Duke students love tiers. We tier practically everything: universities by their rankings; social groups by popularity; jobs and internships by prestige and, of course, each other’s academic performance as we struggle to achieve high GPAs, Latin Honors and other accolades.
But this tendency to tier is linked to dangerous behavior. Research shows that individuals with a hierarchical, as opposed to egalitarian, worldview are less likely to identify acquaintance rape as true rape. The study, conducted by Dan Kahan—Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and professor of psychology—showed that study subjects who were more committed to hierarchical forms of authority and social organization were more likely to favor acquitting a man who admitted to having sex with a woman despite her repeatedly saying “no.”
These findings have alarming implications for the Duke community, which struggles with sexual violence. According to the Greek Culture Initiative, 66 percent of Duke undergraduates, mostly women, believe sexual assault is a problem at the University. Overall, 31 percent of Duke women have experienced unwanted sexual contact from another Duke student, a number higher than the national college average of 25 percent.
Gender violence is a complex phenomenon with numerous and overlapping causes. The Yale study shows, however, that cultural beliefs are more important than other factors, including gender, in determining attitudes about acquaintance rape. In the study, men and women were equally likely to acquit an acquaintance rapist, and women committed to hierarchical social organization were among those most likely to acquit. Legal definitions also mattered less than culture. The definitions of rape supplied to subjects had much less influence than their cultural predispositions.
We do not suggest that activists combating gender violence should abandon gender-specific programming or discussions about defining rape. Gender and rape definitions remain crucial to the issue of gender violence. We draw special attention, however, to the deep and intractable problem of cultural hierarchies. The very strong correlation between hierarchical thinking and the (mis)interpretation of rape demands that we confront stratification in Duke’s social culture.
Dismantling hierarchies is difficult, but we can begin by highlighting them. Take Greek life, for instance. Previously, sororities were denied on-campus housing, which gave them less social capital than fraternities. Although this inequity was corrected, sororities still cannot host parties with alcohol—a rule dictated by the National Panhellenic Council, not the University—and, as a result of this and other factors, women’s social groups remain persistently less powerful than male groups. Fraternity formals exemplify this inequity. Women who attend off-campus overnight date functions often find themselves confronting uncomfortable social and economic pressures; in many cases, the man pays for the entire affair, which can cause women to feel obligated to reciprocate sexually.
Hierarchies are deep and ubiquitous. Duke students develop powerful cultural beliefs about who is better than whom and why, and these comparisons seep into our views on sex, power, rights and relationships. We cannot dissolve those beliefs at the touch of a button. We can begin to challenge them, however, by asking ourselves whether and to what extent we participate in and endorse hierarchical social structures. Only by asking tough questions about our assumptions and beliefs can we determine what social changes are required to achieve more, and much needed, equity in gender relations on campus.
This is the first in a two part series on gender violence.