Breaking the Silence Over Campus Rapes

Obama’s task force on campus rape and sexual assault needs to tackle the issue of under-reporting above all else.

Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters

Rape and sexual assault on college campuses are “an affront to our basic decency and humanity,” President Obama said yesterday. Certainly the best intentions underpin his creation of a special task force that has 90 days to come up with recommendations for tackling the issue in schools and, even more notably, increase federal oversight in the handling of sexual assault on campus.

The accompanying White House report (PDF) is progressive in its acknowledgement of how different, complex factors-such as race and sexual orientation-impact sexual assault on campuses. It also displays a nuanced shift away from burdening victims with rape prevention by explicitly criticizing “victim-blaming responses from administration officials.”

Dr. Susannah Bartlow, director of the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at Marquette University, said “It’s an exciting opportunity to take our work to the next level. Hopefully, it will yield the kind of results we need to extend beyond campuses and end the epidemic.

The task force comes in the wake of a series of campus sexual assault cases in which students have actively sought the federal government’s involvement. In November, four women filed a federal discrimination suit against the University of Connecticut for mishandling sexual violence, including the failure to punish perpetrators.

Students at the University of North Carolina successfully requested a federal investigation for the school’s inadequate handling of assault. One victim said, “I went to one administrator, and she told me, ‘Rape is like football. And if you look back in the game, would you have done anything differently?’”

The school that has received perhaps the most attention is Amherst College. Angie Epifano wrote about how poorly she was treated by the administration when she came forward with her assault, and she ultimately left the school because she felt so isolated and hurt. She and another student filed a federal complaint this past November. Yale University and Dartmouth College are also facing investigations from the Education Department regarding their handling of sexual assault.

Clearly, there are ample cases fueling the Obama administration’s decision to act. But can a well-intentioned initiative, like the Presidential task force, actually have an impact in reducing campus assaults? Dana Bolger, a student at Amhert College who was also sexually assaulted and now serves as an activist, said in an email the president's task force made her optimistic, but "It's too soon to tell how meaningful his efforts will be, especially because we don't know yet if and how the task force will seek students' and survivors' involvement in its efforts, which is crucial since we're the ones on the ground at these universities."

A huge initial problem is that rape and sexual assault on campus are both poorly and non-uniformly measured. For example, a report (PDF) released in March of 2013 from the Department of Justice shows that from 1995 to 2005, the rate of sexual violence against women over the age of 12 declined 64 percent and then remained steady. However, just a few months later, another report concluded the study had completely underestimated the rates of assault. The original survey’s questions about sexual assault were buried in a series about other violent crimes and it did not include scenarios when a victim was unable to consent, such as when he or she was “drunk, high, drugged, or passed out.”

In addition, victims of sexual assault under-report as well. As the White House report notes while one in five women are sexually assaulted on campus, only one in 12 will actually report it.

Dr. Stephanie Gilmore, a sexual assault advocate and educator, said her major concern with the White House report was whether “it goes far enough into understanding why it is that students are not reporting.”

Therein lies the crux of Obama’s challenge. Underreporting perpetuates a cycle of misinformation and enables universities to maintain the status quo of rape and sexual assault responses. To figure out ways to reduce sexual assault on campus, the administration will first need to improve assault reporting and understand why victims are so hesitant to come forward.

Too often schools rely on victims to come forward, which is why occurrences are so under-reported. “One of the biggest barriers is that students don’t always understand what their options are,” said Tracey Vitchers of Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER). Colleges don’t make it clear how to go about reporting an assault nor stress that anonymity is permitted at every step. Also, schools forget that “reporting to a campus administrators can be daunting, especially if you’ve just suffered sexual assault,” said Vitchers.

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The issue of amnesty is also key. When sexual assault occurs when the victim has been doing drugs or consuming alcohol, especially if he or she is underage, there is fear of getting in trouble for those school violations when reporting the assault.

Since few universities have taken measure to track assault rates at all, let alone over time, it is very difficult to determine whether new practices—such as creating a rape crisis center or offering educational courses for staff to learn to better to respond to assaults—are making a significant difference. However, there is little existing research to ascertain this, or much else.

Nancy Cantalupo, a research fellow with the Victims Rights Law Center, admitted that “Because we don’t have a lot of institution-specific research out there that tells us what best practices result in drops of indices, we don’t have a lot of data to learn from.”

From this perspective it is difficult to imagine what Obama’s new task force can suggest that will help, especially as each campus faces a different set of concerns and security logistics based on their environment and community.

However, the federal government has funding and legislative powers that it has yet to utilize in regards to preventing campus assault. According to the ACLU (PDF), sexual harassment can be prosecuted under Title IX when it is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit,” and even one incident of sexual assault has qualified under this definition in court.

The federal government could use its muscle to force universities to improve standards and practices for rape and sexual assault reports and, additionally, to regularly solicit and track this data. This would illuminate which rape prevention strategies are most effective and also encourage victims of sexually assault to come forward, which is critical to breaking the cycle of ignorance on campuses.

“If you treat survivors so badly that they expect to be re-victimized by your system then they will not report and you will not know this violence is happening,” said Cantalupo. In turn this silence creates an environment in campus administrations where the issue of sexual assault is virtually ignored. “You will not have a reason to address whatever cultural aspects may be leading to it,” added Cantalupo, “because you don’t believe it is happening.”