The Problem of Campus Sexual Assault
Recently, a friend and fellow University of Chicago alumna showed me an open letter to university president Robert Zimmer demanding that the university reevaluate its policy regarding campus sexual assaults. After reporting an assault by her then-partner and being illegally offered a mediation session by Dean of Students Susan Art, current fourth-year student Olivia Ortiz filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), prompting a larger investigation of the university for possible violations of Title IX. In response, a coalition of alumni wrote and circulated the letter in question. I gladly added my name.
Though I am heartbroken to read about my beloved alma mater’s betrayal of sexual assault victims, I am not surprised. Campus sexual assaults are chillingly common, according to the Department of Education’s 2011 Dear Colleague Letter: Sexual Violence Background, Summary, and Fast Facts (found on Marsh Law Firm’s roundup of Title IX resources):
When young women get to college, nearly 20% of them will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault, as will about 6% of undergraduate men.
And yet—despite this reminder of the prevalence of this problem and their responsibilities—when confronted with an incident, colleges all over the country exhibit a pattern of dismissing and covering up sexual assaults. The University of Chicago is far from alone: mistreatment of rape survivors at Amherst College, faculty sexual misconduct at Northwestern University, and systemic mishandling of sexual assault reports at the University of Montana are only some of the many examples from the last few years alone. (Lest you think religiously-affiliated institutions are exempt from the problem, several major Christian universities are currently under investigation for sexual assault cover-ups that are at least as bad as the ones at secular institutions.)
And of course there are the two lawsuits filed recently by the Marsh Law Firm in response to delayed government investigations of the University of Virginia’s mishandling of a campus rape, this time due to concerns that the new SaVE Act undermines the already barely enforced protections in Title IX.
It is apparent that campus sexual assault, along with administrative mishandling of even routine investigations, is a widespread problem across the United States. Theories abound as to why this occurs—from the rape culture prevalent in our society, to even marketing concerns—and most likely there are many interacting factors at play. The end result is that perpetrators know they can get away with their largely under-reported crimes, and they do so often; according to a report by psychologist David Lisak:
[College rapists] tend to be serial offenders, and most of them commit a variety of different interpersonal offenses. They are accurately and appropriately labeled as predators.
This picture conflicts sharply with the widely-held view that rapes committed on university campuses are typically the result of a basically “decent” young man who, were it not for too much alcohol and too little communication, would never do such a thing. While some campus rapes do fit this more benign view, the evidence points to a far less benign reality, in which the vast majority of rapes are committed by serial, violent predators
Cracking down on campus sex offenders is good policy—and a good way to prevent future assaults. Furthermore, because predators make up a minority, it is important—and possible—for colleges to actively foster a culture where consent is valued and where students protect one another against those in their midst who would cause harm. Instead, like many high schools, colleges appear to put a premium on ensuring a bright future for predators rather than protecting victims in the here and now.
This is unacceptable. It is time to stand up for victims and those at risk for sexual assault. America’s colleges, the University of Chicago included, can and should do better. This may never happen unless people demand loudly that schools take this problem seriously—whether directly on campus, through alumni networks, or with the aid of lawmakers or the press. And it does work: After years of high-profile rapes at Dartmouth College reported in the media, president Philip Hanlon has finally proposed much-needed mandatory expulsions for campus sexual predators.
Unfortunately, at the moment there are not yet conclusive answers—after all, combating campus sexual assault has never been made a priority. However, it is long past time to take it seriously. First and foremost, the importance of teaching about enthusiastic consent—only yes means yes—early and often cannot be overstated. In the same vein, institutions would be wise to follow Lisak’s suggestion to train bystanders to recognize and intervene when they are in the presence an abusive situation.
Administrators must also actively work to change institutional policies that blame or further victimize survivors. Because at this point there are no best practices to use as reference, the most important thing may be to simply try something different, keeping in mind the best interest of the victim. Most importantly, schools everywhere must adopt a zero tolerance policy towards those who commit sexual assault. Otherwise, the future is bleak—not only for future college students, but for everyone.