Anyone who follows the contemporary media closely is doubtless familiar with the suddenly ubiquitous phrase "rape culture." In the context of higher education, the phrase implies two interlocking beliefs. First: despite crime statistics showing sexual assault (as well as all violent crimes) to be very uncommon on campus, colleges and universities are, in fact, hotbeds of rape (but not, it appears, of all other violent crimes). Second: despite the fact that most college faculties and nearly all administrations are extraordinarily sympathetic to the activists' position on gender issues, the campus culture over which these figures preside nonetheless--somehow--actually encourages the prevalence of rape at college.
That little, if any, evidence exists to sustain either of these beliefs has not deterred the "rape culture" believers; if anything, the lack of evidence for their claims appears to have emboldened them. Nor have they been deterred by the revelation of high-profile false rape claims on campus (ranging from the Duke lacrosse case to the Caleb Warner affair at North Dakota); if anything, the increasing build-up of sympathy for clearly railroaded males has intensified the rage of those who discern a "rape culture" on campus.
The "rape culture" movement operates from three central characteristics.
First, it has received almost fawning press coverage (what media members want to be deemed pro-rape?)--allowing for transparently absurd allegations, such as those at Occidental, to be presented as credible. In some instances, this has come from the usual suspects, such as Kingkade at Huffington Post, Allie Grasgreen at Inside Higher Ed, and Richard Perez-Peña of the New York Times. But the phenomenon has also received extensive, uncritical attention in BuzzFeed, which despite its generally solid treatment of legal issues just hired the discredited Katie Baker to help coordinate its "rape culture" articles. In a media too often accepts at face value a politically correct narrative on campus, the "rape culture" claim is almost ideal for campus "activists."
Second, the "rape culture" approach allows activists to shift the narrative away from uncomfortable questions about due process and false accusations against innocent male students, and toward a cultural critique in which the facts of specific cases can be deemed irrelevant. Selena Roberts pioneered the tactic at Duke--when the case against the lacrosse players imploded, she (falsely) claimed that her guilt-presuming columns were merely designed to critique a flawed "campus culture." Or, as Amanda Childress implied in her oft-criticized remarks, whatever value might exist in following specified procedures in sexual assault cases, universities should focus their efforts on tackling broader cultural mores.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the "rape culture" approach provides a weapon to advance a particular type of gender-based agenda (curricular and administrative priorities need to be revamped to recognize that women are victims) in a campus environment in which race/class/gender advocates already dominate. There always will be a stray, anonymous misogynistic comment on a message board, or by a drunken student at a spring-break party, from which advocates can then generalize to claim that a crisis exists on campus--without ever defining precisely what a "rape culture" is, or how the steps they recommend could possibly eradicate it. And since there isn't a recent example--from Duke to Dartmouth to any of the current Title IX claims--in which those who have cried wolf on campus have experienced any repercussions for their actions, there is no drawback in advancing inflammatory claims, no matter how unlikely.
So expect a lot of talk about "rape culture" in the coming months.