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Vanderbilt’s “culture of sexual freedom” isn’t the problem.
In 2013, two then-students at Vanderbilt University, Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, allegedly raped an unconscious female student on campus. They used a cell phone to capture footage, which also shows Batey urinating on the victim and using racial slurs.
Unlike most accused rapists, Vandenburg and Batey are now on trial. As the trial opened this past week, the defense team made some interesting comments about Batey’s culpability.
Batey’s attorney said the football player from Nashville was influenced by a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.
The atmosphere “changed the rest of his life,” and Batey was too drunk at the time to deliberately commit a crime, he added.
The reasoning seems to be that Batey has been somehow wronged by this university and its campus environment in a way that is relevant to the matter of his innocence or lack thereof. (The question of whether or not being drunk should influence culpability is a separate one that I will leave to a separate article.)
This seems like a convenient way of obfuscating the issue. Of course Batey was influenced in all sorts of ways by his environment. We all are. That’s the nature of being a social species. But ultimately the burden of making the decision falls on the individual making it, and part of being an adult is accepting that responsibility.
This got me thinking about other bad and illogical excuses people make when accused of rape.
1) “I’m the real victim here.”
Usually this means “victim of a false rape accusation,” but clearly Cory Batey and his lawyers didn’t have that option–there was video evidence. Instead, Batey is the victim of “a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.” The implication seems to be that none of this would ever have happened if Batey had not found himself (well, chose to place himself) in such a campus environment.
I’ll be the first to endorse the claim that many college campuses have unhealthy cultures, and this can impact people in all sorts of ways. (Not necessarily negative ways—some people respond to these environments by becoming passionate activists for a better culture.)
Short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone.
However, short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone—or to urinate on them, for that matter. Batey’s peers and environment may have suggested to him that this sort of behavior is OK, but it is not too much to expect an adult to be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to rape someone, especially if that adult’s upbringing contrasted so greatly with this campus culture.
That said, buried deep within the obfuscation and rationalization that Batey’s lawyers are presenting here is actually a nugget of truth that anti-rape activists have been repeating for years: Many campuses have a really unhealthy and dangerous climate when it comes to things like binge drinking and sexual assault. Acknowledging this and working to change it, however, does not mean excusing those who commit rape.
2) “She was asking for it.”
This is, of course, entirely self-contradictory. If someone was actually asking for you to have sex with them, then it was not rape. If someone was not asking (or consenting) to have sex with you, then it was rape. If someone makes a rape accusation, then that means they were not asking. The only way to actually “ask” to have sex is to, well, ask for it—not to drink alcohol, not to dress sexy, not to dance or flirt with you, and not to make out with you.
We hear this excuse a lot with sexual harassment, too, not just assault. The reason I used a female pronoun is because this is typically only applied to female survivors. Why? Probably because (white, conventionally attractive) women are presumed to be so irresistibly appealing that men cannot possibly restrain themselves—therefore, those women were “asking” for whatever it is the men did.
But we didn’t ask for you to have such poor self-control that you cannot keep yourself from catcalling or raping us. And, more to the point, rape is typically a premeditated act. It has nothing to do with irresistible urges.
3) “I was doing them a favor.”
Sometimes when women who are not considered conventionally attractive make a rape accusation, the alleged rapist claims that they were doing the survivor a “favor” because nobody else would ever want to have sex with them. It also sometimes happens in cases of statutory rape, where the rapist claims that they somehow helped teach the child or teen they assaulted and initiate them into adult sexuality. Some of the grossest narratives about adult women who seek out sexual relationships with boys involve the idea that these boys are “lucky” to be getting attention from older women who can show them the ropes.
It would take pages to unpack all the horribly cruel and twisted logic here, but I have trouble believing that these rapists are just so incredibly selfless that they would, out of the kindness of their hearts, have sex with someone who they have no interest in just to help that person out. But more to the point, this still denies the person their right to autonomy. If they wanted sex with you, they’d be consenting, and just because you have such an inflated ego that you think they should be thanking you doesn’t mean they actually should be.
4) “I couldn’t have possibly raped them because nobody would want to have sex with them.”
This excuse is frequently made by accused rapists who are counting on the fact that many people don’t understand the difference between sex and rape and don’t understand that rape is not caused by extreme sexual desire. Rape is caused by making the decision to take control of someone’s body and autonomy.
While some proportion of rapists are probably sexually attracted to the people they rape (I don’t know this for certain, as I’ve hardly done a scientific study of it), that’s not a necessary condition. We know that rape is used as a way to punish and control people, especially but not exclusively women. We know that “corrective rape“—raping a queer woman to try to “convert” her to heterosexuality—happens. We know that men who rape other men are not necessarily gay or bisexual.
Rape is too complex an act to claim that it is ultimately “about sex” or “about power,” or “about violence”—it can be about many different things depending on the situation. However, using someone’s supposed sexual undesirability as a way to claim that you didn’t do what they’re accusing of is not a good argument.
Besides, there probably isn’t a single person in this world who isn’t sexually attractive to anyone. Beauty standards exist—and they are sexist, racist, and otherwise oppressive—but it’s quite myopic to claim that because you personally don’t find someone attractive, nobody else does.
5) “She’s just upset that I rejected her advances.”
This, too, is almost always directed at female survivors. Former Canadian radio broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi famously used this excuse this past fall, when multiple allegations of sexual and physical assault against him began to go viral:
Despite a strong connection between us it became clear to me that our on-and-off dating was unlikely to grow into a larger relationship and I ended things in the beginning of this year. She was upset by this and sent me messages indicating her disappointment that I would not commit to more, and her anger that I was seeing others.
After this, in the early spring there began a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization against me that would lead to months of anxiety.
Much is often made of how “upset” these ostensibly jilted lovers are, or how “bad” the alleged rapist feels for this poor woman who just could not handle being rejected. It’s ironic, of course, because it’s typically men who respond poorly to being rejected, so poorly that many women are terrified of rejecting them.
This narrative is useful for a few reasons. First and foremost, it allows the person accused of rape to deny any wrongdoing, except for the occasional caveat that perhaps they should have been more gentle in how they let the poor woman down. It also allows them to maintain a public image of desirability—they are so desirable, in fact, that being rejected by them apparently leads people to lose their minds with heartbreak and start throwing around wild accusations.
Raping someone is a choice, not a compulsion.
Finally, it is highly believable for many people because it plays into a common trope about silly lovesick women who can’t handle breakups without going crazy. But as it so often is with sexist stereotypes, research suggests that the reality is quite the opposite: Men take breakups harder.
Excuses like these work—not just on juries, but on friends and fans and just about everyone—because most people do not understand what rape is and how it works. Raping someone is a choice, not a compulsion. False accusations happen, but they are so rare that it is extremely unreasonable to just assume that an accusation is false without additional evidence that it is false. There is no way to consent to sex except to indicate, verbally or nonverbally, that you want to have sex. Sexy clothing does not count as a nonverbal indicator.
Keeping facts like these in mind will help us make sense of the excuses we hear every time someone is accused of sexual assault, no matter how well-documented the evidence is.
Miri Mogilevsky is a social work graduate student who writes about feminism and politics. She has a B.A. in psychology and writes a blog called Brute Reason.