Rape, rape culture, and reality

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/13/rape-rape-culture-and-reality/

“Oops! I think I killed it.” That was Robert Chambers squeaking in falsetto as he twisted the head off a Barbie doll in a home video. He was partying with four girls in their underwear when he was caught on the home video in 1987.

Robert Chambers? The name sticks if you were in Boston back then. Chambers, a one-semester Boston University drop-out, was known as “the Preppie Killer,” the handsome young man who in August 1986 left the strangled, half-naked body of 18-year old Jennifer Levin on the ground behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Chambers was caught quickly and tried out some lame alibis before settling on the claim that he accidentally strangled Levin during “rough sex.” She was a foot shorter, half his weight, and clearly the victim of a violent attack. He was out on bail when the home video caught him miming strangulation and mocking his victim.

Chambers went to jail for 15 years, on a plea bargain. Released, he was soon arrested again on drug charges, served another jail term, and then was busted yet again as a cocaine dealer. Now serving 19 years, he’ll see daylight again in 2024. Maybe.

The story reverberated at BU, the school he briefly attended and where I was working at the time, because Chambers so perfectly fit the image of a certain BU type: Privileged. Careless. Arrogant. No trace of moral or intellectual seriousness. Dumb.

Playboys were part of the BU scene, as were the girls they played with. But rapists? Not so much. Chambers was riveting because he carried the heedlessness of casual sex all the way to casual and remorseless murder.

Though ex-student Chambers killed Levin off campus, he somehow became the embodiment of the darkest side of the sexual free-for-all in American higher education.

The year 1986 was too late in the sexual revolution to make Chambers its symbol. The AIDS epidemic was at high tide. Casual sex had become scarier. Yet the boy-girl hook-up culture on campus was taking off. BU was a place to see the hook-up culture taking shape.

In 1987, I had just taken a junior position in John Silber’s administration. A new problem had emerged: students, male and female, were complaining that while they tried to study their roommates in the same room were having sex. Overnight visitors who apparently didn’t mind an audience were becoming increasingly common. A dean of students jumped the gun by announcing a policy change: an 11 p.m. curfew on dorm room visitors. It sparked campus protests and was roundly mocked at places like The Harvard Crimson. One might wonder why Harvard students were so concerned about late night access to BU dorms. Empathy?

The rules were meant to give the students who were unhappy about their roommates’ amours a face-saving way to regain some privacy. But what the rules really did was create an exceptional opportunity to gauge how important promiscuity is to college students. The answer, circa 1988-1989: vital.

I once tagged along on a student-led campus tour run by the admissions department for prospective students and their parents. The boy and girl conducting the tour took us into a dorm as they explained how easily the 11 p.m. rule could be circumvented if you wanted overnight company. What struck me most about this winking come-on to students was that it was unabashedly performed in front of parents. Send your sons and daughters to BU where the hook-ups are EZ — and this at Robert Chambers’ alma mater.

Not long after that, walking on Bay State Road, I came to a cluster of pedestrians looking at an upper floor window of Myles Standish Hall, where a boy and girl were providing a free XXX-rated show for the public.

All that was nearly 30 years ago, and worth recalling mainly to remind ourselves that unrestricted, exuberant promiscuity has been a campus theme for several decades.

This isn’t to say nothing has changed. Last week an acquaintance, the mother of a college sophomore, had to cancel an event because she needed to help her son who was having a crisis. He had called to tell her that the stresses of college were taking their toll: he was having an episode of erectile dysfunction.

He called his mom to tell her this? She was rushing to his aid? This takes helicopter parenting to a territory I never imagined. But plainly the young man was suffering from a severely limiting condition in view of campus social expectations.

The NewBostonPost has been presenting a good picture of the sexual mores of the contemporary campus. It’s a challenging topic. When the organization I head, the National Association of Scholars, published our comprehensive study, What Does Bowdoin Teach? How A Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students (2013), we devoted a small part of it to Bowdoin’s hook-up culture.

According to an annual study run by Bowdoin students themselves, about three-quarters of the students participated in the hook-up culture, which means essentially that they have transactional sex without expectation of any relationship with the partner beyond the sex itself.

Bowdoin College doesn’t take a hands-off approach to this dead-end promiscuity. To the contrary, it actively promotes it, starting with first-year student orientation. Before their first class, students will see an hour-long play, “Speak About It,” which extols hooking up provided that all parties “consent.” The college helps out by making sure that condoms are conspicuously available in all the dorms.

Though our account of Bowdoin’s sexual scene is a small part of the study, it loomed large for readers — many of whom were indignant. Their indignation was not directed at Bowdoin, but at NAS for reporting on what was happening.

As it happens, I am an anthropologist and I take a somewhat off-shore view of how societies regulate and channel human sexual appetites. The main point, as I wrote in a long article in The Weekly Standard last year, is that the choices are consequential for society as well as the individual. Right now we are in the midst of a generations-old unraveling of the social forms that fostered long-term pair-bonding and stable conditions for child rearing.

No one really likes to hear this. Our culture right now floats on the pleasant illusion that we can relax or eliminate the taboos on casual sex without facing any significant social costs. Sex is supposed to be harmless fun and self-exploration.

But even if it seems like that for a while, it is never just that. Humans have a profound need for attachment. It wasn’t hard to see that at Bowdoin, where a great many students who hooked up began awakening to regrets after a few years. The “rape crisis” on campus is largely an expression of these regrets writ large.

It is not that American campuses are overrun with Robert Chambers-style abusers and rapists. Those sorts of men exist but they are very rare. Instead what we have on campus is peer pressure to engage in sex and a social dynamic that plays against the minority who decline to join the party.

Young women in particular seek to kill their inhibitions with alcohol (and sometimes other drugs) to get into the spirit of things, but many of them can’t quite anesthetize their sense that something is amiss in these arrangements. In retrospect, the casual liaisons become “assaults” or even rapes. Mattress Girl is born.

Beyond this, a collective fantasy emerges of a world where men routinely and with impunity assault women. “Jackie” emerges with her elaborate lie about gang rape at the University of Virginia, and we hear again and again of the imaginary statistic that one-in-five or one-in-four women will be raped in college.

There is a reason that such myths emerge.

They speak to the repressed knowledge that the hook-up culture is a form of profound social dysfunction based on a desperate need to believe that hooking up is a form of taking responsible control of one’s own sexuality.

But there really is no responsible form of irresponsibility. Speaking-about-it, Bowdoin-style, is just a way of sustaining the illusion. Occasionally, real monsters like Robert Chambers will emerge from these shadows, but mostly we are unleashing in the lives of young people the demons of biting regret and very real long-term loneliness.

Peter Wood is the president of the National Association of Scholars and the author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept from Encounter Books. Read his past columns here.