Date Rape Article In Student Newspaper Stokes Anger

American University's Student Newspaper, The Eagle, recently ran an article by controversial student columnist Alex Knepper, on the subject of date rape. Knepper stressed women's personal responsibility in alcohol consumption. His ideas got him called a "date rape apologist" and escalated into acts of vandalism against the paper. Alex Knepper joins host Michel Martin for a discussion about the provocative article. Also joining in on the conversation is American University student Travis Ballie, outreach director for the Women's Initiative and co-founder of American University's pro-choice organization Student's for Choice.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

On to a very different story, yesterday we talked about Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Super Bowl winner's behavior with women has been under scrutiny lately since a 20-year-old college student said he sexually assaulted her in the bathroom of the bar where they had both been drinking.

Prosecutors recently said they would not be pursuing charges against Roethlisberger because there was not enough evidence to prove criminal behavior. But it was the second time in less than a year that a woman says Roethlisberger attacked her.

This story attracted our interest in part because NPR's investigative team, working with reporters from the Center for Public Integrity, pursued the matter of assault on college campuses and found that men are rarely expelled even when they are found responsible for a sexual assault. Now another, and we suspect for many controversial perspective by a student columnist at American University.

In an article titled "Dealing with AU's Anti-Sex Brigade," Alex Knepper hit a nerve with this line, among others, "Let's get this straight. Any woman who heads to an EI party as an anonymous onlooker, drinks five cups of the jungle juice and walks back to a boy's room with him is indicating that she wants sex, okay? To cry date rape after you sober up the next morning and regret the incident is the equivalent of pulling a gun to someone's head and then claiming that you didn't ever actually intend to pull the trigger," unquote.

We've called Alex Knepper for more conversation. He's a sophomore planning to major in political science. We've also called for another perspective, Travis Ballie, he's a senior and the outreach director for AU's women's initiative. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. ALEX KNEPPER: Thank you for having me.

Mr. TRAVIS BALLIE: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Alex, I want to start with you. I just wanted to ask what sparked the column as briefly as you can. What was on your mind?

Mr. KNEPPER: In the past couple of weeks before the column was written, there was a student government candidate for the vice presidency who had arguably lost the position because of a Facebook note that he had written that was an over-the-top tongue-in-cheek rant about old school masculinity. He approved of it and the campus feminists and the gay party activists, it's a nickname I use to distinguish from mainstream gay people like myself, were up in arms about this. And so I thought it would be a good jumping point to get back to basics and start lobbing more missiles at (unintelligible) follies.

MARTIN: So, are you telling me you're gay?

Mr. KNEPPER: Yes.

MARTIN: Okay. And I don't know if that's relevant, I just want to be sure that that's what you were disclosing to us. Can I just ask, though, were you intending to be tongue-in-cheek or do you really feel that if women have had enough to drink, or a lot to drink and they are alone with a young man, that they are in fact inviting sex?

Mr. KNEPPER: I'm saying that when you inject yourself into that kind of arena when you're dealing with alcohol, when you're dealing with anonymous sex, that the rules change. That there are certain signals that you're sending out that the man can reasonably interpret as an invitation to sex. You're not going back to his room to rhapsodize philosophical about Plato. You're not going to discuss homework tips. These are the rules of the arena.

And the point that the column makes in the later paragraphs is that if you're uncomfortable with this, then you shouldn't be having anonymous sex. Of course, if she says no at any time, then that implicit consent has been revoked and at that point it would constitute rape.

MARTIN: Okay. And the reaction was what?

Mr. KNEPPER: The reaction to the piece on campus was fairly universally negative and the people that spoke out, the people who were on my side kept contacting me and telling me that they were afraid of people calling them rape apologists. Most people don't want their names Googled and having that behind them.

MARTIN: Travis, what's your response to this? You feel strongly that this column should not have been published at all, as I understand it.

Mr. BALLIE: That is correct. And I think first we have to just begin on the common definition of rape. And rape as defined by the organization, Men Can Stop Rape, is any form of penetration without consent and by force or threat of force. And in nearly every state, someone who is intoxicated cannot legally consent to sex. I think that's very key to start off.

Now, I definitely understand Alex's way of thinking that responsibility has a role to play in here and to put yourself in safe spaces versus unsafe spaces. However, the reality of the world is much more unclear. One in four college women will be raped by their classmates, friends, family or dorm mates during their college career. Now, on the one hand...

Mr. BALLIE: According to the organization Men Can Stop Rape and also various journalistic studies on the issue of sexual assault and rape. On the one hand, 80 percent of survivors know their perpetrators and that makes it nearly impossible for women or anyone to distinguish safe guys or safe people from potential rapists.

MARTIN: Why shouldn't the article have been published?

Mr. BALLIE: First of all, I agree that The Eagle has every right to publish whatever they want. However, I do always turn back to the journalistic code of ethics, that is, to minimize harm. Keep in mind not to eliminate harm. In any society that values free press, feelings will get hurt. However, the line is drawn and should've been drawn in this case when a journalistic piece will cause more harm than constructive dialogue on any issue.

MARTIN: And why do you think it'll cause harm?

Mr. BALLIE: During this controversy, friends that I've known since high school have come up to me and told me how horrible of a month they've had as survivors of sexual assault. And at a campus like American University, which is the only major university in D.C. to not have a full-time victims advocate, it's people like me who - volunteers and unpaid people on campus who have to help these survivors. And so that's why I know from experience that this has caused more harm, the constructive dialogue.

Mr. KNEPPER: If I could, I'd like to respond to a couple of the specific points he brought up in this last response.

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. KNEPPER: Obviously no one is saying that sex without consent is acceptable. What I'm saying is that the lines can become very blurry when anonymous sex and alcohol are involved. And the laws currently hold a double standard against men that infantilize women. I say that when you drink five cups of the jungle juice, that's an act that you partake in of your own free will and that you should be held responsible for that, whether you're male or female.

If a male is drunk, he doesn't say, oh, well, I didn't know what I was doing when I was drunk. You can't hold me responsible under the law. I'm saying that we should hold a woman to the same standard in saying that if she gives consent while drunk, that's legitimate.

MARTIN: That's not really true, though, is it? I mean, in the real world, which is what you say you're in is in the real world, don't men do that? And our own reporting suggests that men are very rarely severely disciplined for acts of date rape precisely because there is as much ambiguity around it.

Mr. KNEPPER: No, I'm saying they should if there is sufficient evidence there. However, a lot of these cases just turn into he said, she said kind of incidents, which is why it's imperative to be responsible.

MARTIN: Which is why it's a defense. It's a he said, she said in the absence of evidence, men, the data suggests, are rarely punished for that. So, I'm asking you, are you not aware of that or you just don't buy that?

Mr. KNEPPER: No, I'm saying you can't punish someone without sufficient evidence. And this is why it's so important that if you do inject yourself into the arena, you need to know the risks and responsibilities beforehand. Accept the risks, accept the dangers, but understand that when you do put yourself into that arena, that bad things might happen. You might end up doing something you regret. You might end up having something happen to you that you wouldn't have wanted to happen.

MARTIN: So, does the same thing apply to men? If men go to a party and they have too much to drink and then their behavior and then something happens the next day that they're not happy about, do you think the same rules apply?

Mr. KNEPPER: Of course. But men have already accepted this. There aren't the equivalent of feminist groups on the men's side saying that people shouldn't be held responsible for what they do while intoxicated. I'm saying that a drunken yes is a legitimate yes because it was her choice to drink. And that a regret is not a rape.

MARTIN: Hmm. And, Travis, what about this question of, I think, personal responsibility that if people are to be truly equal in society, then they have to be equally responsible for their contribution to an event?

Mr. BALLIE: Well, I think that the notion of responsibility, it assumes two equal independent actors. This is about consent and consent cannot be given when alcohol is involved.

MARTIN: And what that, Alex? There are some campus codes that say that, that they say if enough alcohol has been consumed where consent is impaired, it's irrelevant, it's akin to statutory rape, where it doesn't matter what an underage person consents to. It's irrelevant. That person doesn't have the authority or the ability to give consent at that point. What about that?

Mr. KNEPPER: If you get in a car after having too much to drink and run over four people, are the police going to accept your excuse that you didn't know what you were doing? I'm saying that if you have too much to drink, that's something you do out of your volition and you have to be responsible for what you say or do when you consume that amount.

MARTIN: Do you find it at all problematic, Alex, that you don't date women and yet you're judging their conduct in a situation that you are unlikely to be in?

Mr. KNEPPER: No, and this is one of the ridiculous aspects of this postmodern society that somehow if you don't have the ability to give testimony about an incident, you're not allowed to judge it. Part of being an adult is judging situations, looking at different scenarios, looking at the moral aspects involved and trying to come to a rational conclusion.

MARTIN: And so, finally, and I want to ask each of you where you think the conversation is on campus. Clearly, this has sparked a lot of discussion. So, I want to ask, where do you things are?

Mr. BALLIE: Well, first of all, survivors have been affected negatively by this, and I think that should be acknowledged. Second of all, I think there have been some constructive movements from this controversy. We're hoping that American University finally understands that they need to be a university that adopts a full-time victims' advocate on campus.

MARTIN: Okay, Alex, what about you? Where do you think the conversation is as a result of your work and the dialogue that's ensued? What do you think?

Mr. KNEPPER: I think it's been very encouraging. And when you get outside of these insular environments of feminist blogs and college campuses, you see a real discussion going on about this. You look at the articles that were put up for ABC News or the Huffington Post or AOL's ParentDish. And people are talking about the issue of date rape that really hasn't been talked about since the early '90s.

I think it's unfortunate that no straight man has come forward to talk about this. It's only been women and gay men who have been speaking up for the straight men in the situation and saying that things are a little more ambiguous than they're given credit for in the mainstream media. However, it's positive when this discussion happens at all.

MARTIN: Alex Knepper is a sophomore majoring in political science at American University. He's a columnist for the campus newspaper, The Eagle. And he was kind enough to join us between classes by phone.

Travis Ballie is a senior at American University. He's the outreach director for the women's initiative and co-founder of American University's Students for Choice. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. You can read the column in its entirety or on our Web site so you'll know exactly what we were talking about. Go to NPR.org. Go to TELL ME MORE under Programs.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KNEPPER: Thank you.

Mr. BALLIE: Thank you.

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