Out of the shadows

Understanding sexual assault on campus

By Virginia Myers

You would think that the horror story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia would change everything. Except then it got complicated. Did it really happen? Why were there conflicting accounts? And what’s with the two-year wait before reporting?

The case may have been disappointing to those who wanted swift and simple justice, but it did help shine a light on a problem that lurks in the shadows of every campus across the United States: sexual assault. Finally, we are seeing the hard facts about sexual assault and the web of campus culture that allows it to happen: Victim blaming. Fear of retaliation. Conflicting accounts. Partying, fraternities, bad boys versus predators. Campus adjudication—or lack thereof.

It’s complicated. It’s hidden. And it’s time we brought it out of the shadows so we can better understand, and better address, this hidden plague on our college campuses.

One in five

One in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted. Though that figure has been debated—some say one in four, 12 percent, even 5 percent—even the most conservative estimates are appalling. Is it 300,000 women a year? Or 30,000? None of it is acceptable.

And the stories behind the statistics are myriad. Among them: A woman at Florida State University reported star quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston raped her; he was later cleared at a campus hearing. A student at University of Oregon reported she was gang raped by three basketball players three times in two locations over the course of one night; the district attorney declined to prosecute. And for months, a young woman at Columbia University has carried her mattress to class to demonstrate the weight of sexual assault; she says she won’t relent until the man she says raped her is expelled. Other stories involve men as victims. (AFT On Campus will use the female pronoun for victims, and use the terms victim and survivor interchangeably; 90 percent of rape victims are female.)

There are hundreds of  heartbreaking stories: People are speaking up online, in campus forums, privately, and in safe spaces specially created for sharing the most upsetting details of events that are at best difficult to talk about.
Vox.com calls 2014 the year college sexual assault became impossible to ignore; New York Magazine claims says it’s the year everyone finally began talking. “Jane Doe now has a name,” says Andrea Pino, co-founder of End Rape on Campus.

Pino and her co-founder, Annie Clark, make a point of using their names, talking about their personal experiences being sexually assaulted and encouraging other women to come forward. And other women have. The number of Title IX complaints involving sexual assault went from nine in 2009 to 122 in 2014, and by Jan. 20, 2015, the new year had already clocked 21, one more than the number received during all of 2009.

The complaints use Title IX, a law requiring equal educational opportunities for women, to hold colleges responsible for providing a safe, supportive environment for students of every gender. Among other things, colleges must provide clear sexual assault reporting procedures, avoid disrespecting or blaming victims, and never retaliate against them for reporting.

Because colleges cannot prosecute sexual assault—that is up to law enforcement, should a victim choose to press charges—fighting sexual assault on campus is often less about convicting rapists as it is about collective accountability.

Mobilizing against the madness

With increased reporting has come increased attention from agencies and advocates. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights now publishes the names of colleges under investigation for Title IX violations, so the issue influences college choice, even before students step on campus. Every college must now have a Title IX officer to ensure compliance in areas like campus security, crime reporting and accommodations for victims. Guidelines for filing complaints are available on the OCR website, and the White House’s NotAlone.gov provides a road map for students who want to file a complaint.

Student-focused movements like Surviving in Numbers, where survivors enumerate their experiences (“number of perpetrators: 2,” for example, or “number of times I said no: too many,” at survivinginnumbers.org), and Culture of Respect, with resources like handbooks, surveys, policy evaluation tools, and powerful social media videos and campaigns (cultureofrespect.org), are growing.

The documentary “The Hunting Ground” is expected to make a huge impact when it is released in March, and it was hailed as a “piercing, monumental exposé of rape culture on campuses” at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault’s website, 
NotAlone.gov, features pages of policies designed to protect students. It offers a toolkit for developing campus climate surveys, links and information about bystander intervention programs, and a model reporting and confidentiality protocol designed to strike that tricky balance between involvement with law enforcement and respect for a victim’s privacy and choice regarding how to proceed.

The Department of Justice is partnering with Rutgers University’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children to develop a campus climate survey to get a handle on the problem, and the White House hopes to eventually require that all schools use such a survey. The Justice Department is also developing trauma-informed training programs to guide campus and local law enforcement through the delicate process of collecting information about violent sexual assault, as well as best practice models for campus investigations and adjudication.

These resources direct colleges by getting  right down to the nitty-gritty. For example: Is the victim sexually active? Irrelevant; questions about sexual history are off-limits. Did the victim have sex with the accused in the past? Don’t ask; previous consensual sex cannot be interpreted as consent for the incident under investigation. Also, guidelines recommend that parties not cross-examine one another, that emergency services be available 24 hours a day, and that students be allowed to alter class schedules or housing while an investigation is underway.

A long way to go

Despite the focus on change, many people are still unaware of the basics of sexual assault prevention, especially when it hits close to home. “People are very hesitant to recognize this issue,” says Pino, but she tells them the reality: “It’s happening at your alma mater.”

“It’s not the stranger in the bushes,” says Clark. “It’s that nice guy in your chemistry class.” Colleges perpetuate the myth of stranger rape by reporting outsider crimes and neglecting those committed by students, she says. They re-categorize “rape” as “nonconsensual sex,” treat it as an infraction rather than a crime, question the victim’s account, and frame assaults as regrettable sex or drunken mistakes. And they sometimes try to hide the truth, to protect the school’s reputation.

“I went to the dean of students’ office, and she said, ‘I just want to make sure that you don’t talk to anyone about this,’” says one student in “The Hunting Ground.” Colleges “protect perpetrators because they have a financial incentive to do so,” says Clark, in the same film. Later she told AFT On Campus, “What you hear from survivors is, ‘My rape was bad, but the way my university treated me was worse.’ ”

Several factors make sexual assault particularly problematic on college campuses. The party culture is one. The vulnerability of young, inexperienced college students is another. And then there is the challenge of addressing rape—a felony crime—through campus adjudication.

Many victims are reluctant to file charges with off-campus law enforcement. They fear having to relive the incident, they may lack faith in police officers who question their account, and they dread the slow-moving court system. Even when they do file charges, they may be discouraged because “he said-she said” accounts are difficult to prove. So it often falls to colleges to address rape with personnel who are rarely trained in such matters. Even campus security can be poorly trained: A survey commissioned by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) shows just 30 percent are trained in how to respond to sexual assault cases.

And many cases are handed over to a review committee that includes English professors, arts administrators, students or other university-affiliated people who have no legal training. These committees, with their deans, often decide on punishments that could be as insignificant as receiving a written reprimand or as serious as expulsion, an exceedingly rare outcome. And while some schools are hiring trained consultants for this work, the adequacy of campus adjudication is still in question.

From the beginning

Here is a typical scenario, pieced together from the many accounts now available in the sexual assault prevention community and, increasingly, in public media: Freshman Jane gets to her top-choice college, and before classes even start, she is thrilled with an invitation to a party just off campus. She sets off with her new dorm friends, but because she has little experience with alcohol, she is soon drunk (or, maybe someone slips her a roofie, slang for any incapacitating date-rape drug) and winds up on her own. An upperclassman, or a nonstudent, leads her into a back room or a bathroom, or to an off-campus apartment or a back alley, and suggests sex. She refuses. He insists. He has a friend with him, or he is alone. She tries to leave and stumbles. He grabs her.

You can see how quickly Jane gets into trouble. But the story continues: After the assault, she tells her friends. They don’t believe her. Or they do, and take her to a campus adviser. He doesn’t believe her. Or he does, but asks her if she was drunk, or whether she’d had sex before, or if she was looking to hook up that night. Or he urges her to file charges with the police. Or he wants to call her parents. She is embarrassed, afraid, intimidated—and exhausted. Rather than face the trauma, she drops the whole thing.  

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network reports that more than half of sexual assaults go unreported. Victims often want to keep their experience private. Others fear reprisal. A good number think police will be biased. Some are ashamed and blame themselves. Or they think what happened isn’t important enough to report.

But what’s now widely known as “date rape” is not “rape lite,” says David Lisak, a retired professor of psychology and a nationally recognized forensic consultant, trainer and lecturer. And it is far more common than stranger rape.

While there is a large body of research on sex offenders and sexual predators who have been captured and/or incarcerated, Lisak’s research focuses on “undetected rapists,” those people who have committed sexual assault but were never charged—many of them on college campuses. And although some people cling to the perception that these are young men who got carried away, often under the influence of too much alcohol, Lisak has found otherwise.

In fact, he finds little difference between incarcerated rapists and campus rapists. He surveyed men by asking questions such as, “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?” or “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated to resist your sexual advances?” What he learned was that many men are willing to admit to such behavior, because they do not consider it assault.

These undetected rapists share many characteristics with rapists who are doing jail time: When compared with men who do not rape, both categories of men are “measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hypermasculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathetic and more antisocial.” Additionally, they are good at finding vulnerable victims; they plan their attacks; they use “psychological weapons” such as power, control, manipulation and threats; and they use alcohol to make victims more vulnerable. “The data most emphatically contradicts the mythology about date rapists, namely, the misconception that they are somehow less serious offenders than their counterparts who attack strangers,” writes Lisak in an article for Sexual Assault Report. “These men are as likely to be serial and multi-faceted offenders as are incarcerated rapists.”

They are predators, says Lisak. In one study of university men in the Boston area, 63 percent of 120 identified rapists had raped more than once and committed other violent crimes as well. None had been prosecuted. Another study shows that 9 out of 10 rapes are committed by people who have raped before.

“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,” writes Lisak. “While some campus rapes do fit this more benign view, the evidence points to a far more sinister reality, in which the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by serial, violent predators.”

What just happened?

Those “blurred lines” made famous in pop music are indicative of misunderstanding and mislabeling what happens when two people get physical. Many victims don’t realize they’ve been assaulted until long after the incident—partly because they are in shock that someone took advantage of them, and partly because the definition of sexual assault is often unclear.

According to the Justice Department, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities [such] as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.” But laws differ state by state. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network defines sexual assault as “unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape. This includes sexual touching and fondling.” But it warns that some states use the term interchangeably with rape.

Many victims do not understand that just because they were not forcibly penetrated does not mean they were not sexually assaulted. And any sexual assault has serious, long-term effects. Some survivors carry on, only to have their pain surface later in sexual dysfunction or fear. Others hide in their rooms, stop attending class, flunk out of school and develop posttraumatic stress disorder, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not just for soldiers.

Victims also suffer when the people they tell don’t believe them. As in the University of Virginia case, reports can come out confused and contradictory. Sometimes that’s because the brain kicks into survival mode and recollection can be muddied (see “After the Assault”).

What can we do?

Given the seriousness of what some have called an epidemic of sexual assault on our campuses, faculty and staff are eager to do the right thing, shine a light on this problem and protect their students.

There are plenty of steps that can begin to change the culture around sexual assault. For one thing, let your students know they can report a sexual assault on campus, and that policies are in place that will support them even if they choose not to file criminal charges. Then make sure the place where they report is safe and prepared, with trauma-informed staff. Let all your students know that sexual assault on your campus is unacceptable, that it happens to both men and women, and that bystanders should take every opportunity to intervene when they see it happening. Consider approaching a student who has become withdrawn or is uncharacteristically failing; perhaps he or she has suffered an assault. Offer an incomplete for the class, if that seems appropriate. Steer her toward counseling.

At the State University of New York, influenced in part by the AFT-affiliated United University Professions, which represents SUNY faculty and staff, the university has developed a Bill of Rights for victims of sexual assault. This Bill of Rights prevents victims from being pressured by university officials to engage outside law enforcement, limits the number of times a victim must tell her story, and clearly defines “affirmative consent.” There is also a clear and confidential reporting protocol in place, and a campus climate assessment to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Resources to enact similar policies are available on the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights website and on the White House’s NotAlone.gov site.

After the University of Montana faced a Justice Department investigation involving a string of sexual assault incidents, its beefed-up policy became a blueprint other schools wanted to duplicate. It includes a mandatory online student tutorial, a campus climate survey, broader awareness about the nature of sexual violence, and more-streamlined policies.

And at the University of Michigan, an uproar over how the school handled the sexual misconduct of football player Brendan Gibbons in 2009 spurred an extensive campus climate survey and revamping of sexual assault prevention strategies. The current school policy incorporates survivor input, gives faculty and administrators more responsibility in investigating allegations, and assigns two full-time investigators to study sexual misconduct cases.

In California, its “yes means yes” legislation has given “no means no” a positive spin and created a clearer way to communicate in the heat of a sexual encounter. It is the flag bearer for affirmative consent. “ ‘Affirmative consent’ means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” the law states. “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.”

“Actually, ‘yes’ is perhaps the most erotic word in the English language,” wrote Gloria Steinem and Michael Kimmel in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the California law was introduced. Indeed, it has sparked a “consent is sexy” meme. Campuses can adopt its language and lobby their state legislatures to follow suit.

On the national level, the bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act has been introduced by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and McCaskill to expand college responsibility and transparency regarding sexual assault prevention (see page 9 for details).

There are also countless advocacy organizations that can help inform faculty, staff and students, including Men Can Stop Rape, Know Your IX, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and even Consent Is So Frat. Among the more salient offerings are these messages from students on two different videos posted to cultureofrespect.org: “Your standards for sex should be higher than ‘not a felony,’ ” and “Rape and assault aren’t just one-offs; it’s not like a broken arm or a bad day. They can stay with you, in the back of your mind, forever.”

Student-to-student programs can be especially effective—like the one at the University of Maryland, where a fellow fraternity member visits frat houses for a heart-to-heart with the bros, explaining in plain language what is acceptable and what is not. These are the sort of tools that could change rape culture and activate bystanders to keep one another in check.

Whatever it takes, it is time we yanked this dark secret out into the light and addressed it once and for all.

AFT On Campus, Spring 2015 Download PDF (3.75 MB)
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