Campus Culture is Not a Rape Defense


Sexual Assault Prevention Ribbon

Today attorneys are preparing to deliver closing arguments in the Vanderbilt rape trial. While every rape case is deeply disturbing, this particular case could set a precedent for future rape prosecutions—and defenses.

The victim in this case woke up in her boyfriend’s dorm room after a night of heavy drinking. She could not remember what had taken place the night before. When she questioned him, he told her that she had gotten drunk, had been sick in his room, and he had cleaned her up. She was embarrassed, and she apologized profusely. Yet something about his story didn’t add up, and soon rumors began swirling.

In an odd coincidence, university officials began investigating acts of vandalism that had occurred in the dorm on the same night. As part of their investigation, they were combing through security video from the dorm when they saw something shocking—an unconscious 21-year-old female student being carried into an elevator and then down a hallway by male students, all members of Vanderbilt’s football team, one of whom was the young woman’s boyfriend. The male students took compromising photos of the woman in the hallway before dragging her into a room.

The university took immediate action, interviewing the players captured on the video, and then contacting police. The police quickly found evidence that the woman’s boyfriend sent videos of the violent gang rape that ensued behind closed doors to his friends as the attack was taking place. They also discovered that a number of other witnesses saw the woman being carried into the dorm by the players. Others, including another member of the football team, saw her lying unconscious in the hallway with red hand marks on her buttocks. He did not report what he saw to anyone, nor did he try to intervene, even though he knew the woman.

All four men were charged, and two, including the victim’s boyfriend, are defendants in the current trial. Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, who pleaded not guilty, are facing charges of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery. Vandenburg, the boyfriend of the victim, is also facing charges of tampering with evidence and unlawful photography (Huffington Post). Their defense attorney has stated that the young men should not be held responsible for these horrific crimes—acts caught on video and therefore not in question—because they were intoxicated and did not understand what they were doing.

Here is where my mind gets blown. The defense included the testimony of a neuropsychologist, who stated: “Because he was this intoxicated, he was not his normal self. He was doing things he would not have done normally” (FOXSports). The expert witness added that these young men were influenced by a campus culture that encouraged binge drinking and sexual promiscuity. Essentially, the same flawed logic used to blame victims for causing their own assaults is now being used to excuse perpetrators who assault. He was too drunk to know what he was doing, so he was not to blame. She shouldn’t have gotten drunk, therefore making herself vulnerable to such an attack. What message does this defense send to college students, and to society as a whole? How much longer are we going to ignore the fact that sexual assault is rampant on college campuses? When will we reach the tipping point where we will no longer be able to ignore the epidemic? How much sexual assault is too much?

When we lose the ability to respect and have empathy for one another, and when we no longer see each other as subject, but treat each other as object, we will eventually hurt one another. When we lack compassion and cannot feel human suffering, that is the inevitable result. If we then dismiss these crimes because the perpetrators were too drunk, or were influenced by a toxic culture, is there any hope of changing this culture of rape we have created?


Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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