Rebranding rape makes accountability harder to come by

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 28

Have you heard? It’s not rape anymore. The newer, more palatable term at colleges across the country is “non-consensual sex.” And it’s become part of the weaseling, whitewashing way we deal with sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape.

The “non-consensual sex” rebranding is courtesy of Brett Sokolow, a lawyer who has been advising colleges and universities about dealing with rape on their campuses for the past 15 years. He told Al Jazeera America that college administrations don’t want to say the word “rape” and don’t want to believe their students could be rapists. But once he changed the term to “non-consensual sex,” the conversations were much easier. Focus groups loved it. Rape lite.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

About one in five women and one of every 71 men have been raped, according to a survey done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in every 20 men and women said they’ve been sexually assaulted in some way other than rape.

So when are we going to take this huge issue seriously and hold predators accountable? Terms such as “non-consensual sex” make it too easy to minimize the scope of the problem. And not just on college campuses.

Last week, we saw the fall of the mightiest of the Blue Angels, that elite squadron of acrobatic Navy pilots. Capt. Gregory McWherter, a two-time commander of the beloved unit, was relieved of duty for allegedly creating a non-angelic atmosphere of sexual harassment, hazing and porn.

This is the same guy who was also the president of the Tailhook Association. Yes, THAT Tailhook. The group that had a primal bacchanal in a Las Vegas hotel in 1991, where drunk pilots loudly and publicly sexually assaulted more than 80 women.

McWherter had just graduated from The Citadel when that scandal blew up. But the Navy’s own investigation showed McWherter hadn’t learned much from it. The Navy tried to keep his reassignment hush hush, refusing to give details about its investigation and the reason for McWherter’s swift reassignment.

It’s all about image instead of about accountability. I’m surprised they didn’t call his booting a “non-consensual reassignment.”

We like to think that a lot the rape culture has to do with alcohol. And true, many rapes are dripping with 80-proof impulses and bad decisions. But even on dry campuses, there are attacks.

The scariest part of America’s sexual misconduct culture? The decisions that are made in the cold, sober light of day.

Remember those Secret Service guys hiring prostitutes in Cartegena? The report on that was cleaned up quite a bit because the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, was buddy-buddy with the guys who asked him to leave some of the more sordid details out, according to a report issued last week by a Senate oversight panel. Wouldn’t want our pals being pilloried, right?

It’s the women who wind up suffering when men try to protect each other. Take the case of Denise Rucker Krepp, a former Coast Guard officer and lawyer who was the first female general counsel at the U.S. Maritime Administration.

Soon after she took that job, she was horrified by a recent survey at the Merchant Marine Academy — it’s the equivalent of Annapolis or West Point, but for the Merchant Marine — that showed a huge number of sexual assaults were occurring at the New York campus.

One part of the survey had 21 students who reported being harassed, collectively, a total of 358 times. Seven said they were sexually assaulted.

Krepp asked the inspector general of the Transportation Department for an investigation. It didn’t happen. And she said she was asked to resign for her continued whistleblowing on the matter. She showed me the e-mails she got from bosses asking her for her resignation. And she spoke openly, testifying before federal panels, about the stonewalling and resignation.

Thanks to a request by two members of Congress whom Krepp had talked to after she moved on to another job, an audit was launched last July, two years after she first flagged the rape culture of the academy. The results are expected next month.

“What does this say about doing the right thing?” Krepp said. “Do they really think rape victims are going to come forward when they see this?”

Here’s the part that makes me really despondent. There are the sexual assault scandals that involve the old-school guys, the ones who entered the military before women were their peers. We hate what they did — but somehow it felt as though that were part of another era, and it would eventually go away.

Then last week, someone at American University leaked a bunch of texts and e-mails that are allegedly between some of the cavemen, I mean brothers, at a secret, not-really-a-fraternity Epsilon Iota, which was kicked off campus 13 years ago for bad behavior.

I can’t even quote them, they’re so bad. But they joke a lot about raping and assaulting. The primary term for women rhymes with “witches.” They’re homophobic and racist enough to make Donald Sterling look reasonable. And the potty-texting young men are supposedly interns with Senate offices and various NGO’s around town.

The future looks grim if guys in their 20s are behaving like this.

Last month, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) pushed for legislation to remove sex-crime investigations, prosecutions and punishment from the chain of command in the military to make it easier to hold predators in the ranks accountable. It failed, but changes may be coming to campuses soon. And not just in terminology.

American University is investigating the bad frat case. And hundreds of students signed a petition to expel the secret frat boys.

On Tuesday, the White House is going to release recommendations from a task force formed to combat sexual assault on campus. Accountability is about to become a lot more non-consensual. And that’s long overdue.

Twitter: @petulad

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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