To End the Campus Rape Epidemic, Let Go of Secrecy

Sarah Seltzer

Campus rape continues to be a widespread problem exacerbated by shame, secrecy, and victim-blaming. Efforts to curb rape on campus include mandatory education programs and student-led initiatives like Men Against Rape.

Earlier this month, The Center for Public
Integrity (CPI) released a sobering, detailed series of reports–compiled over nine
months of research–on the problem of campus rape. The report, Sexual Assault on Campus: A
Frustrating Search for Justice
, included
detailed accounts of individual experiences on campuses around the country, as
well as statistics and analysis aggregating broader trends. All three parts of
the study, culled from interviews with 48 experts on the disciplinary process,
33 women who reported being raped on campus, surveys of over 150 crisis
centers, and 10 years of claims filed against universities, are well worth a
serious read.

Among the CPI’s findings: huge institutional and subtle cultural barriers
impede and discourage victims from pursuing justice, and a shroud of secrecy
makes information and figures on the incidence of rape and pursuing of rape charges murky at best. Furthermore, CPI’s
reporters found that loopholes in the federal campus crime reporting act (The
Clery Act) are being exploited by colleges, allowing them to under-report
statistics.

It’s a pyramid: more rapes are happening than are being reported, more students
are attempting to pursue justice than are able to, and more reported rapes are
going through university systems than are being announced publicly.

Some of the practices uncovered by investigative reporters Kristen Lombardi and
Kristin Jones even give evidence of skirting the law:

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Many victims
don’t report at all, and those who do come forward can encounter secret
disciplinary proceedings, closed-mouthed school administrations, and
off-the-record negotiations. At times, school policies and practices can lead
students to drop complaints, or submit to gag orders — a practice deemed
illegal.


These
findings shore up what those of us who have spent time on a college campus in
recent years, or those of us who have simply read the headlines coming from
campus after campus, already know. When I was an undergrad reporting for the
school paper, students were vigorously protesting a university rule requiring
"corroborating evidence"–that’s right, third-party evidence, the
very notion of which is absurd–before a disciplinary board would pursue rape
allegations. Students at other universities at the time were facing similar
struggles to streamline, clarify, and provide transparency when it came to
counseling and reporting. Things haven’t changed very much since then.

Adding to these institutional difficulties is the overall, unquantifiably toxic
atmosphere when it comes to identifying, acknowledging and dealing with sexual
assault. Rape prevention programs, as Latoya Peterson blogged about earlier this
year, are widely varied in terms
of approach
and efficacy.
Terms like "walk of shame" and "sexiling" are tossed around
lightly, but reveal deep discomfort at the root of the culture surrounding
"hookups" on campus, and professional scolds like Laura Sessions Step
and her ilk admonishing young women doesn’t help. As Amanda Hess pointed out so
brilliantly earlier this year, gender inequality and slut-shaming contribute to
both the high incidence of rape on
campus and the much-obsessed over, but rarer incidence of false rape accusations.

Claire Gordon, who sat on a disciplinary committee hearing at Yale, describes this climate at Double X blog:

When students
finally land on campus as newly minted adults on unfamiliar turf, they are
unsurprisingly hesitant to report a sexual assault, most likely experienced as
a freshman and, for 70 percent of victims, perpetrated by someone they know.
Muddle in a few drinks and the double standard embedded in college hook-up
culture and guilt and self-blame are the predictable results. Even in the most
unambiguous case, reporting, let alone pressing charges, would be academically
and socially disruptive, even devastating. "Victim" is an uncomfortable
label for a teen carving out her first semi-independent home.

 

One of the most disturbing things about the culture of secrecy and total lack
of transparency uncovered by the CPI last week is that such a veiled system
makes progress really hard to measure. Campus rape won’t end until we attack
rape culture at its roots, but there are ways to curb the problem, such as
innovative, mandatory education programs, transparent channels for counseling
and reporting and student-led initiatives like Men Against Rape that target
fraternities and other student groups, or Take Back the Night events which
brings the issue into the open.

Another method that some schools have embraced and more should is to separate
rape prevention programming from campus sex ed programs, thereby clearly
delineating the difference between healthy sex between consenting parties and
rape, rather than contributing to the boundary-blurring that plagues the
issue.  A feminist-minded way of doing this is promoting a model of "enthusiastic
consent"
as posited in
the book Yes Means Yes (now being used for sex ed at
Colgate University
!); the idea
that consent is more than a lack of no, but a wholehearted yes.

It’s amazing that there are many groups working on new methods of prevention,
education and counseling  to change the culture on campuses, but it feels
as though they are often working against the very grain of their parent
institutions. If the number and details, (short of identifying information) of
reported rapes is kept under wraps and women are discouraged from coming
forward, then how can we determine which of these programs are effective? How
can we determine where and when rape is most likely to take place on a given
campus? The colleges highlighted by the CPI appear more invested in preserving
their reputations and saving face then genuinely helping their students.
Hopefully the reporting by the CPI will push them to open up on this topic.

Around the web

Blame Draconian Sex Offender Laws for Underreporting of
Campus Assaults
from XX blog – Dec 7, 2009

Sexual Assault On Campus: Schools Don’t Always Offer Much
Assistance 
from Jezebel – Dec 5, 2009

Sexual Assault on Campus, Still With Us from XX blog – Dec 2, 2009

Campus sexual assault: A new report and reform effort
from Feministing – Dec 4, 2009

Colleges on campus rape: Shhh! from Salon: Broadsheet – Dec 9, 2009

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