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Whatever you call it, 'rape culture' must end

Students walk past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity

Students walk past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus on December 6, 2014 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jay Paul

There are so many disturbing elements to the recent Rolling Stone story about a fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia and the subsequent admission by the publication's managing editor that huge pieces of the article - including details of the alleged assault itself - were inaccurate or could not be verified. It's hard to know where to begin.

If there is any positive outcome to be garnered from this fiasco, it is this: The article and related fallout are forcing Americans to more objectively examine the alleged "culture of rape" on college campuses.

Considering the suitability of the term "culture of rape" might be a good place to start. It's as daunting as it is disingenuous.

As National Review writer Jonah Goldberg explains, "'rape culture' suggests that there is a large and obvious belief system that condones and enables rape as an end in itself in America." Even honest feminists would have to admit that no such belief system exists.

But that doesn't mean there aren't a whole host of cultural and social problems that either tacitly or overtly create an atmosphere that exacerbates female vulnerability - particularly on college campuses.

A culture of irresponsibility is probably a more apt term. And there's plenty of blame for that irresponsibility to go around.

There are valid reasons for women's advocates to want to change the narrative about rape on campus.

As I've acknowledged before, whether on university grounds or in society at large, female victims have too often been subjected first to an assault, then to public scrutiny and a judicial system that has made proving their case excruciatingly difficult.

That's largely the result of irresponsible college administrations, indifferent law enforcement officials and a public quick to levy judgment.

But in what may have started as an earnest attempt to remedy past wrongs, society (incited by an over-zealous media) has become so willing to accept a culture of rape, that it has ignored any evidence to the contrary. That, too, is irresponsible.

Consider the deflating "one in five" statistic - a federal finding that 20 percent of college women have been sexually assaulted.

The figure has been thoroughly debunked by multiple sources and is contradicted by FBI crime data that show a 20-year decline in reported rapes across the U.S.

Still, the meme is validated by its irresponsible repetition. And in many ways, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Syndicated columnist George Will was pilloried by feminists when he wrote in June that college campuses have made "victimhood a coveted status," and illustrated his point by relaying a story about an alleged sexual assault at an elite university.

But Will's thesis was not without merit.

The disproportionate response to the rape culture narrative by some college administrations adopting policies like "affirmative consent," are dramatically altering the definition of "victim" to encompass circumstances better characterized as consensual but alcohol-fueled and often regrettable sexual behavior.

And today's culture of sexual expression, often celebrated by so-called feminists and exacerbated by a drunken and sometimes treacherous social scene, feeds the narrative that irresponsible behavior is perfectly OK until the woman - and the woman only - decides that it's not.

All this said, campus sexual assault is not a mirage. And if the reality is that one in 30 women is a victim instead of one in five, it's still too many.

But identifying and confronting the underlying problems that make sexual assaults as pervasive as they are requires honesty and objectivity.

That begins with thoughtful debate, reliable sources and responsible reporting.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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