Camille Paglia Doesn’t Understand Rape Culture

by Amy McCarthy

It’s no surprise that someone who labels herself a “dissident feminist” would sometimes draw the ire of those who do our best to live inside a feminist framework. Writer and social critic Camille Paglia has long claimed that feminists are man-hating, head-in-the-cloud idealists, but her rhetoric has intensified, specifically on the topic of rape culture, in the last year. Put simply, this “dissident” isn’t having any of feminists’ assertions that there is a pervasive and systemic rape culture that impacts women.

On Monday, Paglia wrote an essay for TIME that takes aim at efforts made by college campuses to reduce sexual assault, dubiously calling these efforts potential violations of civil liberties — but not before she makes some seriously harmful claims about the reality of rape at universities.

Despite hysterical propaganda about our “rape culture,” the majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides.

What Paglia would call “oafish hookup melodramas” are what the rest of us would call date rape, something that is pervasive on college campuses. To suggest that crossed lines of consent can be reduced to the mistakes of fumbling teenage boys is to minimize the thousands of acquaintance rapes that happen on campuses every year. This isn’t about mixed signals or drunk boys — it’s about a culture that encourages the belief that women's bodies are for the taking.

Wildly overblown claims about an epidemic of sexual assaults on American campuses are obscuring the true danger to young women, too often distracted by cellphones or iPods in public places: the ancient sex crime of abduction and murder.

Paglia then implies that women could somehow prevent being sexually assaulted by just not doing things that will purportedly get them raped, like looking at their iPods or cell phones instead of vigilantly policing the perimeter as they walk to biology. It isn’t “contrarian” or “edgy” for a “feminist” scholar to suggest that the onus is on rape victims to prevent rape, it’s just a really bad argument. Only rapists can prevent rape. You know, by not raping people.

Here, Paglia joins a chorus of men’s rights activists and Fox News hosts that would suggest women are at fault for their rapes. The suggestion that women can prevent being sexually assaulted is beyond damaging to victims of all kinds of sexual assault. There is already an overwhelming amount of stigma and shame associated with being raped, and too many victims already feel at fault for the crimes perpetrated against their bodies. Last year, a University of North Carolina student was threatened with expulsion after reporting her assault.

Paglia also points to the “fragility of civilization,” and positions rape as an issue of human nature. In reality, men should be more offended than women by this assertion that they have a biological imperative to rape women that cannot be overcome by rational thought. “It is well-established that the visual faculties play a bigger role in male sexuality, which accounts for the greater male interest in pornography,” writes Paglia. “The sexual stalker, who is often an alienated loser consumed with his own failures, is motivated by an atavistic hunting reflex. He is called a predator precisely because he turns his victims into prey.”

But we know that rapists can't blame their primal urges for their crimes, just like we know that not all rapists are "alienated losers." People can be raped by their partners, teachers, strangers, and acquaintances. In fact, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network suggests that at least two thirds of all rapes will be committed by someone who is known to the victim. We all know how woefully underreported rape is, especially when it involves friends or family members, so these numbers are undoubtedly skewed. Rapists don’t all lurk in the shadows, they aren’t all “sexual stalkers.” Sometimes they sit beside you in class, play on the football team, and sometimes, they’re your really close friends.

Rapists don’t all lurk in the shadows, they aren’t all “sexual stalkers.” Sometimes they sit beside you in class, play on the football team, and sometimes, they’re your really close friends.

At present, 55 colleges across the United States are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for mishandling allegations of sexual assault. Instigated by a bipartisan congressional committee, the investigation hopes to finally lend some transparency to universities that are infamous for having murky reporting policies. The fact that Congress, infamous for its own inability to accomplish anything, has come together to fight sexual assault on campuses indicates that it is a much broader problem than most of us, Camille Paglia included, would think.

To characterize rape as anything other than prevalent in our culture is disingenuous. Beyond that, harmful statements like these make it even more difficult for victims who are already blaming themselves, or who are attacked by people other than these mythical “sexual stalkers,” to find closure and achieve justice. These types of claims have real world implications, especially in a culture that already refuses to address the fact that a third of women will experience sexual assault in their lives.