Notre Dame: A Genuine Example of Rape Culture

Salon has a really sad article contrasting all the coverage of the bizarre story of Manti Te’s hoax girlfriend–an imaginary dead girl–with  the very real death of Lizzy Seeberg:

Less than a day into the Manti Te’o revelations, we’ve heard more about a fake dead girlfriend of a Notre Dame football player than a real dead girl. Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide, not long after being intimidated by Notre Dame football players for reporting a sexual assault by one of their teammates. A second woman who was taken to the hospital for a rape exam declined to formally accuse another Notre Dame football player after getting a series of bullying texts from players.

Lizzy Seeberg (from

I think the Duke lacrosse scandal taught a lesson from buying too much into stereotypes of privileged white men victimizing women without any solid evidence, but on the other hand the Sandusky scandal illustrates that there’s a very real football culture that tolerates, or at least turns a blind eye, to very real abuses. The Steubenville case (in which hacktivist group Anonymous published videos of football players bragging about a rape) is another recent reminder of how deep this problem goes. It’s hard to believe kids still in high school had already cultivated such a viciously dangerous sense of immunity from the laws of civilized society.

When I read about rape statistics in South Africa where women have a better chance of being raped than learning to read, I’m horrified. How can any society exist under such conditions? And yet it turns out I live in a country where, as long as you’re a football player, you are free to rape and still expec that your parents, friends, coaches, and community will circle the wagons to support you.

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece criticizing the rape culture critics for not understanding that elements of their socially liberal agenda exacerbate the dangers women face from rape. By construing useful advice as apologizing for rapists or blindly advocating politiaclly-motivated dogma about gender, they contribute to the problem. But they’re not all wrong. Sometimes the enemy is just good, old-fashioned patriarchy and so-called masculine “virtues”.

I’m still very conflicted and–to be honest–quite confused about what it is that lets this kind of thing take place. I’ve started following the NFL closely over the last few years, but I was never into sports in high school or college, and I’ve always viewed fandom as a kind of evolutionary throwback to tribalism. Completely irrational, but mostly harmless fun. I hear accusations that rape culture is an offshoot of white male privilege, but I’ve never felt privileged in a way that made it seem OK to harass or objectify women, let alone assault or rape them.

Other kinds of privilege I can understand, like the fact that when people see me they have no problem assuming I’m intelligent, well-educated, and responsible. Studies show that, based on my name alone, if I applied for jobs in the hard sciences I’d be more likely to be hired and make more money than if I was girl with the exact same privileges. I’m not here to try and deny that male privilege exists, but I think that blaming it for rape is factually wrong and also puts a lot of people who want to have a positive impact on the defensive.

Let me start by explaining that, without denying male privilege exists, I’ve never felt entitled with respect to women in my life.  If anything, it’s the opposite. I’ve always felt strong social taboos against anything that would even come close to sexual harassment or abuse. I’m quite happily married now, so the rules of getting to know new girls aren’t as relevant in my life anymore, but it’s not like I can’t remember them. You don’t stare at women creepily, you don’t follow them around, you don’t make unwanted advances, you don’t try to contact them in any way unless they have expressed a willingness to communicate back, and if you see someone else doing any of these things you intervene. Aren’t these the rules everyone lives by?

‘Cause, while I realize that things like abstinence from pornography make me highly unusual in some sense, I don’t see myself as some weird anomaly over all. There have been a couple of times in my life when I was at a party or out with friends and it seemed like a girl was being taken advantage of, and in every instance I moved to intervene, but I was usually not the first and never alone in converting my concern to action. (Thankfully, these ended up being minor incidents or false alarms.)

I think it’s also important to acknowledge that this isn’t just a case of the good guys being good guys. I know girls who have been raped and abused, but I also know men who were falsely accused with absolutely no evidence and literally had their lives ruined. Please understand that I’m not trying to equate the two problems. My point is that, while male privilege notwithstanding, ordinary men have strong incentives to behave themselves. When I was a graduate student instructor, I either held office hours in public or kept the door open partially to avoid ever making a student feel uncomfortable, but mostly as a method of preemptive self-defense. There are lots of social rules that dictate how a man–even a white, straight man–can interact with women and girls and children. The point is not to deny that white men have it easier in general, but to point out that the kinds of complete lack of restraint exhibited by star football players, rich trust-fund sons, or powerful politicians doesn’t come from being straight, white or male. It comes from being powerful.

Focusing on white, male privilege isn’t the correct response to rape culture. Although male privilege implies that being white and male are correlated with power, there’s no reason to rely on secondary correlation when we know what the real problem is. Doing so diverts some attention away from the real potential perpetrators (which in some cases includes individuals who aren’t white, straight, or male) .

It also ignores the fact that the likeliness of an attack doesn’t just depend on the person, but also on the situation. Sandusky, Notre Dame football players, and even the high school team from Steubenville are powerful pretty much throughout their entire community, but ordinary men don’t have that kind of universal umbrella. That’s one reason why so many assaults are correlated with college parties: the acceptance of casual sex and the prevalence of alcohol create a greatly exacerbated situational power imbalance. Men have plausible deniability (socially they do,although legally and ethically they don’t), they have a greater tolerance to drugs, and they have their biological advantages in physical size and strength. These are all forms of power, and power corrupts. Please note, however, that power imbalances never excuse. They indict. People in power have greater obligation, so when a college kid assaults a girl who’s passed out or Sandusky carefully selected his next child victim, pointing out that a power imbalance helped make this attack possible doesn’t make the perpetrator less guilty. It makes them more guilty, especially when the power imbalance is specifically sought out and arranged.

Finally, reducing the problem to just white male privilege creates a needless political fight. Trying to tell me that there’s a universal system where men just feel entitled to do what they want with women has always backfired because I could just look at my own life experiences and say “No, there isn’t.” And so I then dismissed the argument as shrill hysteria. As it turns out, the conclusion was mostly correct even though the argument was flawed. There are places and communities right here in the United States where men do feel entitled. It’s a disturbing revelation, but it’s one I could have had a lot sooner if it had been presented to me with more accuracy and less politics.

Having said all this, my last question is: what do I do about it? The ideas I have are mostly limited to:

  1. Call for justice with whatever (small) voice I have. (Which I’m doing now, and will keep doing.)
    When rapists can be caught and prosecuted, they should be. When they can’t be directly identified, they should still know how much society is disgusted by their actions. Very little sends a worse message, I think, then how permissive we are when politicians skirt the line of sexual assault. There’s no way the President of the United States having sex with an intern doesn’t violate the basic rules of sexual consent (read #2), but somehow that became something between a personal tragedy (for Bill, not Monica) and a joke.
  2. Advise people in my life to stay the hell away from drinking parties and take other precautions.
    I don’t care how politically incorrect it is: the hookup culture creates feeding grounds for sexual predators.

These just don’t seem really sufficient, however. So I’m especially interested in the comments on this one. What else can we do?

3 thoughts on “Notre Dame: A Genuine Example of Rape Culture”

  1. I never understood how the “white” part came in to play. As you pointed out I think it’s men and having a culture/community that protects them is the problem and this is a part of what some refer to as male privilege. Even in the gay community this is a problem. Gay men feeling “entitled” to female bodies because it is somehow ok since they aren’t actually attracted to women.

    I am very wary of football/basketball players. If your team is good, you can almost be sure there’s some sort of cover up happened. Same thing happened at my school. I remember in dance class one day we ended up having a serious talk and 2/3 of the girls in my class said they had been assaulted by one of the football players and nothing was ever done.

  2. Nathaniel,

    I really love this post. In general, I think the problem can and should be approached from two sides: the society and the individual. The suggestions you make are excellent — I think a society that figuratively spits on sexual predators and asserts itself as one that is intolerant of that behavior is a must.

    Along those lines, I would like to see more open, honest, and compassionate assistance for victims. If a victim feels as though his or her life and dignity are of value to society when seeking help, it gives criminals less emotional power.

    Additionally, from an individualistic standpoint, I think strong families and positive role models who emphasize confidence would help tackle the problem at its roots. People who grow up confident and strong might be less likely to engage in behavior that might set them up for risky situations. I especially think its important for both young men and women to have excellent role models, and to understand how to treat others and how they deserve to be treated, and to act accordingly. However, that’s really something we have to do within our own spheres, and try to recognize when we are acting as role models. I think people should take self-defense classes, etc.

    Beyond that, I would just like to say that I think we have come a long way (which is by no means a reason to stop fighting for eradication of rape), and I think the fact that we have people recognizing the ideas you recognize, and fighting for these things is evidence that we are on the right track. =)


  3. Thanks for writing this. You bring up many excellent points. As a woman, I don’t take offense to advice given intended to minimize risks. What is the difference between advice on minimizing risk for rape and minimizing risk for being mugged in a parking lot? Neither blames victims but helps prevent the victim from being… you. When you’re staring into the face of a perpetrator, political correctness just doesn’t matter. I look back on my college years in particular, and it’s amazing I made it out unscathed. I consider myself a fairly intelligent woman with plenty of common sense… at least now that I am in my 30’s. Not sure where that common sense was hiding in my late teens and early 20’s. I faced some very scary situations that, had better men not intervened, would have been tragic. So ladies: don’t participate in the party culture, don’t wear clothes that scream, “I participate in the party culture” (you can be just as pretty in classier clothes), and for Pete’s sake, don’t attend college parties *alone*.

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