What is campus rape culture?

Understanding an international problem within a South African setting

Elisabet le Roux

In 2016 the Vice Chancellor of Stellenbosch University (SU) in South Africa publicly acknowledged that a rape culture exists at SU and stated that “‘rape culture’ goes beyond criminal acts or legal aspects. It reflects a general culture of disrespect and the acceptance of the harassment of women as the norm” (Stellenbosch University 2016). SU is not the only South African Higher Education Institution (HEI) where campus rape culture has been receiving explicit attention. 2016 and 2017 saw, at various South African HEIs, a series of high profile attacks and student protests against campus rape culture and institutional responses to it. At Rhodes University, for example, the 2016 Reference List protests (where students listed eleven alleged rape perpetrators and distributed the list on campus) drew headlines across the world.

Campus rape culture

The term ‘rape culture’ emerged in the 1970s (Harding 2015). In academic literature, rape culture denotes an interrelated spectrum of sexual violence, as well as the normalisation and social acceptance of these practices within the society (Burt 1980; Lonsway & Fitzgerald 1994,1995). Buchwald et al. (2005: xi) defines it as “a complex of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and support violence against women…” and highlights that rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women that is presented as normal. ‘Rape culture’ is thus not (only) about rape — heteropatriarchal micro-aggressions are also able to intimidate and limit movement and function of women (Prieto et al. 2016). Rape culture thus refers to a culture of male violence and aggression towards women — a culture that is played out in daily life in different ways. But while the term has been around for more than four decades, it remains contentious to this day, with detractors often arguing that it overstates and overdramatises the problem (Harding 2015).

The phenomenon of campus rape culture arguably leapt into public consciousness with the study of Koss et al. (1987) on the prevalence of rape for women during their college years (Wooten & Mitchell 2016). But over the past four decades various studies have shown that women at HEIs are at a high risk for attempted or actual rape (Baum & Klaus 2005; Fisher et al. 2000; Karjane et al. 2005). For example, in a 2015 study of 3863 American students, 25% of male students admitted to rape or attempted rape, while one in three men said that they would rape a woman if there were no consequences for doing so (Messina-Dysert 2015). Wooten (2016:48) notes that recent studies from the USA show that “campuses are failing disastrously to effectively address sexual violence”. Federal legislation was passed in 2013 that is meant to specifically tackle sexual violence at HEIs, and a national task force was set up in 2014 (Henriksen et al. 2016).

But research and recognition of campus rape culture is not limited to the USA. The Australian Human Rights Commission in 2017 launched a national report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities, which was based on a national independent survey conducted at all of Australia’s 39 universities (Australian Human Rights Commission 2017). In the same year Universities UK launched a report, in response to a request from the universities minister, entitled “Changing the culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students” (Universities UK 2017). While research reports, legislation and taskforces do not necessarily mean that adequate steps are being taken to address the issue, it does show that there is growing awareness of the problem.

South Africa and campus rape culture

Part of the challenge in responding to campus rape culture in South Africa is that very little empirical research on campus rape culture has been done at South African HEIs, which means that understanding of the phenomenon is not adequately contextually grounded and relevant to the unique, intersectional factors that shape its emergence in different spaces. In South Africa factors such as gender, race, and socio-economic ability all intersect to create a space that threatens women.

HE is often form a closed community with their own norms, structure and practices that can become an intensified microcosm of wider society, with opportunities to either reproduce or reshape embedded social practices for a new generation of thought leaders. It is argued that, when a rape culture exists within the wider society, this easily ‘spills over’ into HEI spaces, and a sexually violent culture then becomes a normal part of campus life (Wooten & Mitchell 2016). However, campus rape is more than just a mirroring of wider society. South African students suggest that bonding trust is often prioritised especially in residences, and entrenched initiation rituals can lead to reiterations of harmful masculinity and femininity (Collison 2017). Social identity theory argues that individuals want a positive social group identity and that, in order to create and sustain such an identity, they will engage in beliefs and behaviours that enhance the in-group’s status and prestige, while discriminating against the out-group(s). While a person has a both a personal identity and a group identity (although these can of course be the same), under certain conditions group identity and ethics can replace individual identity and ethics (Milillo 1006; Meger 2010). Sexual violence can serve as a way of affirming the power of the in-group, while disempowering the out-group (Milillo 2006). Sexual violence can also actively promote group cohesion (Forster-Towne 2011). Sexually violent activities can therefore be created and maintained on campuses in order to foster group identity and cohesion.

Already in 1985, the link was made between campus rape culture and what is now recognised as harmful masculinity (Walsh 2015). Masculinity exists within the structure of gender relations, and as a concept it cannot exist except by contrasting it with femininity (Connell 1995, 2002). In this relationship masculinity is, per definition, inherently superior and dominant in relation to femininity. Hegemonic masculinity creates a social system — patriarchy — that supports and enforces the privileging of masculinity and men. Sylvia Walby (1990:20) defines patriarchy as “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women”.

Research suggests that the ideologies underpinning practices of dominating violence have to be recognised and reshaped if such practices are to be interrupted longer term (Anderson 2004; Klaw et al. 2008). South Africa, unfortunately, has a history of socio-religious reinforcement of hierarchical social orders and identities in relation to colonisation, race, and sexuality as well as gender. Patriarchy supports, facilitates, and enforces gender inequality, is present in both the private and public sphere, and has proven to be impossible to eradicate. This is the case within all cultures in South Africa. Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs accurately grasped the comprehensiveness of the patriarchal project when he called it “one of the profoundly few non-racial institutions in South Africa” (Zalesne 2002:147). The dominance in South Africa of gender constructs that support patriarchy and are conducive to gendered violence should not be underestimated — South Africa is internationally notorious for its high levels of sexual violence (Gqola 2015).

Campus rape culture and religion

Religion has been shown to be influential in problematic forms of gender construction, and in sexual violence ideologies of male domination/female submission. It has been shown that, without critical engagement, religion most often perpetuates gender inequality, providing religious justification for patriarchal injustices. The role of religion and its potential impact on rape culture has been theorized in the American context in particular (for example Anderson 2004, Messina-Dyart 2015). Sacred texts such as the Bible play a key role in ideas about men, women, and the relationship between them (Exum 1995). This also resonates strongly in the African and South African context, where local feminist theologians have identified patterns of patriarchy underpinning religious ideas and institutions (Le Roux 2014; Nadar & Potgieter 2010; Maluleke 2009; Pillay 2015). Here one sees male dominance ‘sanctified’ and male headship interpreted as a divine order that reinforces a hegemonic masculinity where men are “wired by God to be king” (Pillay 2015:65). A key aspect of this research is the idea of complicit femininities that support and enforce patriarchy (Nadar & Potgieter 2010). At the same time, especially African scholars are conducting research on not only complicit gender constructs, but also transformative gender constructs, thus exploring the potential and ability of religion to transform harmful aspect of culture (including rape culture).

Unfortunately, the current debate, both politically and academically, on campus rape culture generally ignores religion. But on a campus such as Stellenbosch, where just over 93% of the 31 854 students enrolled in 2017 voluntarily identified as religious, the role of religion should not be overlooked when studying the attitudes and beliefs around gender and power. Religion can be a driver of action and behaviour within society, and can be used to create order, stability, and cohesion (Weber 1930, Berger 1969, Hervieu-Léger 2000). In relation to campus rape culture, these abilities can be used both for the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’: while religion can be supporting and enforcing harmful gender constructs that are conducive to campus rape culture, it can also be influential in transforming harmful gender constructs and creating a society that is safe and equal for both men and women. This is why, in an upcoming empirical study to be conducted at SU, we will look more closely at the religious underpinnings of gender constructs and campus rape culture.


Campus rape culture is not only a South African problem. On the contrary, research across the world has ensured that this phenomenon is receiving increasing attention — but not nearly enough. In the South African context, at least part of the reason why campus rape culture is not receiving the attention it needs, is due to it being located within a country that is already rife with gendered violence.

While many of the underlying factors of campus rape culture on South African campuses and rape culture within South Africa in general are the same, one should not lose sight of what is unique. For example, at SU it appears that harmful in-group cultures that develop in university residences can be particularly conducive to the development of rape culture. Addressing campus rape culture thus requires one to understand and be sensitive to the unique particularities of how patriarchy and gender inequality is embodied and enforced within a campus community.

Discussion questions

  1. Do you think there is a rape culture at the campus where you are studying/studied? Why do you say so?
  2. Can you identify effective strategies that your university has employed, or could employ, to counter sexual violence?
  3. How are churches at your campus responding to sexual violence, and violence against women in general?
  4. How should churches on campus be addressing sexual violence, and violence against women in general?

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