How To Dismantle Rape Culture In College Athletics

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). DeWitt Scott is a community college administrator, instructor at Sister Jean Hughes Adult High School in Chicago, and writer for Inside Higher Ed’s “GradHacker” blog. He also teaches personal development and civic education classes at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. You can follow DeWitt on Twitter at @dscotthighered.

Several months ago, a recording of a certain presidential candidate was released, in which he bragged about how he kisses women without their permission and can “grab them by the” genitals whenever he wants. The revelation of his admitted acts of sexual assault were followed by an equally sorry video “apology” in which he attempted to dismiss his comments as “locker room banter.” Somehow, this inadequate dismissal —  that it was just small talk between two men behind closed doors — was supposed to make his comments acceptable. (Alas, he won the election despite his negative reputation as a presidential candidate.) This philosophical failure is the essence of rape culture.

As a former Division I college basketball player, I have been in more locker rooms than the average person inside or outside the academy. I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I have never heard anyone speak about assaulting and violating women the way Donald Trump did on that recording. What I can say is that to refer to such comments as “locker room banter” signals a sort of indirect nod to the prevalence of rape culture and toxic masculinity in athletic spaces. That includes college student-athletes.

When I was a college athlete in the mid-2000s, I witnessed destructive, objectionable expressions of male sexual dominance in ways that fashioned women’s bodies as powerless commodities to be conquered. Ten years later, I am now a student affairs administrator who works closely with male athletes. The same corrosive cultural norms regarding sex, consent, sexual violence, sexism and the policing of women’s bodies are just as prevalent today in male student-athlete circles as they were when I was a student-athlete.

Consequently, I have begun to think about my responsibility as a former athlete and current higher education administrator in dismantling rape culture among college athletes. My work thus far has brought me to a few conclusions that may be helpful for others who either work in or are connected to college athletics.

First and foremost, I believe that it would be valuable for colleges and universities to arrange moments wherein courageous (women) sexual assault survivors from outside the institution could come and share their stories with male student-athletes. American masculinity is rooted in notions of power, dominance, control, subjugation and, most of all, selfishness. As a result, when viewing the world through a hypermasculine lens, an approach that is often rewarded in competitive men’s sports, men typically do not take stock in the emotional, psychological and spiritual damage they are inflicting on others. Forcing men student-athletes to confront and wrestle with the toll sexual assault and violence has taken on others can be a first step in reframing the way male student-athletes approach sexual encounters with others.

Secondly, male student-athletes need sexual assault seminars in which experts teach them exactly what qualifies as sexual assault. I am not referring to or excusing the serial rapists and habitual sexual predators who intentionally commit acts of sexual violence against victims consciously and brazenly. Rather, I am speaking of men who violate women’s bodies sexually but think they do not.

As a former athlete, I can honestly state that a number of male athletes — and men period — wholeheartedly believe they are not rapists even though they commit acts of rape regularly. They believe that because they did not physically overpower another person, snatch off their clothes and force themselves on them, they are not rapists. Their ignorance of sexual assault has caused a lot of pain for other people. The complexity of sexual violence has never been explained to them, mainly because sexual assault in its many nuanced forms has been treated like the elephant in the room in college athletic departments. We must confront the subject head-on and educate male student-athletes on the various forms of sexual violence through classes, seminars, instruction and formalized discussions.

In addition, male student-athletes can, at times, be a stubborn population, unwelcoming of any messages directed to them about corrective behavior and attitudes. One thing that is for sure is that student-athletes reliably give attention and respect to former athletes, particularly those whom they truly respect. Many male student-athletes need people who look like them and who have walked in their shoes to drive the point home. Scholars and administrators delivering the message are great, but it can be difficult for the student-athletes to get past the exterior differences between the speaker and themselves.

Colleges and universities should bring in former athletes who can connect with student athletes culturally, speak their language and frame their words in personal experiences with which those student-athletes can relate. That will potentially increase the likelihood of the message being received and behavioral change actually occurring. Asking a current or former athlete to deliver the message can supplement the conversation with sexual assault survivors mentioned above.

As a sort of inverse to bringing in survivors to speak, it can also be beneficial to invite perpetrators of sexual violence — who have served time in prison and felt the emotional, psychological, spiritual and financial effects of committing sexual assault — to speak with male student-athletes. Those offenders can discuss the shame they experienced with families and friends, the negative stigma that comes with being a convicted rapist, and what it’s like to undergo the investigative process, a trial, sentencing and being listed on the national sex offender registry. Putting a face to the offender’s side of the experience can have a lasting effect on the student-athletes. It can make an even deeper impression if the transgressor is a former athlete himself.

Last, athletics and student affairs personnel ought to be clear that no prevention work on sexual assault, abuse or violence can be sufficiently effective without addressing and dismantling the similarly oppressive systems of white supremacy, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, ableism, classism, heterosexism, patriarchy and xenophobia. Power, repression and superiority are foundational to each and every one of these ills. They render their targets inhuman and unworthy of respect and dignity. As long as any of these other systems are present and normalized, sexual violence and abuse will always be just around the corner. The prevalence of one system of domination provides fertile soil for all other systems to sprout.

In my current work with male athletes, I have conversations about what consent is and what their responsibilities are regarding sexual relationships. To my knowledge, my words are usually heeded, and even sought in some cases, primarily because my student-athletes know that I am a former athlete and have walked in their shoes. I help them to understand that, even if they are not committing acts of rape or sexual violence, silently standing by when they are aware that someone is engaging in sexual predation is also wrong. We discuss how putting women down verbally, catcalling on the street and making homophobic and sexist jokes are all entry steps to sexism, sexual violence and the perpetuation of rape culture. It is my aim to paint a broad picture of their moral and ethical responsibilities regarding sexual and social encounters with significant others.

These suggestions are just a start and are not intended to be perfect or exhaustive. Eradicating rape culture among college athletes is complex work that does not come with easy answers. Nevertheless, those of us who work on college campuses owe it to our students, and to sexual violence victims and survivors all over the world, to develop these solutions, put them into action and create changes in the culture. Our society needs us to step up and produce the next generation of leaders. If we fail, our 19-year-old young men will end up 70-year-olds attempting to run a country while victimizing women along the way.

Let’s make the decision that it ends now, and it ends with us.