Wishing rape on campus away won’t make it so

March 6, 2013

As a kid, I recall shutting my eyes beneath hardly pressed fingers during a very serious game of hide-and-seek and thinking, if I can’t see him, he can’t see me. Of course, I was promptly tagged and have since grown up and now know that childhood maxim doesn’t hold true in the real world.

So why did no one give college campuses the same memo when dealing with sexual assaults? Case in point: Princeton University.

More than 120 out of 809 female undergraduate students answered affirmatively to the following statement in a Princeton University survey: “A man put his penis into my vagina, or someone inserted fingers or objects without my consent.” That’s one in six.

In the same survey, 28 percent of female undergrads said they were touched in a sexual manner or had their clothing removed without consent. Another 32.2 percent reported they were either forced to receive/perform oral sex or were victims of attempted forced oral sex or non-consensual vaginal penetration.

The purpose of the university administration-circulated survey was to “establish and quantify the extent to which Princeton University students experience assault” and to help inform the school’s policy on survivor support and education services.

In other words, the rape survey was designed to not only understand, but also make the situation better at Princeton. But here’s the kicker—the survey was never published.

In fact, the survey was conducted in 2008 (yes, five years ago) and only recently came to light because it was leaked to the university newspaper, The Daily Princetonian.

Why didn’t the university publish the findings? Most likely because the statistics weren’t surprising (close to the national average). That and no one else is doing it.

“Anything about Princeton goes international, practically, and no other universities do that, so does Princeton want to be the one to say that this many of our students are sexually assaulted? I don’t think so,” Amada Sandoval, director of the Women’s Center, recently told The Daily Princetonian.

Instead, just a little sweep, sweep under the ole Information-That-Could-Tarnish-The-Ivy’s-Image Rug.

Is it just me or is there some crazy déjà vu going on?

Remember Landen Gambill, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sophomore who made national headlines last week after being threatened with possible expulsion for “intimidating” her alleged rapist?


UNC student Landen Gambill could be kicked out of school for “intimidating” her alleged rapist. (Photo credit: www.newsobserver.com)

It all started last spring, when Gambill reported being raped by her ex-boyfriend to UNC’s Honor Court. According to Gambill, the court’s response was laden with victim bashing. The court questioned the truth of Gambill’s story because the sophomore didn’t immediately leave her then-boyfriend and because she was clinically depressed and attempted suicide (which Gambill says was directly tied to her abusive relationship).

(Hmm. Does this remind anyone else of the Lizzy Seeberg case at Notre Dame—she couldn’t possibly be telling the truth, because she suffered from depression?)

After UNC’s Honor Court dismissed the case, Gambill went public with her story. Last month she joined two other students, a former student and Melinda Manning, UNC’s former assistant dean of students, in filing a federal complaint, alleging university administrators strong-armed Manning into underreporting sexual assault cases on campus and violated a slew of federal mandates demanding transparency and protecting students.

Hence the charge that Gambill has violated the university’s honor code by creating a disruptive, intimidating environment for her alleged attacker, whom she actually never has named. The man’s lawyer came forward this week, saying Gambill has shoved his client into the public eye and made life on campus for him very difficult.

Last week, the former University of Montana quarterback who allegedly raped a female student during a date was found not guilty. The he said-she said case came on the heels of  the federal government’s investigation of allegations that the university had failed to protect students reporting sexual assaults and harassment. Last year, former University of Montana running back Beau Donaldson pleaded guilty to raping a woman back in 2010. In January he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, with 20 suspended.

And these are just a few of the most recent and publicized cases.

We know rape is a problem on college campuses (well, except for Bob Beckel). One in four college women will be victims of rape or attempted rape before they graduate, the Department of Justice reported in 2010. And colleges with 6,000+ students? They “average one rape per day during the school year.”

With the way schools are known to handle cases of sexual assault (and the not-exactly-survivor-friendly conversation in the media and politics), are we really surprised that fewer than five percent of such cases on campus are reported to law enforcement?

As someone currently applying to graduate schools, I would not have been turned off by Princeton’s rape survey findings. Devising, sharing and using that information to inform policy would demonstrate to me a school that cares more about protecting its students than its image. And that would have been refreshing.

Here’s the silver lining in all this: students are speaking out, and pretty soon, schools won’t have a choice. This Thursday, President Obama will sign the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which recently passed Congress. Included in that piece of legislation is the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE), which will mandate that schools, in addition to providing awareness programs and support services for survivors, include reports of dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in their annual crime statistics.

We’re not demanding rape-free campuses over night (though that’d be nice). But pretending sexual assault doesn’t exist will not make it go away. Putting a stop to rape and the culture that allows it to continue begins with opening our eyes.

Aly Neel is a multimedia platform journalist who most recently was based in Istanbul, Turkey, where she reported on gender-based violence and discrimination. She currently is pursuing her master in public affairs at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter @AlysonNeel.
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