THE Debate: Fear and anxiety contaminate our thinking about the possibilities of university life

Jennifer Doyle is professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. Her latest book, Campus Sex, Campus Security, was published by Semiotext(e) this month.

The campus security nightmare scenario in the US revolves around two phenomena: the statistical anomaly of “the rampaging shooter” (who could be anyone), and the statistical fact that any female student can become a rape victim.

The genderedness of risk is stark: every male student is a potential threat; every female student, a potential victim. It may feel strange – wrong, even – to juxtapose the extraordinary mass shooting with the omnipresent crisis of campus sexual assault. Fear and anxiety about both, however, contaminate our thinking about the possibilities of university life – and every now and again, these two stories converge.

Take, for example, The Hunting Ground, an earnest documentary about the recent student-led anti-rape movement at US universities. The title wilfully conflates “the shooter scenario” with the ubiquity of sexual assault, and equates rape with murder. And the film itself subordinates the legal activism of women who have been sexually assaulted to the sensationalism of the individual story of those assaults. It is as rigorous in its feminism as an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

A recent study conducted by the Association of American Universities found that one in four women is subjected to sexual assault while in college. Although researchers debate the methods used in these kinds of surveys, as well as how the data solicited from survey participants are interpreted, even the most conservative estimates regarding the frequency of sexual assault describe what is clearly an intolerable situation. A very problematic lesson is often drawn, however: that women put themselves at increased risk of sexual violence by going to college.

The Hunting Ground opens with a montage of young women opening their college acceptance letters. One after another quivers in anticipation, surrounded by loving family, as she reads. Her eyes fill with tears, she jumps up and dances with joy when she learns that, yes, she has been accepted by the school of her dreams. Oh, the irony! For, in The Hunting Ground, these women are lambs going to slaughter.

This idea – that the campus is where rape happens – contributes to a dangerous public discourse that fetishises women’s innocence and vulnerability, and whips the public into a frenzy over the spectre of the man who does not belong on campus. This is not to say that sexual assault is not frequent on college campuses. It is. But it is also frequent within the context of relationships with men. “Women are far more likely to be raped than men”, however, makes an absurd headline, and the media are not generally interested in research that shows that college graduates are less vulnerable to sexual violence than people who never go to college because, really, who cares about the poor?

When we look at the world through the Law & Order lens, we find ourselves fixated on the idea that campuses are dangerous places, especially for women, and that hypervigilance is required. Mixed into our work email are campus security memos, animated with instructional videos advising us of our options should an armed lunatic appear. The popular complaint regarding the fragile psychology of students who ask for “trigger warnings” masks the troubling fact that the infrastructures shaping our universities are increasingly defined by paranoia. “By being prepared, alert and relaxed,” a recent article in the trade magazine Campus Safety explains, “you are best able to observe your environment and notice changes that may pose a risk.” Like stalking victims, staff are encouraged to lean on intuition when surveying their environment. “Intuition is not magical,” the article continues: “it is an educated hunch based on your knowledge and experience. Nothing is more intuitive than survival.” Such instruction instrumentalises prejudice. It gives permission to people (here, campus security officials) to indulge their “intuition” regarding who looks out of place. This has severe consequences for members of the university community.

The fear of sexual assault becomes a blunt-force administrative tool used not to open up the university to more people but to wall it off. During 2011’s Occupy Movement, for example, when the chancellor of the University of California, Davis, Linda Katehi, mobilised the police against peaceful demonstrators – which led to a well-documented, miserable incident in whichseated students were pepper-sprayed – it was with the aim of protecting female students. In the ensuing report into what went on, Katehi explained that she had been afraid of what might happen if the students spent the night in the camp they had set up: “We were worried especially about having very young girls and other students with older people who come from the outside without any knowledge of their record…If anything happens to any student while we’re in violation of policy, it’s a very tough thing to overcome.”

Katehi’s apprehension of being “in violation of policy” is a reference to “Title IX”, federal law that entails that if an assault is found to have happened in the wake of a university’s “deliberate indifference” to a clear risk, the university may become embroiled in an expensive thicket of lawsuits and federal auditing. But student demonstrations against rising tuition costs are not generally associated with an increase in rates of sexual assault.

There is a tremendous difference between the media’s presentation of the problem of sexual violence and feminist work on this subject. We need to interrogate the sexual politics that structure our understanding of risk and vulnerability. We need to ask why, in this moment, we are romanced by the idea of the campus as the place where rape happens, instead of as a public resource that makes rape less likely.

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