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Campuses must confront assault issue

My daughter belongs to a sorority. So I was concerned when I heard about Rolling Stone's account of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.

Students light candles during a Dec. 5 vigil in Charlottesville, Va., in support of sexual-assault victims.
Students light candles during a Dec. 5 vigil in Charlottesville, Va., in support of sexual-assault victims.Read moreRyan M. Kelly / Associated Press

My daughter belongs to a sorority. So I was concerned when I heard about Rolling Stone's account of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. The report stunned me, strung out as it was detail by salacious detail. Other than underage drinking, the Greek culture described bore no relationship to my days in college. But I knew times had changed.

Not long after publication, Rolling Stone admitted that the incident might not have occurred as reported. Predictably, news stories about journalistic hubris and setting back the clock for rape victims rolled out, followed by duels over whether claims about the fraternity rape culture have been overstated. No doubt there will be a barrage of follow-up stories and maybe even lawsuits.

And then what, after the scandal fades? Sadly, I suspect we'll remain exactly where we are now, stuck in a Nancy Grace world of finger-pointing and seeking convenient tales that fit the conclusions we've already drawn, with no progress toward solving the underlying problems.

Decades of rape-awareness programming apparently haven't made a dent in the frequency of campus rapes. So decades more probably won't shift the needle either. Nor will mere mattress-toting protests by college students or swelling our jails with the latest perpetrators.

Chances are there will be no change until those involved in the catfight acknowledge the need to broaden the base of accountability for sexual assault and until all those who contribute to the problem accept responsibility. That goes well beyond those who are usually singled out for blame - the patriarchy and universities that allegedly look the other way to protect their reputations.

Clearly, no rape victim is ever to blame, even if she says yes to walking up fraternity house stairs but no when she reaches the top.

And colleges aren't turning men into rapists once they set foot on campus soil. Sure, it's likely that many men arrive at college looking for no-strings sex. Why wouldn't they? They've been assaulted by sexually charged cultural messages from the cradle up.

And therein lies at least some of the culpability. Does this let men off the hook for criminal behavior? Certainly not. But could the culture shaping them be making matters worse? Certainly.

Even so, contrary to the stereotype, all fraternity men are not depraved animals. One of my sorority sisters, a single mother like me, raised a fine, just-graduated fraternity man. And there are many more like him. But with the way the media often depict fraternities, any mother in her right mind would be afraid to send her daughter to college. By lumping all men together, the media miss a golden opportunity to enlist the good apples in efforts for positive change.

Can we assign some blame to the notion that sexual assaults are merely an unfortunate by-product of the party culture? Or, worse, the hookup culture? Both disconnect sex from love and affection, as well as responsibility and respect - all attributes, by the way, that are antithetical to rape.

The freshman coed depicted in Rolling Stone could easily be Everywoman. A girl, really, just learning how to navigate her way in the world. Young, inexperienced, anxious about being perceived as a wallflower.

But who makes women feel that way? College administrators? Just men? Or could it include other women, who are also culturally conditioned to believe that the primary point of sex is merely to have fun? Aren't these women victims of a culture that assaults them from the cradle, too? A culture that works overtime to convince them that casual, serial, nonmonogamous sex is the more enlightened viewpoint - the one that will gain them greater acceptance by their peers?

And is their only hope for protection, as some would claim, to join radical feminist protests seeking to topple the patriarchy? Or to engage in red-tape-wearing protests, enroll in sex clubs promoting female orgasms, haul mattresses around campus, and strut the SlutWalk, where students rally in revealing attire to condemn a rape culture that blames women's clothing for sexual assaults? I don't knock these efforts, but are all choices truly equal and available? Can mattress-toters be counted on to carry placards condemning "virgin shaming"? To advocate for women who choose not to walk up fraternity stairs in the first place? Women shouldn't have to endure a backlash condemning them for their actions, regardless of the choices they make.

In our society, we're predisposed to listen to and believe only those who already share our worldview. That narrow approach isn't going to help us end sexual assaults on campus. That kind of change will require honest, respectful conversation between the sexes, and among women and those in opposing political camps. And that dialogue will have to begin with an acknowledgment by all parties - men and women, students and parents, universities and the media - that members of both sexes are part of the problem. If they can do that, then both can, in turn, be part of the solution.

Beverly Willett is an author, lawyer, and mother of two daughters.