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How Not to Fix the Campus Rape Crisis

How Not to Fix the Campus Rape Crisis: Illustration by Justin Page

Illustration by Justin Page

With colleges across America bungling sexual-assault cases, academia can no longer hide its skeletons.


America’s universities are in the throes of an unrelenting crisis. Amid rising rates of reported sexual assaults, we’ve been inundated with story after depressing story of colleges and universities mishandling the cases. As a writer at the no-bullshit women’s site Jezebel and thus someone who professionally cares about this issue, I can rattle off the debacles like sports nerds can fire off stats.

Did you hear about the university that so badly botched an investigation of an alleged gang rape involving three basketball players that it may come under federal investigation? Or the one where three frat brothers sexually assaulted a classmate on film and were given the toothless “expulsion after graduation” as punishment? Or how about the female hockey player who reported being raped by a male hockey player, and as a result she was inexplicably kicked off her school’s team? Or the U.S. Department of Education’s investigation of 71 schools for mishandling sexual-assault cases?

Despite the recent cavalcade of news reports, this crisis isn’t new. What is new is our attitude toward it. We’ve reached a point where women feel comfortable and empowered enough to come forward, and social media has democratized the spread of information so much that colleges can no longer keep their reputations under tight control. We’re pulling up the floorboards and finding a house crawling with vermin, but we haven’t figured out how to eliminate sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, most of the half-assed efforts to do so have failed, dealing more with manipulating stats than resolving the underlying issues. Fortunately, these attempts have left us with a good idea of what won’t end America’s campus sexual assault crisis.

For starters, narrowing the definition of sexual assault will not solve the problem, contrary to what columnist George Will seems to think. Will argues that the uproar is baseless overreaching by privileged college students who have broadened the definition of assault because they seek protection from alcohol-fueled hookup culture. Under Will’s definition, any man who gropes a woman against her will or forcibly removes her clothes would not face punishment. Sorry, George, but an assault of that nature will leave mental scars much the same as they tried to have sex with her, and thus she should be protected from such a violation. So it’s worth making the definition clear: Sexual assault is sexual contact of any nature with a person who does not consent or is incapacitated and therefore unable to consent. To restrict the definition any further to downplay the prevalence of sexual assault endangers students.

Ignoring or obfuscating the problem won’t make sexual assaults go away. This seems so obvious it shouldn’t require mentioning, yet this has long been the norm for America’s finest institutions of higher learning. Before being forced to change their ways, Amherst and Berkeley both famously tried to dissuade women from reporting rape by telling victims the process would be more trouble than it’s worth. Occidental College in Los Angeles landed in hot water after fudging rape statistics and failing to inform students about sexual assaults that happened near campus. Discouraging reports and juking crime states may paint a rosy picture for donors and prospective students, but it does nothing to reduce sexual assault.

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Colleges failed to act, so New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (left) co-sponsored a bill to reduce campus sexual assaults— AP Images

Putting the onus on women to defend themselves against rape will not eliminate the crisis. We know this because some variety of “protect yourself” (the version du jour seems to be “Watch your drink!”) has been the advice given to women for generations, and assaults continue.

Sure, arming women with mace and self-defense lessons may protect individuals against the sort of rape depicted in early seasons of Law & Order, the kind of involving a stranger who hides in the bushes, wearing a weather-inappropriate stocking cap. But most look nothing like that. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 85 to 90 percent of campus sexual-assault victims knew their attacker. And according to experts including psychologist David Lisak, focusing on individual defense and personal responsibility doesn’t reduce rape, because college rapists approach the female population on campus the way a lion approaches a herd of antelope. Lisak argues that college rapists target the slow, the impaired, the ones separated from the herd. The weakest antelope will always be eaten, even if it knows basic judo moves.

Urging rape victims to appeal to law enforcement rather than their schools’ flimsy internal justice systems won’t solve things either. It certainly didn’t work for the woman who accused Florida State football player Jameis Winston of rape. Although the Heisman Trophy winner was cleared of all charges, a New York Times investigation of the alleged assault’s aftermath outlined how the Tallahassee police department had barely lifted a finger. Nationally, a laughably small percentage of rape charges result in convictions. Out of every 100 rapes, only 40 are reported to police. Of those, only 10 lead to an arrest, and only three lead to prison time for a convicted rapist. Can you blame a woman for concluding that appealing to the police may be a waste of time?

Finally, universities that try to push Greek life and alcohol consumption off campus to absolve themselves of legal liability for students’ debauchery do not eliminate the problem and may in fact exacerbate it. The DOJ cites attending off-campus parties as a major risk factor for sexual assault. When universities move fraternities outside their purview, it can give rise to unregulated “illegal” fraternities, such as the one operating at American University. E-mails leaked this spring from “fraternity” brothers revealed a dangerous culture of sexual assault fostered by its members, and interviews with women on campus revealed that many of the knew someone who had been raped at the frat.

Between misrepresenting what sexual assault is, fudging sexual-assault statistics, interfering in investigations, prioritizing their own interests over their students’ safety and treating sexual assault like a PR crisis that can be fixed with press releases, American colleges and universities have explored nearly every way to dodge actually addressing their respective sexual-assault problems. Maybe this is the year that all changes. But if schools continue with their current playbook, I wouldn’t count on it.


Erin Gloria Ryan is the News Editor at Jezebel. Follow her on Twitter @MorningGloria.

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