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Changing Rape Culture on Campus: Can the Stanford Case Move the Needle?


By Louise Douce, PhD, (The Ohio State University) and Jacquelyn White, PhD, (University of North Carolina at Greensboro)

The Stanford rape case highlights the many lives touched by the act of a rapist:

  1. the brave woman who courageously and articulately shared her story,

  2. the two young men who did the right thing by intervening,

  3. the Stanford administrators who imposed severe consequences on the rapist, and even

  4. the Vice President of the United States who in an open letter calls the Stanford rape survivor a warrior and says “your words are forever seared on my soul.”

However, all their efforts were thwarted by a father who callously defended his son and denigrated the victim to the judge who likewise minimized the victim’s trauma and her right to justice by giving a shockingly mild sentence to the rapist.

This event encapsulates all that we know about rape culture—including victim blaming and basing excuses on alcohol – and underscores the need for coordinated efforts. We need nothing less than an elimination of rape culture and each of us has a role to play.

Three Elements of Rape Culture Change

1. It is everyone’s responsibility to prevent rape

This concept is finally beginning to take hold. One little noticed action in the Stanford case is actually monumental. Two men stopped, accosted the rapist, which stopped the rape as he ran away, AND then came forward to testify. This is effective bystander intervention and demonstrates community responsibility. This is most effective when the whole campus community embraces the concepts of no more, not here, not on our campus, not to or by my friends. President Obama’s It’s On Us campaign is a step in the right direction, and many student governments have adapted this campaign for their campuses.

2. Addressing rape myths and male privilege

Myths that men just can’t help themselves; that it is just men’s nature to get sex any way they can and they are not responsible for their actions, especially when drunk or angry, must be dismantled. These myths are incredibly insulting to men. In the Stanford case, the rapist’s father perpetuated them in the letter he sent to the judge arguing for leniency because “20 minutes of action” should not change the course of his son’s entire life. The judge further articulated them by citing concern for the consequences in this young man’s life when he issued the six month jail sentence. The judge did not mention the consequences or lifelong impact on the female survivor. The public outcry has been stupendous. Social media has exploded with petitions to remove the judge, comparisons of sentences for this young white man with young men of color, and general outrage at the process.

3. Hearing the survivor’s voice

This is the third and perhaps most important element. Survivors of rape and sexual violence have routinely been silenced through time and across cultures. This survivor wrote a 12 page statement of her experience and the impact on her life. She is incredibly articulate as she speaks from her heart of her experience and clearly details her ongoing struggle for survival. It has been read more than 11 million times on Buzzfeed, was read aloud on CNN by reporter Ashleigh Banfield, and has touched the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world. This is culture changing.

How to Coordinate Responses to Sexual Assault between Campuses and Communities

It appears the Stanford University student conduct process did work appropriately, removing the rapist from the team and from the student body. However, there is a clear disconnect between the actions of Stanford and the community judicial process. One structural change on campuses has been to empower Title IX Compliance, a more legalized process, over student conduct. This takes a more graduated, developmental approach to student misconduct in general. Clearly, our judicial processes lag behind the shift from “blame-the-victim and minimize the impact” to “blame-the-perpetrator and change the culture.” We must promote that evolution.

Violence prevention experts, Drs. Fleming and Heisterkamp have developed an excellent resource on campus-community collaborations to prevent sexual violence.

How Psychologists Can Help Change the Culture

Use our knowledge, tools, and commitment to social justice to help eliminate rape culture.

We are teachers, researchers, practitioners, and advocates. This culture change is still at the beginning stages. We must support student, staff and faculty advocates for change. Psychologists have been studying the impact of rape on victims, perpetrator trends, relational violence and sexual harassment for decades. We need to bring our research and evidence-based approaches into policy formation. A group of college administrators and researchers have formed a coalition called ARC3 to move this forward.

Use our knowledge of development to make change.

We know lasting culture change starts young. We are the founders of developmental psychology. We understand how to frame developmentally appropriate dialog for our children on difficult topics. The research on bullying may be especially salient as bullying behavior and sexual harassment have similarities. We can expand the conversation about respect, communication, kindness and appropriate behavior across gender, race and ethnicity.

Talk to our sons as well as our daughters. 

When we hear of sexual assault we can shift our questions from “What was she thinking?” to “What was he thinking?” We are starting to see this in some exceptional social media posts such as a letter from another father to the rapist’s father and “What fathers need to say to their sons.”

Build and nurture community connections.

We need to engage in program evaluation and provide the evidence base to determine best practices for different audiences. We can use our knowledge of human behavior to change the culture around sexual assault on our campuses and in our communities.


Fleming, W. M., & Heisterkamp, H. A. (2015). Cultivating partnerships: A case study for moving beyond campus-centric approaches to sexual violence prevention. E-Journal of Public Affairs, ISSN (Online), 2162-9161. Retrieved from:


Jacquelyn W. White, PhD, is an Emerita Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has served as co-chair the Society for the Psychology of Women’s Violence against Women Committee with the goal of advocating for psychological science to inform recent initiatives addressing campus sexual assault, especially the focus on assessing campus climate.  She recently completed a project with the Office of Violence Against Women to develop their research and evaluation strategic plan. She has conducted research on gender issues, sexual victimization, and intimate partner violence for over 35 years, and led one of the few longitudinal studies of sexual and physical dating violence among adolescents and college students. She was co-editor of the two-volume series on Violence against Women and Children, published by the American Psychological Association, and is co-editing the forthcoming American Psychological Association Handbook on the Psychology of Women.

Louise A. Douce, PhD, is a specialist in college student mental health and has been active in college and university psychology for the past thirty-five years She has published and presented in the areas of career development for women, multicultural competency with a special focus on GLBT issues, supervision and training and women’s issues, including sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking. She has served on the APA Board of Directors, Council of Representatives, Finance Committee, and is a past chair of the APA Board of Educational Affairs She received her graduate degree in counseling psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1977. She retired as Assistant Vice President of Student Life at The Ohio State University in 2012.

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