The Rape Culture on College Campuses

Four years ago, Tom Seeberg dropped his daughter Lizzy off for her freshman year at Indiana’s Saint Mary’s College, just across the street from Notre Dame.

The Northbrook resident and lifelong Notre Dame fan was optimistic; at 19, Lizzy had struggled with depression and anxiety but was coping, ready to make the most of her opportunity at Saint Mary’s.

It was an auspicious start; Lizzy made friends quickly and seemed to adjust well. According to reporting byWashington Post political writer Melinda Henneberger in the National Catholic Reporter, Lizzy texted her Chicago therapist, Dr. Heather Hale, in mid-August, reporting that she was “loving Saint Mary’s so far!” But by the end of the month, things had steadily devolved. Lizzy texted Hale again on August 31, 2010: “Something bad happened.”

That “something” was sexual assault. A report filed with campus authorities alleged that former Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo had assaulted Lizzy, ignoring her protestations. “(I) felt so scared I couldn’t move,” Lizzy wrote. The fallout from her report was immense. In the days that followed, Lizzy received threatening text messages from Shembo’s friends: “Don’t do anything you would regret,” they said. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football is serious business. With a legacy of winning and a fervent fandom, the program reigns supreme. And the Seebergs were no strangers to it; thirteen family members had attended one of the two Notre Dame-area institutions. That notion weighed heavily on Lizzy. Would pushing the issue make her a traitor to the team she revered?

family-education-rape-on-college-campuses-lizzyIt took 15 days following the incident for Notre Dame police to contact Shembo about the accusations. By the 10th, when Lizzy was found unresponsive in her dorm room, it was too late. On September 10, 2010, Seeberg’s wife, Mary, drove to Notre Dame to claim her daughter’s body.

In February 2011, a campus disciplinary board cleared Shembo of Lizzy’s allegations. University officials attacked Lizzy’s character, while Shembo swore Lizzy was the aggressor. She could no longer defend herself.

Somewhere between the frat house and the dorm room, college campuses became the real life incarnation of a “Law and Order: SVU” episode. The numbers are baffling: one in every five young women will be sexually assaulted in college; 60 percent won’t report the crime; fewer than 3 percent of assailants will spend a night in jail for their crimes; and night after night, in twin XL beds in dorms across the country, a young man or woman will be told that their sovereignty over their bodies doesn’t matter. It’s a startling realization that our nation has a very real problem with sexual violence.

If sensationalist headlines and feminist blogs are to be believed—and the numbers are too damning to be ignored—we’re living in a rape culture that normalizes and excuses sexual violence; sexual assault is not only rampant but perpetuated through misogynistic language, female objectification and glamorization of sexual violence.

“If we look at media, we see sexual violence glamorized, especially in advertising,” says Wagatwe Wanjuki, a feminist writer and activist. “We see women portrayed very often as mere objects, rather than full human beings.”

And while our culture certainly doesn’t condone rape, there’s nary an outcry at cultural misogyny. It’s easy to harken back to a song as explicit as “Blurred Lines,” Robin Thicke’s chauvinistic, thigh-slapping jam (and one of 2013’s biggest hits), but there are countless other examples in popular culture of implicit male domination.

Such propagation of cultural tropes degrading women is creating a culture wherein rapist prevention is taboo; the predilection for sexual violence is seen as a genetic mutation, one that can’t be stopped. Instead, the onus of protection falls to victims, overwhelmingly more often women than men. To truly change this culture, we need to first change our minds: defining consent, recognizing sexual violence and prosecuting crimes.

At the heart of our rape culture is a problem with consent. We have issues with saying and accepting the word “no.” There’s a murky understanding of boundaries; young women are taught by Hollywood that surprise kisses and literal sweeping-off-your-feet gestures are romantic. It’s not surprising, then, that an implicit “no” is misread as a coy “yes,” when young men defend their actions as misreading the signals.

Mike Domirtz, founder and executive director of The Date Safe Project, is fixated on consent. Domirtz travels to high schools, universities and military installations across the country, providing education for addressing verbal consent, respect, sexual decision-making, bystander intervention and survivor support.

“Consent must be one, requested, and two, received and honored,” Domirtz says. “It must be between two people who want it, give it freely and are of sound mind and legal age.”

“Often, in situations, it can be a little ambiguous,” says Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest sexual assault organization. “You have a responsibility to understand exactly what’s happening and to make sure you have consent.”

“I think it’s really important for people to understand that anything that is not a ‘yes’ is a ‘no,’” says Jill*, a recent graduate. In her junior year at an East Coast University, Jill, like two-thirds of victims, was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance. “I wish that were taught in some clearer way. No one is going to think of themselves as someone who would sexually assault someone else, but it is such a blurred line.”

“Here’s the important shift in paradigm: It used to be, for decades, that the main message around sexual assault was, ‘No means no,’” Domirtz says. “Every time a sexual assault happened, people would look at the survivor and ask, ‘Did the survivor say no?’ Shouldn’t the question (to the perpetrator) be, ‘Did you ask?’”

The idea of blaming the victim isn’t new. The rote questions remain the same: What was the victim wearing? Was she drinking? Was she alone? Was she flirtatious? And worse yet: Had she asked for it?

Campus activist Annie Clark, upon reporting her sexual assault, says an administrator at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told her, “Well, rape is like football. If you look back on the game—and you’re the quarterback, Annie—is there anything you would have done differently?”

Jill reported her assault anonymously to the university after hearing the assailant had assaulted another student. “Hearing about the second report just made me so upset,” she says. “It was all these feelings of, ‘Well, if I had talked to him,’ or ‘If I had reported it,’ or ‘If I had just done something, maybe I could have prevented this assault from happening.’”

And Wanjuki, herself a rape survivor, initially resisted reporting her assault and blamed herself when the school, Tufts University, failed to prosecute. “I felt like it was my fault,” she says, “like I should have reported it better, or I should have been a better victim.”

Most conversations around sexual assault prevention proceed similarly; even well-intentioned advice shifts the onus of responsibility to young men and women to be prepared.

“People like to think reducing rape is an individual problem,” Wanjuki says. “‘Hey, if everyone did their part, dodging rapists left and right, if they just wear the anti-rape pants and underwear and makeup … we’ll stop it.’ But we really need to acknowledge that rape prevention starts at stopping the rapists.”

Last month, a troupe of four male students from North Carolina State University made headlines with Undercover Colors, a nail polish worn to detect common date-rape drugs. While such anti-rape tools are valuable, critics suggest their earnest attempts are also misguided.

“The date rape drug that’s used most often is actually alcohol itself,” Wanjuki says. “Not what’s in the alcohol…We need to really acknowledge that and stop trying to give these ‘rape prevention tips’ that only center on stranger rape.”

“I think it’s perfectly fine and even valuable to be talking to women and making sure they understand the risk—a great many of their peers are sexually assaulted,” Berkowitz says. “(But) the percentage of sexual assaults that are initiated by someone spiking a drink are a relatively small part of the total, so it’s behavior that we need to change most. But if technology can assist and prevent some crimes, I think that’s great.”

These days, you can hardly check the news without seeing a new allegation of serious sexual assault. But perhaps most disappointing is the response of universities, institutions of higher learning dedicated to advancement, integrity and cultivation of worldly citizens. To date, 76 colleges and universities are facing federal investigations into sexual violence violations of Title IX, a law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities.

“We have two different worlds of how (sexual assault) is handled,” Domirtz says. “You have the campuses that do not aggressively educate on the topic and give their students the skills to transform their culture. And then you get a campus [that] tries to handle it internally. You would never do that with any other major felony. If I told you there was an attempted murder on campus last night, local police or sheriff would have been called instantly.”

“I think there’s a disconnect,” Berkowitz says. “The FBI ranks crimes in terms of violence, and rape is number two, right after murder. The norm with every other violent crime is to call the police and try and stop the criminal. That norm hasn’t taken hold with sexual violence.”

Often, universities mishandle or disregard complaints of sexual misconduct. In September 2010, following Lizzy Seeberg’s death, Notre Dame police reportedly told her parents they weren’t sure they had the time to pursue the case. “They said they were busy,” Mary Seeberg told The Wash- ington Post’s Henneberger, “because it’s football season and there’s a lot of underage drinking.”

In the days following Lizzy’s alleged sexual assault, friends reported she was most upset by seeing Shembo return to the football field day after day. “That’s when she said it hit her,” Lizzy’s friend Kaliegh told Henneberger, “that he was going to get away with it.”

“(She knew) she was going to become known to some degree as someone trying to take on the football program,” says her father, Tom. “I think she went to that first game, (and) it was a big, exciting thing. She was trying to not let this bother her. She was proud of Notre Dame—she wanted to be a part of it. She figured they were going to do the right thing. So I think when he took the field against Purdue, she said she was terribly upset about it, almost in disbelief. Like, why isn’t he in trouble?”

“For me, one of the biggest things that we really need to start pushing colleges (to do) is punishing assailants on their campuses,” Wanjuki says. “Schools have a very low threshold for tolerating, say, plagiarism, but unfortunately schools are really hesitant to get rapists off their campuses. They somehow think that copying homework is more egregious than raping another student.”

Wanjuki’s point isn’t far from the truth; following Lizzy’s death, Shembo’s name was kept from the headlines. He revealed his part in the case in February 2014 at the NFL Combine and later to papers, denying the allegations Seeberg leveled against him. Charges were never filed, and he never missed a day of practice in punishment. As Notre Dame’s football season began last month, however, five players were benched pending a university investigation into possible cheating.

“Why are institutions okay with having rapists graduate with degrees from their institutions?” Wanjuki asks. “That’s something I still don’t understand.”

“This is an issue with these prominent institutions, all with these very lofty mission statements,” Tom says. “Nothing changes until students, as consumers, demand that these things are handled better.”

Change is hopefully on the horizon. In August, the California State Assembly passed a comprehensive campus rape bill that, in part, mandates that schools must implement an affirmative consent standard—yes means yes. And a bipartisan Senate bill, introduced in July by eight cosponsors, takes aim at sexual assault on college campuses. New initiatives strive to protect and empower students and strengthen accountability and transparency for universities. If passed, it should make a difference in the current rape culture, especially if effectively adjudicated.

Ready to talk to your children about sexual assault? Start by talking about consent.

“Look, we can talk about sexual decision-making and respect in the same conversation,” Domirtz says. “They are vitally needed together. As a teenager, I realize I’m not comfortable talking about this with my partner. If I’m not comfortable talking about it, I’m not ready.”

“If parents are sitting kids down to say, ‘If somebody says no, that means no,’” he continues, “they’re missing the boat on teaching them how to ask in the first place.”

“You need to respect the person you’re with,” Berkowitz adds. “It’s one thing to ask. It’s another to force.”

It’s also important to address the very real possibility of assault. “Be honest with them about the risk and the fact that a significant percentage of students are assaulted,” Berkowitz says. “Talk to them about real, basic things they can do to lessen the risk; it won’t eliminate the risk. In the same way that most parents … really drive it home not to drink and drive, give them the same sort of talk: ‘If you ever feel like your safety is threatening, get a taxi, find a way out of there.’”

“Really trust your instinct,” he adds. “If you think someone is being obnoxious or aggressive or is touching you or is standing too close to you or doing anything that makes you uncomfortable, find a way to get away from that person.”

“Just because you’ve been OK with something doesn’t mean you have to be OK with the next step,” Jill says. “Things can turn sour at any second, and you don’t have to feel bad about that or worry that you were asking for it—things can be fine until they’re not.”

“Most parents make the mistake of saying, ‘If anyone ever touches you, I’ll kill them,’” Domirtz says. In such situations, children are more reluctant to approach parents, fearing an explosive response. “You need to reverse that. Go home and say, ‘That was foolish. I always want you to be able to come to me. Here’s what I meant to say: If anyone ever has or does sexually touch you against your will or without your consent, I am always going to be here for you. Always.’”

Four years on, does Tom Seeberg have advice to offer other parents? “If I’m being funny, tell your daughter to bring a stun gun and a lawyer with her,” he says. “You have to be vigilant when something happens to you, and you do have to still rely on the support system that’s there. The hope is that you report something that happens to you, and you make sure you get counseling from your parents or someone else to make sure you’re getting the right response.”

“Lizzy and I were such buds,” Tom says. “She was just a huge energy force in the family. Now that she’s gone, everyone has to find their spot. Lizzy’s name comes up when it should, with laughter and tears. But grief is a very real thing.”

Find more information on the Date Safe Project here. Does someone you know need help? Visit or call their free, confidential help hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.

Evanston’s Porchlight Counseling Services offers counseling services and legal or medical assistance for college sexual assault survivors. Call 773-750-7077 for more information. “One in Five,” a program about Porchlight’s work, recently won a Midwest Emmy Award; catch it on PBS this fall.


*Some names have been changed.