This goes way beyond Bill Cosby.
It’s 2014, and we’re still raising rapists. And people who enable them.
The allegations against the comedian — that he drugged and raped women over decades — are sickening. Multiple women came forward to tell eerily similar stories over the years, but were dismissed or ignored. Young and unfamous, it was their word against the beloved, sanctimonious Cosby’s.
But let’s not kid ourselves that the comedian’s apparent certainty that he could abuse women with impunity is unusual. Witness the other horrific rape story of the week, a Rolling Stone investigation into the handling of rape allegations at the University of Virginia. After a freshman said she was gang raped by seven frat boys, friends discouraged her from reporting it, fearing they would all be ostracized. When she finally did muster the courage to tell the university, officials were maddeningly inept.
It was merely the latest in a long series of stories on campus sexual assault. Closer to home, a Brown University student who said she was raped in October after drinking spiked punch at a frat house tested positive for a date-rape drug. A few weeks ago, MIT released a survey in which 1 in 6 respondents said they had been sexually assaulted, and only 5 percent had reported it. Our future leaders, ladies and gentlemen.
As depressing as all of this is, there is hope: We’re finally talking about sexual assault in ways that might make a difference. The federal government is investigating more than 80 colleges suspected of inadequately responding to sexual assault allegations, including six schools in Massachusetts. Colleges are rushing to put in place new policies defining consent, making it easier for victims to come forward, and ensuring that abusers, who skate way too often, face consequences.
It’s going to take some time before we get to a balance that truly deters assaults and protects the rights of the accused, but we’re on our way.
Meanwhile, can we talk about the fact that we are here at all? Decades after the women’s movement began, an alarming number of young men (it is overwhelmingly men) still rape their classmates with few consequences and go on to run the world.
“There’s still this sense of entitlement,” said Djuna Perkins, a former Suffolk assistant district attorney who has investigated student sexual misconduct cases for 10 universities in Massachusetts. “There’s this medieval idea that women are property.”
Most of her cases involve disputes over consent. They are not as clear-cut as the rapes at UVA or Brown, but they’re revealing nonetheless. College is a crucible for sexual assault: Here are not-yet-fully-formed people living on their own for the first time, pushing boundaries, including sexual ones. There is massive, and easily exploited, insecurity — particularly among freshman women, who are most vulnerable to attack. There is a rigid social order, with frat boys, athletes, and charmers at its top — above suspicion, or challenge — and the risk of being ostracized for those who dare to accuse them.
We’re raising girls to believe it’s good to be sexual, and empowering to make their own choices. But we’re also raising boys who read that it’s open season, who assume that having their way with a girl is their right. Perkins will often ask a boy, including those who have been through orientation programs exhorting them to get clear, affirmative consent, how a girl demonstrated that consent, and he will blankly offer, “She didn’t say no.”
Until we chip away at boys’ sense of entitlement, we’ll get nowhere on preventing sexual assault. In the meantime, we face the dismal prospect of putting more responsibility, and limits, on girls, counseling them to avoid frat houses as travelers might avoid warring nations; to avoid getting drunk, and to accept only drinks in sealed containers; to avoid being alone with someone they don’t know; to avoid putting trust in a boy unless he has truly earned it.
It feels like going backward because it is. We still live in Cosby’s world.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.