Rape on the nation’s college campuses is getting more and more attention since the establishment in January of a White House task force to protect students from sexual assault.
In his latest book, “A Call to Action,” released Tuesday, former president Jimmy Carter starts the chapter on sexual assault and rape with a story of his time as governor of Georgia. A college student from out of state was staying with him and Rosalynn in the governor’s mansion when she came home one night distraught.
She had been raped by a classmate during a date. Carter got her medical help and then tried to get justice. But the state’s attorney talked about the difficulty of prosecuting such cases. College officials were not helpful. The young woman ended up transferring to another school.
“One of the worst places in our country for sexual abuse is on college campuses,” Carter told David Letterman Monday night. “College presidents don’t want their university to get a reputation as a center for sexual abuse.”
Yet ignoring it doesn’t make the problem disappear. As many as one in five women will be assaulted during their college days, with freshmen — who make up 63 percent of the victims — at the highest risk.
Ms. magazine featured the one in five statistic on the cover of its winter/spring 2014 issue.
Now Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is turning her attention from rape in the military to rape on campus. As a former prosecuting attorney in Kansas City, McCaskill gained a reputation for being tough on sex crimes, setting up the first domestic violence unit in the region.
She told the Kansas City Star she hoped change could come on college campuses without additional legislation. She pointed to the latest use of Title IX, which is most famous for guaranteeing equal access to athletics. But Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and sexual violence as forms of discrimination. Schools run the risk of losing millions in federal funding if they fail to comply with the law.
The Jeanne Clery Act, named for a student raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dorm room in 1986, provides the numbers of reported crimes, including rape, at campuses across the country, as well as insuring victims have certain rights.
Students are becoming proactive in fighting the culture of rape on campuses, with several giving up their privacy to go public about their own experiences of sexual assault. Web sites like Amherst’s online magazine it happens here and End Rape on Campus share experiences and advice.
Bystander programs give students — including men, who may feel like their entire gender has been unfairly maligned — the opportunity to intervene when they see a situation that looks like it could lead to sexual assault. The idea is based on common sense: Get the guy away from the girl through whatever means. (Most creative listed in the New York Times article? The girl going up to a drunk friend being harassed by a guy and saying, “Here’s the tampon you wanted.”)
At the University of Virginia, the Handprint Project is one such attempt to stop sexual assaults on campus, especially among fraternities. “There’s a kind of a culture of feeling entitled to women,” Claire Kaplan, director of sexual and domestic violence services at the University Women’s Center, told the Cavalier Daily.
Schools are adopting safety measures, but I wonder about the effectiveness of some of these attempts, such as the installation of additional emergency telephones on campus, cited by an official at Missouri State University in Springfield. Yet that same official admitted most of the sexual assaults occur in off-campus dwellings.
The placement of emergency phones on campus goes back to the mistaken belief that these young women are at the highest risk for attack when they’re walking home to the dorm after a late-night study session at the library. It’s the idea that some stranger, holding a gun or knife, drags them off to a dark corner.
The most common weapon in campus rapes is alcohol. The location may be the girl’s own dorm room. And the perpetrator is not some masked stranger but the guy who sits next to her in sociology or American history.
Between 80 and 90 percent of sexual assaults on campus are by someone the victim knows. Even more disturbing, these are not generally instances of boys behaving badly when lust overtakes judgment during a one-time mistake. These are serial rapists who’ve assaulted an average of six girls each, according to research by clinical psychologist David Lisak. And they’re responsible for at least nine out of 10 campus rapes.
“These are predators,” Lisak told NPR.
Prosecuting such cases would help protect women, of course, but only 5 percent of rapes and attempted rapes are even reported to campus officials or law enforcement. In the meantime, incoming freshman need information on sexual safety included in orientation. And yes, that should include the dangers of alcohol. Getting falling-down, throwing-up drunk puts a woman at risk. She wouldn’t walk through a bad neighborhood at night alone, and she needs to take similar precautions when going out on a weekend at college.
But just because a girl decides to party doesn’t justify unwanted sex — rape, in other words.
McCaskill put it well: “No one, just because you had too much to drink, no one deserves to get criminally assaulted.”