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The difficult fight against sexual assault on campus

UvA protest Bob Micai:Flicr

University is supposed to be a place where young, bright people come together to study, have fun, and altogether spend the best years of their life. Actually, a recent U.S. study finds that one in five female undergrad students is sexually assaulted during her time at college or university. Students and authorities alike are taking action to end sexual violence in the United States as well as in Europe.

These efforts are not always welcomed. It took a group of Harvard Law professors a few months to react to their university’s introduction of the “yes means yes” policy, but when they finally did, it was with full force. The “yes means yes” policy or affirmative consent requires all parties of a sexual act to clearly state their approval, an evolution from the “no means no” version which required proof of the victim’s clearly stating “no” to the aggressor to indicate sexual assault. However, in the eyes of the 28 professors who signed the petition it was “overwhelmingly stacked against the accused” and therefore “pretty shocking”, as Professor Janet Halley stated in an interview with NPR. Causing perplexity both among their students and national media, they declared that they would fight the policy until it was taken down again.

Sexual assault on campus has recently seen a boost in media attention all over the U.S., but as the reaction of the Harvard professors indicated, the problem is inveterate and its roots are not easily extracted. It is the institutions themselves that make sexual assault possible – and more often than not let the perpetrators go unpunished. According to the law, students have had the right to education free from sexual discrimination and harassment since 1972, when the Title IX Act was introduced. Only now is the topic truly getting attention, with students demanding their campus authorities to guarantee their rights.

Take Emma Sulkowicz for example, the art student who started carrying a mattress with her last August wherever she went on campus and is continuing to do so until the person who allegedly raped her is expelled. When her project caught national attention, it started a chain reaction of women’s accounts of sexual assault and rape on various American campuses. In September, the topic had already made it to the top of the political agenda, when President Obama announced his campaign “It’s on Us”, trying to highlight everybody’s personal responsibility to end sexual violence. A startling study recently published by the M.I.T. confirmed that general statistics about sexual violence are probably true for elite universities: One in five female participants had experienced sexual assault on campus, ranging from touching to penetration to gang rape, “involving use of force, physical threat or incapacitation,” as the survey defines sexual assault.

Dana is one of these women. Now a graduate and advocate for Title IX rights, the 23-year-old stopped attending Amherst College in 2011 – one of the top ranking liberal arts colleges in the U.S. – after she had been sexually assaulted. The details of Dana’s story will be spared, as enough horrifying stories populate the web – a Google search for “personal rape story” spits out 330 million results in 0.25 seconds. Dana’s personal experience with sexual violence on campus includes the words rape and stalking, but also, and more importantly to her nowadays, institutional betrayal: “When I went to report the violence to my Dean, he urged me to take time off from school, go home, and wait for my rapist to graduate. Unaware that I had a legal right to stay on campus and continue receiving an education, I did end up taking time off,” she said.

It is these kind of cases that her group “Know your IX” tries to prevent from happening ever again. In Dana’s case, it was only after she learned her Title IX rights that she was able to take action and return to school feeling safe: “We want to educate students about their Title IX rights to an education free from violence and harassment. Only in this way can they stand up for themselves and fight institutional mistreatment,” she explained. Dana’s achievements since she founded “Know Your IX” are impressive. A list of the 76 colleges under investigation for the alleged violation of Title IX was released in August: “This is due to the pressure we have put on federal government,” she said.

No matter how high the current efforts and promises, the story of a recently published article by Rolling Stone highlights not only how firmly rooted institutional betrayal might be in the U.S. university system, but also showcases one of the reasons why only 5-15 per cent of all sexual assaults are reported. The article tells the story of Jackie, a girl who was brutally gang-raped at a party on the school grounds shortly after she had started her freshman year at University of Virginia. School authorities later convinced her not to file charges against her perpetrators, although she even had proof that the rapists were serial offenders. This nearly caused her to commit suicide. Shortly after the article was published and numerous other women had spoken up about her own rape experiences at U-VA, the school’s authorities finally promised to take action and officially apologised. However, three days later a Washington Post investigation titled “Key elements of Rolling Stone’s U-Va. gang-rape in doubt” found inconsistencies in Jackie’s story. Rolling Stone then released a statement reading: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” This not only tries to excuse the publication and the author of the story, Sabrina Rubin Elderly, for their lack of fact-checking, but it also deranges the discussion on how to best offer support to survivors to a more common theme, the reason why most victims of sexual assault stay quiet: doubts over their accounts’ truthfulness.

Over in Europe, the situation is also at an early stage of intervention. Siobhan Fenton specialised on gender and sexuality in her work as a journalist and said the stories from the U.S. ring a bell: “On campuses around the UK students are only slowly beginning to become more aware of the endemic issue of rape and sexual assault,” she said. Whilst it is encouraging to see campaigns, pressure groups and other signs of activism from students, the issue is so huge and complex that it shows no signs of abating, she followed up. Just about two months ago, the National Union of Students (NUS) released data suggesting that nearly 40 per cent of the female and 12 per cent of the male students have experienced unwelcome sexual advances at universities in the UK. Similar to Jackie’s case in the U.S., a girl under the pseudonym of Maria Marcello made shocking revelations of the institutional mistreatment suffered after being sexually assaulted while attending Oxford University.

Although cases like Dana’s, Jackie’s and Maria’s cannot be generalised, they show how neatly the problem of sexual assault on campus is woven into the structure of universities. Institutional betrayal or mistreatment is possible through the very unique system of campus adjudication. In the U.S., this system gives victims of sexual assault the opportunity to deal with their experiences within the boundaries of their school, turning to campus adjudication rather than the criminal justice system. While in theory this is a big plus – a traumatized victim can for one keep her or his case within a trusted and caring environment and does not necessarily have to undergo police interrogation, or the media attention that may ensue, this system requires a well-educated and equipped team to adequately respond to sexual assault’s claims. If this is not the case, as in all the examples mentioned above, the victims are not only left even more traumatized, but the topic in general is brushed under the carpet too easily.

As a consequence, in most cases perpetrators do not have to fear punishment. Worse, nine out of ten rapes are committed by serial offenders, as a 2002 study indicated. This allows a university culture that belittles sexual assault on campus and blames the victim. As the NUS survey reveals, the telling of rape and sexual assault jokes is commonplace on UK campuses, with two-thirds of the participants admitting to witnessing it in the university environment. It is this culture that has to be eradicated, before sexual assault can truly end.

Recently, Oxford and Cambridge University have introduced classes for freshman about sexual consent, and several U.S. universities have followed suit. By showing the statistics to the students, the instructors try to raise awareness for sexual assault on campus and also develop guidelines on how to judge if consent has been given. What they cannot teach, however, is what it feels like to be a victim of sexual assault. Women like Dana, Jackie and Maria call themselves survivors, because it seems to be the most accurate description of what they have been through. The term does not entail any glorification of their actions, it just is a simple truth: They are happy to have survived to be the statistical one-in-five.

by Lisa Duhm

Photo Credits: Bob Micai/Flickr, under creative commons license

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