Last month, Florida’s Republican U.S. senator and UF alumnus Marco Rubio proposed a bipartisan-supported bill detailing a plan to combat sexual assault on college campuses. A letter he wrote was featured in the Alligator, and he has been applauded by people on both sides of the aisle for his seemingly progressive piece of legislation. I even found myself commending Rubio until I realized he and the team of senators — a total of five democrats and five republicans — made the same mistake most people are making when it comes to combating sexual assault: They’re focused on the aftermath of rape instead of focusing on disintegrating rape culture.
Rubio began his letter by saying every American needs to feel safe on a college campus so students can get the higher education they need, and, for that reason, sexual assault is a serious concern. He went on to declare the proposed legislation’s principle goals: “empowering victims with the tools they need to achieve justice and begin healing, increasing transparency from colleges and universities, and strengthening accountability for institutions that fail to do their part to provide a safe learning environment.”
His legislation, at first glance, seems ideal, as it forces universities to be more open about the prevalence of rape while affording victims more tools to pursue justice. After thinking about it and being left with a “Where’s the rest?” feeling, however, I realized the legislation is lacking. It ignores the fact that the origin of rape can be addressed, and it instead focuses on strategies to better cope with sexual assault.
Demonstrating his focus on the aftermath of rape, Rubio wrote, “Too many lives are ruined by a failure to deal with these crimes efficiently, fairly and consistently.” That’s true. Rape victims are often confronted with even more problems if they pursue charges, but that shouldn’t be the only focus of legislation. Lives are ruined by rape — not just the criminal proceedings that sometimes follow. We can’t concede to the idea that rape will exist at these alarming rates and solely focus on how to deal with it. In fact, doing so perpetuates rape culture and the idea that rape is inevitable.
Through media, language and — in this case — legislation, rape in our society is seen as an expected crime. Society tells people how to dress, when to go outside and how to live their lives so they don’t get raped. For example, Republican District 23 Rep. Dennis K. Baxley cited campus rape as a reason to support a bill to legalize firearms on college campuses. He, too, is normalizing rape and focusing on methods to survive threats instead of attempting to diminish those threats in the first place. That’s a spineless approach. We can’t shy away from addressing why rape happens. All that does is produce methods of coping with it instead of methods of combating it.
Given that rape is a sensitive subject, it’s often intimidating to try to address something that is deeply believed in our culture to be inevitable. Rubio demonstrated just how intimidating combating rape culture is when he said, “Many of the answers must be found in changes to culture rather than in legislation.” However, he is mistaken in implying that politicians and legislation can only influence post-rape proceedings and nothing else. That’s false. Legislation can be used to contest rape culture, and here’s how:
First, we need to introduce and entrench the concept of consensual sex in middle and high school curriculums. We need adolescents who can refuse peer pressure, clarify mixed signals and understand that drugs and alcohol impair consent. It’s much more difficult to change attitudes and teach these concepts at older ages, so it needs to start early.
In addition, we need comprehensive, semesterly online workshops that teach college students bystander intervention skills. We also need to place holds on registration for students who don’t participate. All of this can be done through legislation.
Almost one in five undergraduate women are victims of sexual assault or attempted assault during their college years. Do we want to take measures to decrease that statistic, or do we want to accept it and focus wholly on how courts and universities proceed with cases? The latter is like providing Band-Aids instead of preventing cuts. It’s a cowardly cop-out, and our legislators are relying on it. We deserve more, so let’s demand it.
Christopher Wilde is a UF biochemistry freshman. His column appears on Wednesdays.
[A version of this story ran on page 7 on 3/18/2015 under the headline “Rubio rape bill focus misplaced”]