Rape is among the most horrific of crimes. Sex should be a fun and beautiful thing – but rape takes that most personal of experiences and turns it into a degradation.
There is moderately good news about the number of rapes in the USA. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rape rate has declined by over 60% in the last two decades.
That’s welcome news, of course. But no matter what the rate is, it is too high. The vast majority of human beings are already perfectly capable of living their lives without ever raping anyone, so eliminating rape entirely should be the standard we aspire to.
Country comparisons are useful in setting expectations. Sweden, for example, has a shockingly high rape rate of 53.2 per 100,000 people. In comparison, the United States has a low rate at 28.6. But before we issue congratulations, let’s also consider Canada, the USA’s near neighbor both geographically and culturally, where the rate is 1.5. Significant progress is still possible.
Controversy has been running high recently over how best to lower the rape rate on campuses. Progress should especially be possible in colleges and universities, which are populated by young people with higher-education aspirations, and statistics do show that fewer rapes and other violent crimes are committed on campuses.
But in California, recent legislation attempts to lessen the problem by mandating explicit verbal communication prior to sexual activity. The initiative’s slogan is “Yes means Yes.” The idea is that the absence of resistance is not enough to make initiating sex acceptable. “No” does mean “No”, but the lack of a “No” does not mean “Yes.” So an explicit positive acceptance of sexual initiative will henceforth be necessary before any student can make a sexual move. Those who fail to demonstrate that explicit positive consent was given will accordingly be more easily found guilty of rape.
The initiative has generated a firestorm of debate – with two fascinating features.
One feature is that the debate shows our shifting political fault lines, which increasingly are not conservatives versus liberals, but rather both conservatives and liberals against the new authoritarians. Here for example is liberal columnist Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine, on how the initiative undermines one foundation of liberalism – the presumption of innocence. He is joined by conservative columnist Charles Cooke, writing in National Review, who similarly lambasts the initiative’s willingness to jettison due process of law. And both are opposed to new authoritarian Ezra Klein, who wrote in Vox defending the new law despite its “overreach” and the fact that it will be cause “a haze of fear and confusion” on campuses and “create a world where men are afraid.”
The second fascinating feature is the largely-positive response to the initiative within higher education circles. The authoritarian impulse is always a natural response to a problem, and very often professors and administrators find it easier to use their power to impose their wills and micromanage their students’ thoughts, feelings, and activities. That impulse is the opposite of the ideal of liberal education.
So in the spirit of that ideal, let me suggest that a better solution to the problem of rape lies in the opposite direction: What students need is to be treated less like semi-responsible, semi-competent children who need oversight, direction, and control; and what they need is more self-responsibility and power. Especially in institutions of higher education, where every moment is a teaching moment, the lesson we should be teaching about sex is that free and responsible men and women can take charge of their sex lives and make them meaningful – and prevent most problems from arising in the first place.
So some advice about how to solve the rape problem to everyone involved – young women and men, professors and administrators, and intellectuals and policy-makers.
To young women: When choosing a college, do research on universities’ rates of sexual violence. Don’t apply to those that have unacceptably high rates. Also do your homework about fraternities’ reputations, so you can choose carefully which parties you attend. Go to parties with a friend or three and keep an eye out for each other. If there drunk guys are around, leave.
All of that is common sense – though we know that common sense and the sex drive are often not on speaking terms. But that is part of education: developing those habits of ahead-of-time thinking and action that will serve us well. The same principles apply whether you’re in college or going hiking in the woods or driving through a big city at night – there are wild animals there, so beware.
To young men: We do have in our midst, even in higher education, a surprising number of sub-human males. But every young man who arrives in college or university knows that rape is wrong. And the vast majority will never rape. So the problem is the minority of males who have not yet decided to become real men. What kind of man can only get a woman into bed if she’s drunk? What sort of loser can only get sex by brute force? The message that should be inspired in all young men is the opposite: You want to become a real man, a manly man in the serious sense – one whom women genuinely find attractive and respond to romantically.
To campus administrators and policy-makers: Campus life is a microcosm of life in general – but with a specialized focus: helping young men and women further develop the knowledge, skills, and character they need to pursue their life goals. Every policy we adopt should foster that mission, and none should undercut it. Becoming authoritarian ourselves is always a mistake, however tempting.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing administrators can do to help solve the problem of rape. One standout aspect is the influence of alcohol: In 71% of all American cases of rape, either the perpetrator or the victim or both had been drinking. Yes, 71 percent.
So why not work to change our alcohol policies? The current legal drinking age in the USA is 21, while it is 18 in most other countries in the world. Some of those countries have lower rape rates and some have higher.
But consider what the drinking age means to the average American college student, most of whom are under 21. Drinking becomes a symbol of independence and getting drunk a rite of passage. Alcohol becomes a deliciously forbidden fruit, since administrators frown upon it and try to police it, which drives student drinking into semi-secret parties in frat houses and dorms. So the effect of our current policy is to couple drinking with rebelliousness and independence – and the sex drive – and drive it underground.
I contrast this, anecdotally, to my experience as an undergraduate student in Canada, where we could drink legally and pubs on campus were among the most popular social spots. The drinking was mostly social, in public, and not demonized. Social scientists will tell a more detailed causal story, but it’s worth noting that alcohol consumption in Canada is moderately lower than in the USA and the campus rape rate is much lower.
So if we really want less sexual violence on campus, why don’t we try more self-responsibility and freedom? We currently have one authoritarian rule (We need to control your drinking) contributing to another authoritarian policy (We need to control your sex life).
Instead of a vicious cycle of imposing more controls on students and demanding their compliance, let’s create a virtuous cycle based on encouraging student self-control and personal responsibility.
Don’t miss last week’s column: Conservatives Against Free-Market Capitalism.
Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .