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Panelists talk about campus sexual assault — the scope of the problem, and ways to prevent it

The first panel at Wednesday’s Coffee@WaPo discussion about college sexual assault: Washington Post education reporter Emma Brown; Dana Bolger, founder of Know Your IX; Kristin McCovery, of Howard University; Katherine Bowman of the University of Alabam-Birmingham; Tracy Sefl, a board member of the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network. (Photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post)
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Do we really need more sexual assault legislation? Could reducing drinking help make a major change in the number of sexual assaults in college? Why don’t more people report rape to the police? Should colleges have the same standards of evidence as the criminal justice system?

In a wide-ranging discussion Wednesday at The Washington Post, two panels of experts and survivors answered questions, talked about findings from a new national poll, and debated how college officials, lawmakers and students can help prevent college sexual assault. Approximately 250 people came to listen and ask questions of advocates, experts who work in the field, and women who described their own unwanted sexual experiences.

The Washington Post and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation recently polled more than 1,000 people who are or recently have been enrolled in college about sexual assault, and 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men said they had been violated as a college student, whether by force or while incapacitated. Two-thirds said they had been drinking before the incident.

[Read about the Post-Kaiser poll results]

Some criticized the event for having too many liberal advocates on the panels; Post organizers said they invited several conservative lawmakers to participate, but they all declined.

When a moderator asked whether the rapidly increasing number of federal investigations on campuses nationwide is a sign that there are more cases of sexual assault in recent years, or more awareness and press coverage of them, Tracy Sefl, a board member of the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, responded that nationally, there has been an overall decrease across age groups and that there is increased awareness about the issue on college campuses.

But she said that regardless of the prevalence, any sexual assault is too much sexual assault:
“What I care about,” she said, “is it’s not zero.”

[Poll respondents tell their stories of unwanted sexual experiences.]

[Men often fear they won’t be taken seriously if they report a sexual assault.]

Two recent graduates talked about their own experiences. When a moderator asked Katherine Bowman, now a volunteer rape response advocate in Birmingham, Alabama, about the role drinking plays in some incidents, with so many students describing hazy memories of sex, and regrets about getting so drunk they wound up in unsafe places, Bowman said: “He was the problem, not the alcohol.”

Many in the audience cheered.

Sefl referred to a recent study that suggested tackling drinking could help minimize risk.

[Drinking is central to college culture, and to sexual assault.]

Dana Bolger, director of Know Your IX, said society spends “so much time and energy and money telling women not to get raped and so little time and energy and money telling men not to rape.”

The next panel talked more about policy issues, asking how to prevent problems and handle accusations of sexual assault. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) described legislation she is pushing. Mollyann Brodie, senior vice president of public opinion and survey research at Kaiser, said that poll results indicated that students give college administrators high marks at handling such cases — unless they say they were involved in an incident — and that students overwhelmingly said efforts to curb alcohol use would not make a major difference.

Several people suggested more education about the issue, before and while students are at college, could help.

Everyone should be completely clear about what constitutes rape or sexual assault, said Debbie Wilson, chair of the NCAA Sexual Assault Task Force. She made the audience laugh when talking about consent – which has become a loaded topic on many campuses – with her version of an enthusiastic response: “Mais oui! Oui, oui! Please continue!”

A conversation was unfolding on social media, as well.