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A Harsh Reality: The Prevalence of Sexual Assault on Campus

There’s a reckoning happening on campuses across the country. The cause? Rampant sexual misconduct.

Source: Delaware Online

On college campuses nationwide, there has been an escalated student mobilization in response to instances of sexual assault (SA) made public throughout the course of the 2021 fall semester. This reckoning is a physical manifestation of college students’ frustration towards university administrators’ poor handling and negligence when it comes to instances of sexual violence that directly affects the wellbeing of their students.

Approximately 19% of women will be sexually assaulted during their time at college according to a study published in 2007 by the National Institution of Justice. A more recent survey conducted in 2019 cites that, within a group of 181,752 students at 33 leading U.S. universities, 25.9% of undergraduate girls had experienced “non consensual penetration, attempted penetration, sexual touching by force, or inability to consent” since they enrolled — those are 1 in 4 odds.

Additionally, only 12% of sexual assaults are ever reported to the police. These extremely low numbers can be attributed to the victim’s fear of retaliation, lack of “proof” that the assault occurred, or fear of retaliation from university administration.

Source: RAINN

At Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, student protests occurred in late October in response to an alleged sexual assault that took place at a fraternity house, which the university met with “hostility and indifference,” so much so that a female student was banned from campus after sharing her SA experience online. This expulsion comes after students began posting to an anonymous-reporting Instagram account, on which one can find first-hand reports of stalking, rape, and domestic violence. Students all seem to share the sentiment that the school admin antagonizes survivors, denying them educational opportunities rather than protecting them when they speak out and hold the attackers accountable.

Similarly, at Boston University, students complained about a lack of attentiveness and indifference towards organizations with repeated instances of assault and harassment. BU recently suspended their chapter of the Kappa Sigma following a sexual assault accusation. This decision is reflective of a larger theme of rallying against historically white frats on American college campuses following increased reports of binge drinking and SA However, frats are notoriously difficult to take down because of their sheer power and history and rich alumni network. According to research, fraternity men are three times more likely to commit rape than their non-Greek peers.

Lastly, the University of Delaware has caused a stir online, due to the university’s negligence in addressing an especially violent case of domestic abuse that took place in their off-campus apartments. Most campus sexual assaults (85-90%) are committed by someone the victim knows, rather than total strangers. Within the dating sphere, 43% of college women report experiencing violent or abusive dating behavior such as physical, sexual, and verbal abuse of a controlling nature. The assault, which took place at UD, involved an ex-boyfriend who smashed a student’s phone, blinded her with spray paint, strangled her to the point of unconsciousness, and shoved her down a flight of stairs. It took four days to be publicly acknowledged and addressed by officials. When the university did address this violent incident, many students felt that the statement was “bureaucratic,” and filled with empty words; it did not cite any actionable changes that would be made.

This is a prime example of the tendency for institutions to praise survivors for their bravery, all the while being intentionally non-specific about the actual actions they are taking to protect survivors’ rights — which is what many activist groups have been trying to express to the administration. In UD’s case, students took to the streets to publicly protest the university’s handling of this case, as well as made a working document citing the concrete changes they’d like to see made with regards to university policy.

There is an institutional-level failure in which university administrators have created a culture of minimizing incidents of assault and blaming and punishing students who have been victims of SA, rather than support them and help them seek justice. There’s also a negligence with regards to properly instating actionable change that can be measured and observed as being effective in remedying the campus culture that allows these assaults from happening in the first place.

I spoke to Megan Thomas, Communications Specialist at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. She stated that “When we focus on false rape accusations, we are priming people to disbelieve every claim they hear. Instead of focusing on the low percentage of accusations that are proven false, we should focus on the prevalence of sexual assault — and how low the reporting rate is. That tells us more about how society’s reaction to sexual assault silences victims.” Thus, under the guide of ensuring the due rights of those who are falsely accused, the stories of victims are trivialized, and pushes the narrative of victim blaming.

In addition to overreporting false accounts, victim blaming also takes place when it comes to sexual assault and violence. Victims face blame from others and themselves surrounding where the assault took place, under what level of intoxication, in what clothing. This leads back to hesitancy to report incidents, because there is shame involved, as well as fear of possible consequences from administration. “Survivors may also feel hesitant about coming forward if they were at a party or drinking when the assault happened, particularly if their college has an honor code against certain behaviors. If survivors are worried about getting in trouble when they report their assault, they will be less likely to report it” Thomas states.

This is not to mention the additional obstacles that students of color or that identify with the LGBTQ+ community face. Thomas tells me that “because of factors like police violence or trust of police, Black survivors may not feel comfortable entering into the criminal justice system. The same is true for trans and gender non-conforming survivors, who may experience discrimination or be misgendered if they report to the police”.

Source: Inside Higher Ed

Economic conditions play as role as well: the White House found that the average cost for a rape survivor to receive justice through the legal system is anywhere from $87k to $240k. And as Thomas stated, “The process of going to court is often long and time-consuming, which means people may end up missing out on work or school entirely. The financial cost of pursuing a case may be too great for some survivors to bear”. This displays just one facet of how education institutions and the legal system disproportionately harm marginalized groups.

There’s a need for more research and work done in preventing assaults and violence from occurring in the first place, before it happens. The emphasis on holding perpetrators accountable after these offenses have occurred and serious harm has been done is a band-aid solution to a deeply systemic issue.

It’s essential that we acknowledge the root cause of such high rates of sexual assault against college-aged girls: the culture of misogyny and and violence that breeds it. Sexual assault is entwined with the power and control perpetuated by toxic masculinity, and as long as this mentality exists, assaults will continue. It doesn’t help that girls are encouraged to be polite and keep their heads down, to not “cause a scene”. This is a problem that must be rectified and remedied on a societal level.

Source: Penn State University

But for now, what can be done on an institutional level? One option is to implement plans in advance of violence. Easier said than done, as any plan would need to address the root causes of assaults. Michael Dolce, a lawyer who works with victims of sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and domestic violence believes this preventative method can be done by implementing training to monitor for signs of potential gender-based violence, with “interventions available and publicized to those affected”.

Bringing a sense of campus community consciousness to early signs of violence will prevent such behaviors from escalating into tragic events that we have seen transpiring over the course of this semester. University administrators must shift their focus towards enacting zero-tolerance sexual violence policies by clearing their campuses of offenders through suspension and expulsion, and providing support for their victims rather than employing policies that punish them.

If, and only if, these administration-level changes are instituted quickly and with force, may we begin to see an alleviation of the tragic sexually-based violence that is plaguing America’s college campuses.

Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune


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