By Taylor Solomon
In 1987, Mary Koss, a psychology professor at Kent State, conducted a landmark study which found that one in four college women (of 3,000 surveyed) had been the victim of attempted or completed rape. A look at more recent studies shows that these numbers have changed very little over the years. It is now commonly said that one in five women will be a victim of sexual assault during her college career. This is a huge problem on college campuses, and while schools mishandle these cases, we often ask ourselves why they're not reported to the police in the first place.
Title IX requires schools to dispute sexual discrimination within the education community, ostensibly by aiding sexual assault victims. A criminal trial, it's assumed, will look out for the state’s best interests, whereas the school may focus on the victim. This could be through dorm and class transfers, counseling services, and other actions that could be made to make the victim’s life easier in the aftermath of such events. Many victims choose not to turn to the criminal justice system, fearing abuse from police, prosecutors, or juries, but still seek these academic accommodations. Despite the good schools have the power to do, it has become all too common to see victims mistreated by the university system. By making a few changes on campus and in our society, colleges and universities can fully play this role designed to help victims.
1) We must educate the faculty.
The New York Times recently reported the story of Anna, a student at Hobart and William Smith. Anna was drunk at a party and became separated from her friends. When her friend finally found her, Anna was bent over a pool table being raped by two football players as other party-goers watched. Her friend, also a football player, was able to stop them. The men involved blamed Anna, saying it was her fault and that she was asking for it. The New York Times was able to get a transcript of the meeting during which Anna’s case came before the school’s disciplinary board, and it is appalling how ill-prepared the panelists were. The hearing occurred before Anna’s rape kit results had been released - and during the hearing, it had to be explained to one of the panelists what a rape kit even was. Two of the three panel members had not seen Anna’s medical records, which showed she had suffered genital trauma. The list goes on.
In another tragic example covered by the New York Times, Emma Sulkowicz, a junior at Columbia, chose to report her own assault after realizing two other women had been attacked by the same man. Her hearing did not take place until seven months later, and her alleged assailant was quickly acquitted. When she appealed the case, her appeal was sent to the dean, who had the authority to make the final decision. He chose not to punish her assailant at all.
Dana Bolger described a third similar story in her recent opinion piece for the Daily News: “It’s an experience I know all too well. In 2011, my sophomore year of college, I was raped and then stalked by a fellow student. When I went to report my assault to my college dean, he encouraged me to take time off, go home, be ‘safe,’ focus on my own healing and put my education on hold - so that the man who raped me could comfortably conclude his.”
While the faculty members in these situations may be great at other aspects of their jobs, they are not trained to handle these specific cases. It is important that either a new position be created for someone who is, or that existing faculty who have regular contact with potential sexual assault victims are trained regarding the best ways to talk about what is happening and how to act in specific situations.
2) We must educate the students.
A 2007 study for the National Institute of Justice found that of the victims surveyed who said they did not report their assault to law enforcement, a third chose not to because they were unsure whether or not a crime had been committed. It is important that students are taught what is and isn’t sexual assault, and that they know how to make decisions when put in these difficult situations.
The FBI currently defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person without consent of the victim.” Sexual assault is a broader term, including rape and other forms of unwanted sexual aggression, for example forced kissing or fondling. Through required educational programs and peer education, these are things that can be taught to a student body.
At my own college, we had a Bystander Intervention program, which worked really well. Instead of lectures along the lines of, “do not drink,” “do not take advantage of others,” etc. students were asked to put themselves in real-life situations and describe how they would handle themselves. For example, if you were at a party and saw a friend of yours who had been drinking going upstairs with a girl who was also intoxicated, how might you stop them from potentially putting themselves in a dangerous situation? A student might respond that he would call up to his friend saying he wanted to show him something, and then distract him from continuing upstairs with the girl. This sort of program helps the students relate to these cases and see how easy it is to find yourself in them, as well as how easy it is to help.
3) When sexual assault occurs, there must be punishment.
A report by the Center for Public Integrity found that school disciplinary hearings rarely result in suspension or expulsion, despite the fact that most college rapists are repeat offenders. James Madison University has historically suspended students for drinking and expelled others for plagiarism, but when faced with the case of three men responsible for sexual assault, the university punished them with “expulsion after graduation.” It has been reported that nine out of ten campus rapes are perpetrated by repeat offenders. If these people think they can commit crimes and get off without punishment, they will continue to do so.
4) We must make a larger change in society.
Stereotypes perpetuated by movies and TV shows like “Law and Order: SVU” give us the idea that rape is something that occurs late at night when a knife-wielding man jumps out from an alley. This is not at all the case. It is more probable that the offender is someone the victim knows.
Eliza Gray described some of these stereotypes in her recent Time cover story covering campus rape: “The very phrase date rape has a way of conjuring the image of two drunk teenagers fumbling around in the dark until a testosterone-fueled adolescent male goes too far, a moment spun out of control.”
Again, this is way off the mark. Rape is not an accident. It is usually planned by the perpetrator, who will create the opportunity for it to happen. Even progressive pop culture reinforces the message that it is okay for men to trick women into having sex, as though it is an occurrence in every mundane sitcom family’s life.
We must also change our cultural conception of masculinity and femininity. All their lives, we teach girls to be “feminine” - to be forgiving, patient, and willing to sacrifice themselves to protect the men in their lives. As Dana Bolger explains, it’s these same traits that campus administrators often demand of rape survivors: “We are asked to forgive our assailants (‘Would you really want to ruin his life?’), patiently wait a semester or year for them to leave campus, and stay quiet and calm and collected even as we try to seek justice for the violence we’ve endured.”
Sexual assault happens on all college campuses. It is not exclusive to public or private schools, women’s colleges, or men’s colleges. It happens everywhere. By making these changes to strengthen the faculty, student body, and overarching perceptions in our society, we can better our university systems when they are faced with such tragic events.