Last week's outbreak of raunchy frosh-week chants at two of Canada's leading universities – one on each coast – made national headlines. Television reporters covered the events with the sorrowful solemnity normally reserved for crimes against children. News anchors and politicians called the incidents, which seemed to endorse sex with underage girls, "shocking" and "disgraceful."
According to many students, the problems go deep. "On our campuses, there is a culture of rape, of non-consent," a female student at the University of British Columbia told Global TV. "It's just a manifestation of rape culture," Lewis Rendell, who sits on the board of the Saint Mary's University Women's Centre, told the student newspaper at her Halifax school.
University administrators were shocked, as well. UBC's business school immediately withdrew its funding for frosh week. Saint Mary's will ensure that all the student leaders involved (including a number of women) receive sensitivity training. The president has appointed a task force that will recommend measures to "foster a cultural change that prevents sexual violence."
So, how much sexual violence is there? It's an epidemic, we're told. According to many students – and also some professors – "rape culture" is pervasive on campuses across North America. Even elite universities are not exempt.
Yale is still recovering from an incident in 2010 when a group of frat boys and their pledges marched on the women's freshman dorms one night and chanted, "No means Yes, Yes means anal!" Yale promptly slapped a five-year ban on the fraternity, but the incident prompted a federal investigation for civil-rights violations. To settle the case, the university has added a raft of extra procedures to combat sexual violence and harassment. But not everyone is happy.
"I refuse to remain silent any more about what should be called an epidemic," Yale graduate Alexandra Brodsky wrote in the Guardian, describing how she was sexually assaulted during her freshman year and told to keep quiet about it.
According to statistics commonly cited by campus sexual-assault centres, no fewer than one in five women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape by graduation. At UBC, which has about 27,000 female students, that would amount to 5,400 women – well over 1,000 per year, if distributed over four years of schooling.
Of course, rape and assault are underreported. But such an astronomical number of serious unreported sex crimes would require a near-universal conspiracy of silence. It would mean that university campuses are uniquely dangerous places – far more dangerous than Canada's most crime-ridden inner cities.
This would mean that what's happening on campus is completely different from what's happening in society at large, where, according to the most reliable data, the overall rape rate has been in sharp decline. Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey – these are based on individual interviews, not police reports – have put the yearly rape rate at 50 per 100,000 people.
Canadian universities don't publish rape statistics. But American ones do. So I looked up my old alma mater, the University of Michigan, which had 20,088 female students in 2010. That year, it reported 14 forcible rapes – a rate not out of line with the crime victimization survey.
But don't expect the notion of "rape culture" to die down any time soon. Too many people have too much invested in it. Every campus has at least one sexual-assault centre, as well as a hefty apparatus to deal with violence, harassment, discrimination and all the rest. And every administration has a reputation to protect. Which means that any incident, however slight and overblown, invariably results in official promises of investigations, task forces, sensitivity education and new, improved policies. And who can blame them? As Colin Dodds, the president of Saint Mary's, told this paper, his job right now is to "get that brand back."
As for dirty-mouthed undergraduates behaving badly – it was ever thus. Are they obnoxious? Yes. Are they a sign of widespread moral rot? I doubt it.