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September 10, 2013 - 7:31pm

The Feminine Critique: Sexual assault is a product of culture


Another day, another male college athlete accused of sexual assault. The Washtenaw Watchdog recently posted the story of senior placekicker Brendan Gibbons’ 2009 alleged rape charges. Outside of the Washtenaw Watchdog and Jezebel though, coverage has been lacking. Meanwhile, Big 10 football forums are littered with dismissive comments like, “Looks like a whole bunch of nothing. Move along folks.” And yet this is not a new problem. From Duke to Vanderbilt to Morehouse and now Michigan, sexual assault by athletes is a longstanding issue on college campuses. One study surveyed 30 Division I universities over a period of three years and found that although male student athletes account for only 3.3 percent of the population, they represent 19 percent of sexual assault and 35 percent of domestic violence perpetrators.

It’s no secret sports — especially football — perpetuate ideologies of hypermasculinity (i.e. male physical strength and power). Though results of studies and books examining the links between sports, masculinity and sexual violence have been inconclusive, all such scholarly endeavors point to a systemic root of the problem. In other words, these aren’t isolated incidents, but cultural products of a society that passively endorses patriarchy, hypermasculinity and heterosexism. Boys are taught get rough and dirty, meanwhile warned, “don’t be a fag” or taunted, “you’re being a pussy.”

Despite the toxic mix of hyper-masculinity, peer pressure, heightened expectations regarding sexual behavior and — of course — alcohol that exist on college campuses, athletes often go unpunished for their transgressions. A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity found that, “students deemed ‘responsible’ for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequences for their acts.” An estimated 10 to 25 percent of alleged perpetrators are expelled, while lesser sanctions, such as suspension, social probation or academic penalties, are more common, leaving survivors to feel doubted and abandoned by the system.

While the University updated its Student Sexual Misconduct Policy last winter, the disciplinary policies fail to address the issue that Gibbons and men like him commit such crimes because of the way our society represents and measures men and demeans women.