For her ‘Society, Sex, and Gender’ class taught by Patrice LeClerc, Jordan Pescrillo ’12 wrote a research paper titled “Rape Culture or Bad Hook-up Culture? A Case Study of St. Lawrence University,” and I spoke with her about her research and findings. First, though, let’s define some terms.
Does anyone actually know what “hooking up” means? “People talk about it all day long in the Pub and Dana every weekend, but they have no idea what they’re friends or even themselves mean when they say it,” Pescrillo said.
One of Pescrillo’s main sources for her research, an article by Caroline Heldman and Lisa Wade titled “Hook-Up Culture: Setting a New Research Agenda,” defines “hook-up culture” as “casual sexual contact between non-dating partners without an (expressed or acknowledged) expectation of forming a committed relationship.”
Pescrillo explained that rape culture is simply “…a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape.” “College campuses are an important community to analyze in American culture,” she said. “Every year, an estimated one college woman in eight is raped and in 85% of those assaults, the woman knew her attacker.”
However, Pescrillo stressed that rape is not a gender-specific issue. She brought up the language used to describe rape in the student handbook, which defines rape as a solely male-to-female interaction. “What about females who rape males on this campus?” Pescrillo said. “The most up-to-date legal definition (as of January 2012) of rape describes any sexual penetration between any gender as considered rape or sexual assault. This definition of rape does not supply justice to males or same-sex rapes, therefore delegitimizing the term, event, and the power of women to also sexually assault men or women.” Stressing the point that the issue of rape is a campus-wide issue and not just for women to worry about, Pescrillo said, “Men are being sexually assaulted too. If the school can’t acknowledge that in the handbook, that’s is a huge problem.”
In her paper, Pescrillo cited university policies, changes in the nature of alcohol use, and perceptions of risk on a small, isolated campus as reasons why St. Lawrence may be prone to a bad hookup culture/rape culture.
“Over the last three years, there have only been three sexual assaults each year reported by St. Lawrence security,” she said. “I asked people I interviewed if they believed these statistics, and every single person denied these incredibly low numbers. Many said they could name three people off the top of their head who were assaulted recently.”
Pescrillo explained that college students are often afraid to report a sexual assault for fear that their peers will get in trouble or that they will falsely accuse someone based on their failure to remember the incident. “Students have a difficult time differentiating between ‘bad sex’ and sexual assault as a result of the drinking culture on campus. ‘Bad sex’ or ‘sex regret’ is having sex after being under some sort of influence and waking up the next morning either regretting the sex you had or questioning whether you consented or not. This is not necessarily rape by any means, but people should have more of a proactive conversation about these experiences because the line between bad sex and rape is a fine one that I would argue affects college men almost as much as women,” she said.
Pescrillo said her findings showed that St. Lawrence is reporting more than other small private universities like Ithaca College, Union and Hobart William and Smith, but that assaults still go widely underreported and unrecognized. With outlets such as the Advocates, the Women’s Resource Center, the heath center, campus security, and the local police, students need to take on a greater level of responsibility, both in being vocal about their experiences and educating themselves (especially men) about the issues at hand. “This needs to be peer-driven,” Pescrillo said. “People need to change the language they’re using to talk about their sexual behaviors. Your friends may be ignorant of what consensual sex is.” Pescrillo suggested that students should educate their peers starting freshman year about safe, consensual sex in a college environment could potentially improve rape statistics. “We’re not talking about this right,” she said. “We lack the language between security, faculty, administration, and students, for ways to talk about this. Students need to discuss the ‘rules’ of hooking up and what the changing sexual scripts are in college.”
So what do we do about this issue of rape culture and bad hook-up culture? “Just asking yourself, ‘What kind of sex am I having and why am I having it?’ or ‘When’s the last time I had sober sex?’ would ultimately change a lot of the ways in which we talk about rape and hooking-up,” Pescrillo said. “We changed the use of the word ‘negro’ to African-American in the media and in conversation. We can absolutely change the way we talk about rape.”