I was 18, a college freshman thrilled about living on my own.
I was also secretly petrified without my parents’ protection and rules. As part of learning how to take care of myself,
I attended a campus safety orientation for freshman women.
The goal was to empower us to avoid being victims of sexual
assault while at college. We were issued
a rape whistle on a red neck lanyard. We
were told to memorize all the blue boxes on campus; inside was a direct line to
campus police. It was strongly suggested
that we use the campus buses that lapped the school, rather than going anywhere
on foot after dark.
For four years, every night as I walked from the library to
a coffee shop, or home from a party to my dorm, I clutched my whistle, looking
for potential rapists behind every bush.
I imagined burly, muscular, hairy strangers, men 20 years older than me,
crazed sexual predators who prowled my urban campus looking for vulnerable, terrified
female college students.
I never imagined the real threat was my own male classmates.
Since my freshman year, nearly 30 classes of women have
graduated from college. Women now outnumber men in terms of all college degrees
earned. Federal laws – the 1972 Title IX
Education Amendment, the 1990 Clery Act,
and last year’s Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act – require colleges to report campus rapes, and prohibit sex-based discrimination,
including sexual violence. Through the 1994
Violence Against Women Act,
millions of dollars have been funneled into educating and reforming how our
criminal justice system treats violent crimes committed against women.
But not much has changed for female college students when it
comes to rape.
Sure, the whistles have been abandoned. And cell phones have
made those blue emergency phone boxes obsolete. Yet one in five college women is still raped, a number that is
significantly higher than the general population. Sadly, freshman are disproportionately
And colleges still are not telling the truth about the
perpetrators of college rape.
There are almost no burly, older sexual predators invading
college campus. Two-thirds of all rape
victims know their attackers. In fact, the colleges invite most of the rapists
in via official acceptance letters. A recent study found 7 percent of male
students had admitted to committing or attempting rape, and nearly two-thirds
of them said they had done so multiple times – six on average.
The evil truth is that universities are in the business of
covering up rape on campus. Colleges work hard to whitewash on-campus sexual
assault, silencing, undermining, and shaming victims who come forward, even
though it is against federal law to do so.
To promote a pristine image of safety, to protect male perpetrators, and
to reassure nervous parents footing college bills, most institutions of higher
education pressure victims not to report sexual assault publicly, and not to
notify or involve non-campus law enforcement.
Based on national numbers, 97% of attackers
never spend a day in jail; on college campuses, what this means is that sexual
assault victims continue to see their attackers, and the bystanders that make
rape possible, in their dorms, classrooms and dining halls every day.
Is that what you want for your daughter?
Take Florida State University in Tallahassee. During the 2012-2013 football season, star
athlete Jameiss Winston was leading FSU to the national championship and
winning the Heisman Trophy. At the same time, the quarterback was also the
subject of a supremely botched investigation of campus rape.
The rape accusations were covered up and the investigation
delayed by campus and local police. Winston was never punished; he is still an
FSU student. He was, however, recently suspended from the baseball team for
stealing $32.72 of shellfish from a local supermarket.
Because stealing crab legs is a crime, but drugging and
raping a classmate is not?
Instead of protecting and empowering female students,
universities teach them that rape is an inevitable part of women’s lives, and
that there is nothing they can do about it.
Or as one victim put it, “The rape itself was nothing
compared to the way my school treated me when I reported it.”
In response to growing outrage from victims, advocates, and
female politicians, a White House Task Force has been created to push colleges
to do more to combat campus rape. Early suggestions include anonymous surveys
about sexual assault cases, creating a website to track enforcement and provide
victims with advice, and penalties for colleges that do not enforce Federal
To add to the public pressure on universities, the Education
Department recently released a list of 55 colleges undergoing investigation for
federal sexual violence policy violations. Demonstrating that rape happens on
every type of college campus, the schools under investigation include large
state institutions like the University of Michigan and Penn State; religious
schools like Southern Methodist University and Catholic University;
traditionally feminist schools like Sarah Lawrence; southern schools like
Vanderbilt and Emory; schools ranging from California to Hawaii to North
Dakota. Three Ivy League schools made the list: Harvard, Princeton and
The problem is simple: campus rape is an epidemic because
although our country has clear laws that make sexual violence on campus
illegal, universities ignore the laws, and promote a culture that supports and
arguably encourages rape. Negative media scrutiny, and pressure from the White
House, is surely good. But the past forty years have shown how reluctant
colleges, and our society at large, are to publicize and prosecute rape.
So here’s the solution. Do what so many of us women do so
Talk about rape. Report it
when it happens to you. Talk to friends, teachers, parents and administrators
about the issue. Insist that your college publicizes where, when, how, by whom
rapes are committed., and what the actual punishments are.
Follow the example of Annie E. Clark, a University of North
Carolina graduate and rape victim who founded End Rape on Campus. A culture that permits rape, makes victims
feel guilty or ashamed about reporting it, and refuses to prosecute offenders, only thrives when we all stay silent and do nothing.
One of the schools NOT on the Education Department list is
Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
That is because in 2011, 275 students took their outrage about campus
sexual assault to the school’s administrators. The resulting three day sit-in forced the
school to enact stricter policies on sexual assault reporting, and made
expulsion the only possible penalty for a proven campus rapist.
Change is possible.
But with a problem as entrenched as campus rape, everyone needs to to
make sure change actually happens.