Stop blaming victims for sexual assaults on campus

Petula Dvorak
Columnist February 24

There are no “toga and yoga” keggers. No football team. No lacrosse team. No jello shots, jungle juice, boilermaker binges or beer pong. And certainly no bongs.

The most dangerous substance around evangelical Patrick Henry College is the Sweet Frog frozen yogurt place across the street from the Loudoun County campus in Purcellville.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Yet, the thing that so many experts say is the tragic result of the unbridled, reckless indulgence of parties and booze — sexual assault — still happens on tightly controlled, super-conservative, dry-as-a-bone campuses.

A New Republic year-long investigation into the way the college known as “God’s Harvard” handled its sexual assault cases tells us that you don’t need John Belushi and togas to get “Animal House” behavior from college students.

It’s a perfect test case into the root causes of sexual assault on campus and the way universities handle it, which President Obama addressed with parental ferocity last month.

“It is estimated that one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there. One in five,” Obama said in a speech Jan. 22. “These young women worked so hard just to get into college; often their parents are doing everything they can to help them pay for it. So when they finally make it there only to be assaulted, that is not just a nightmare for them and their families, it’s an affront to everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve. It’s totally unacceptable.”

In response, Obama created a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. A White House report also concluded that because many attacks occur at parties, victims are often “abused while they’re drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out or otherwise incapacitated.”

And some recent stories back that up:

●At the U.S. Naval Academy, a female midshipman reluctantly accused three classmates of assaulting her, although she testified that she couldn’t remember much about the incident because she’d had so much to drink at an off-campus “toga and yoga” party.

●At the University of Missouri, a swimmer, allegedly raped by one or more football players, committed suicide 16 months later.

●At the University of Notre Dame , a 19-year-old freshman at a neighboring college committed suicide after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexually assaulting her.

●At Vanderbilt University, four football players arrested and accused of raping a student in her dorm room.

Or, if you’d prefer, look at some survivor Web sites, or the comments section of just about every single article or column ever written about campus sexual assault, and you can read scores of other accounts.

Yes, alcohol is often a factor. But listen to Vice President Biden on that one.

“No matter what she’s wearing, no matter whether she’s in a bar, in a dormitory, in the back seat of a car, on a street, drunk or sober — no man has a right to go beyond the word no. And if she can’t consent, it also means no.”

Yes, it is a good idea not to binge drink. But pointing to binge drinking when talking about sexual assault is like talking about parking after a series of car break-ins instead of calling the police and finding the bad guy. That’s called victim-blaming.

So let’s take all that social lube away — the testosterone-fueled sports teams, the drunken parties, the fraternities. What do you have?

At Patrick Henry, two women spoke to reporter Kiera Feldman about what happened when they were sexually assaulted by fellow students. In most of the cases Feldman examined, there was no alcohol involved. In one incident, yes, there was mild drinking at a lake off campus.

Here’s the common thread: From Christian college to big public university to military academy, the women involved were victimized a second time in the way their cases were handled.

Sasha Menu Courey, the University of Missouri swimmer, told a nurse, a rape crisis counselor, a campus therapist, two doctors and an athletic department administrator that she was raped, but no one did anything about it. Sixteen months after the attack, she killed herself.

At a preliminary hearing known as an Article 32, the midshipman was subjected to days of hostile cross-examination by defense attorneys who asked what kind of underwear she had on and how wide she opens her mouth during oral sex.

And at Patrick Henry College, the women were questioned about what they were wearing and whether they were flirting. One victim was assigned to read a self-help book on modesty. She was told by a college official to delete the e-mails, calls and texts from a young man who apologized for an assault after she asked about calling the police. The dean asked her to trust God, instead.

Patrick Henry officials released a statement calling the New Republic report “categorically false” and saying, “We take each allegation seriously and try to conduct appropriate investigations with a spirit of emotional support while seeking truth.”

Too often at campuses across the country there is a reluctance to report a possible crime to the proper authorities. Why do university officials report a series of campus break-ins or robberies to the police, but send sexual assault cases to a counselor?

“It’s always about the concern for the young man’s reputation,” said Angela Hattery, a professor of women and gender studies at George Mason University who has done extensive research into campus sexual assaults.

And the woman’s mental and physical health? Not so important, I guess.

You can’t blame sexual assaults on clothing, flirting, binge drinking or parties. Even when you take all that away, there are still smart, clean-cut, young evangelical men who think they have a right to women’s bodies.

It’s not about women stopping an attack. It’s about men learning that they never had the right to begin one.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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