They offer an attempt to understand the collective nature of trauma and center it in the classroom, rather than individualizing trauma, pathologizing traumatized students and pushing trauma out of the classroom.
Trigger warnings need to be accompanied by much larger institutional shifts that recognize that the recent desegregation of education along race and gender lines has not come to fruition. As long as sexism and racism continue to exist on our campuses, trigger warnings will not make minoritized students safe, but they may function to center perspectives that may otherwise be marginalized in the classroom and to heighten awareness to perspectives that differ from privileged perspectives.
Q: What is the biggest deficiency in institutions addressing rape culture that you have identified?
A: Attempts to make a difference through one-time interventions for incoming students during orientation week are the biggest deficiency in institutional attempts to address rape culture. While there’s no quick fix for sexual violence on campuses, one-time interventions that occur, especially during orientation week, allow institutions to check compliance boxes and reveal how little administrators are willing to invest in addressing this problem. Part of me gets this. The problem appears insurmountable, and we have so few resources or models for a response that goes beyond these quick fixes, which now often include some form of consent education and/or bystander intervention. Consent may be “sexy,” as a recent advocacy campaign suggested, and there may be times where bystanders can intervene to mitigate harm. The assumption, however, that these interventions will solve the problem of sexual violence ignores the deep cultural roots of sexual violence and how it is tied into other forms of violence, including racial, class and religious violence, as well as violence rooted in ableism. Until we are willing to take up rape culture as a social and cultural problem, instead of just attempting to prevent or respond to individualized acts of sexual violence, rape will continue to be a problem on campus.