In 1992, a boy I knew sexually assaulted me. We were undergraduates at Wesleyan University. He was on 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. 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. Time off from my job. A community of survivors.
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.” These bodies are charged with handling 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 about their sexual histories. 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 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. I began to 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 dozens of times every day. And schools are no better equipped (or inclined) to dispense justice than 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 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. They almost always graduate on time, while their victims 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 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.
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. 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 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.
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 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. 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.
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. They can create judicial boards equipped to seriously investigate rape accusations. They can permanently expel those found guilty of sexual assault.
Stopping rape on campus 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 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.” email@example.com