By Jaclyn Friedman
Sunday, March 14, 2010; B03
In 1992, at about this time of year, a boy I knew sexually assaulted me. We were undergraduates at Wesleyan University. He was a member of a sports team, and I was one of the team's managers. Away at a tournament one night, the team decided to party in the captains' hotel room, and I decided to prove I was "one of the guys" by trying to match them drink for drink. When I failed, I stumbled back to my room and crawled into bed to pass out. That's when I discovered he'd followed me there.
In the aftermath of the assault, I found myself needing a lot of things: a few incredibly patient friends who would listen to me say the same thing over and over and react as though it was a fresh insight every time. Time off from my job as a research assistant in the psychology department. A community of survivors who gathered in the mismatched chairs of the campus women's center to try to make sense of life-altering trauma and violation.
I also needed justice. But I never considered going to the police. There had been no struggle, there was no physical evidence, and so I had no faith I'd be believed or taken seriously. Instead, I pressed charges through the on-campus judicial system.
Most American colleges have internal judicial boards, often populated by perfunctorily trained student "leaders" selected by the school's administration and acting with faculty supervision. These bodies are charged with handling cases involving the school's code of conduct: plagiarism allegations, on-campus underage-drinking charges and disputes between students. They are notoriously bad at dealing with charges of sexual violence.
I'd heard horror stories about victims being grilled in excruciating detail about their sexual histories, as if anything a woman may have done in her past made her fair game to be raped in the present. But I got lucky on that front: My assailant agreed to plead no contest to the charges if I agreed to hear him out. So I spent a dark hour and a half in a dean's office, barely breathing while the guy who'd violated me wept about his family history of alcoholism. A few days later, the dean of students called me to say that the guy had been expelled for a year (the amount of time I had left at school) but that I mustn't speak of the case -- or the punishment -- to anybody.
Grateful that I would no longer have to see my attacker around campus, I didn't think to question the sentence or the muzzle at the time. But as I began to heal, I encountered survivors of on-campus sexual violence who had been taken even less seriously than I had by the system. Gag order or no, I began to speak out about my experience and advocate for change. And then, without warning, my assailant reappeared on campus, turning my last semester into a haze of fear, hiding and post-traumatic stress.
The same thing that happened to me is still happening to young women on college campuses in this country dozens of times every day. And schools are no better equipped (or inclined) to dispense justice than they were in 1992. That's the conclusion of a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity, which found that, despite Justice Department evidence that one in five female college students will be sexually assaulted or the victim of an attempt while at school, students who say they've been raped on campus are rarely believed. Instead, advocates on these issues tell me, the women are encouraged not to file charges, asked about how high their heels were that night or forced into mediation with their assailants, as if this were some kind of unfortunate disagreement and not a profound and violent crime.
Even in cases where the accused is found "responsible," he is rarely expelled. Instead, the Center for Public Integrity found, college rapists are subjected to such punishments as writing an apology letter or taking an anger-management class. They almost always graduate on time, while their victims, retraumatized by the judicial process and constantly afraid of running into their attacker or his friends on campus, often drop out or transfer.
All of which leads to this question: If schools handle sexual assault cases so badly, why are they doing it at all? Isn't this a matter best left to the police?
Unfortunately, the police are hardly ever a better option. Even in jurisdictions with favorable laws on the books -- such as Illinois, where in 1991 the Supreme Court ruled that no corroborating evidence is needed to convict an accused rapist if the accuser is found to be credible -- police and prosecutors rarely take rape charges seriously unless there are other witnesses or the victim has physical injuries. Even DNA isn't enough, because the accused often counterclaims that the sex was consensual.
This is especially problematic in light of studies (notably ones by David Lisak at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Stephanie McWhorter at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego) suggesting that 60 to 70 percent of rapists deliberately get their victims drunk or otherwise manipulate the situation so that it's not necessary to inflict the very physical injuries that might give them away. No wonder that the Justice Department has found that at least 60 percent of rapes go unreported.
Even if our legal system handled rape cases brilliantly, schools would still have a responsibility to maintain a safe and equal learning environment for everyone -- and that means doing everything in their power to ensure that female students don't find their studies interrupted by the kinds of fear or trauma that male students rarely are forced to imagine, let alone confront. That's not just my opinion -- that's the legal standard set by Title IX, the same federal regulation that has been so successful in ensuring that girls have a fair shake at athletic opportunities. The Supreme Court held in 1992 that Title IX -- which broadly prohibits sex discrimination in education -- specifically obligates schools to prevent and remedy sexual harassment and assault.
The problem is, unlike in the sports arena, it requires nearly superhuman emotional fortitude on the part of a campus assault victim to file a Title IX case. "The seemingly insurmountable obstacle," reports Colby Bruno, managing attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center, which represents campus rape victims, "is that after the victim has been retraumatized by the campus process, that victim no longer wishes to go forward with a Title IX complaint because of the additional trauma it would cause." It's one thing to sue your school for a fair chance to play soccer; it's quite another to take it on over its inability to properly handle rape cases, while trying to heal from your own sexual assault.
And that's what colleges seem to be counting on. When it comes to sexual assault, they'll do anything to be able to claim that "it doesn't happen here" -- even if that means flouting reporting laws and creating the very environment of silence, rape apology and victim-blame that ensures that it will.
It doesn't have to be this way. University campuses could easily become labs that innovate effective ways to prevent and prosecute rape. But for that to happen, everyone -- parents, alumni, students, school officials, law enforcement -- needs to stop treating rape like it's an embarrassing cold sore and start tackling it like the public health crisis it is. Using the Justice Department's numbers, we can predict that during this school year, more than 400,000 young women will be sexually assaulted on a U.S. college campus. And according to McWhorter's research, more than 90 percent of those 400,000 rapes will be committed by repeat offenders who will rape, on average, six times during their academic careers.
That rate of recidivism is actually a golden opportunity, if only schools and courts would take it. It means that all we need to do is get serious about punishing the tiny percentage of men who are committing the vast majority of assaults, and many, many fewer women will have to live through the trauma of sexual violation.
The solutions aren't even that complicated. First, colleges can eliminate the "miscommunication" excuse that many rapists use by creating an on-campus standard that requires any party to a sexual interaction to make sure their partner is actively enthusiastic about what's happening -- not just not objecting. They can create judicial boards equipped to seriously investigate rape accusations, instead of throwing their hands up at the first sign that the accused's testimony contradicts the accuser's. They can defend the safety of the entire campus by permanently expelling those found guilty of sexual assault. And they can be transparent about every step of the process.
There is some small glimmer of hope that change is coming. Inspired by the Center for Public Integrity report, Bucknell University is considering abandoning mediation as a way of adjudicating sexual assault cases, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has a new policy requiring all sexual assault cases to be personally reviewed by the dean of students.
But while these are steps in the right direction, they are tiny ones. Stopping rape on campus is going to require a giant leap of faith. It may require a few extraordinarily strong survivors to file Title IX charges against their schools. It will require visionary campus administrators who care more about the safety of students than they do about their public image.
It will require parents, students and alumni to demand real, effective change. We will all need to recognize that, because the veil of silence must be pulled back for the real work to begin, the campuses we love may have to suddenly appear less safe if they're going to actually become safer.
Jaclyn Friedman is the editor of "Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape."