College sexual assault isn't going away

When 1 in 4 women experience rape or attempted rape on campus, administrators can't afford to ignore the problem

Published August 4, 2013 2:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Policy Mic.

PolicyMic Most students enter their freshman year anticipating that the next four years of college will be the best of their lives. College is a time to learn, meet new people, enjoy diverse experiences, experiment, and grow as an individual. While college can encompass all of these things, many students quickly come to realize that the idealized vision of college life conceals a darker reality.

Unfortunately, rape is a very real and prevalent issue on college campuses across the nation. One in four women experience rape or attempted rape during their college careers, and over half of these women do not speak out about their victimization, according to Campus Safety magazine. Given such daunting statistics, you might be shocked by a new report issued by Yale University, regarding how it handles sexual misconduct on campus. The report refers to rape as "nonconsensual sex," and indicates that the offense is punishable not by suspension or expulsion, but by "written reprimand."

In 2011, Yale was charged with a federal Title IX investigation that resulted in a settlement between the prestigious university and the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The university was forced to "implement new grievance procedures" to ensure a safer sexual environment for students, according to Jezebel.

Yale's procedure for responding to campus rapes seems entirely inappropriate. A reproachful letter would be well suited to condemning underage drinking or unregistered parties. But a letter certainly seems like an inadequate punishment for something as serious as rape.

Students are speaking out against the "hostile sexual environment" (as the Department of Education called it) that Yale's procedures have failed to alleviate. Alexandra Brodsky, a member of the class of 2016, tweeted, ""In Sept I'm returning to a campus where, just like when I was a freshman, rape is addressed with 'written reprimands.'" Andrea Pino, a senior at the University of North Carolina, responded to Brodsky with the tweet, "my Campus has been devotedly doing the same for over 200 years. #fuckedup."

Yale is hardly the first prestigious university to make the news because of its policies regarding sexual assault. Last year, Angie Epifano, an Amherst student, published an account of her experience as a victim of sexual assault in the Amherst Student, an independent college newspaper. Amherst dissuaded Epifano from receiving help, refused to change her room, forced her to enter a psychiatric ward, and prevented her from studying abroad, while the male student who assaulted her graduated with honors.

Epifano's account elicited both horror and disgust from readers, and national attention turned to the way in which college campuses across the country deal with rape. Female students felt drawn to take up the cause, urging their colleges and universities to take a stronger stance. According to public radio show Here and Now, students at Occidental College and the University of Southern California filed Title IX complaints against their schools, which they alleged had failed in "preventing and responding to sexual assault on campus." Students from Swarthmore, the University of North Carolina, Dartmouth, Yale, and the University of California, Berkeley followed suit.

The Amherst Student article reveals the troubling reality that female victims who do speak out about rape often face harsher punishment than rapists. While the male perpetrator continued his education, the female victim's mental health and educational experience suffered. Yale's report reveals a similar, unfortunate trend. Five of the six individuals it identifies as perpetrating nonconsensual sex over the past six months, "either graduated without much stress or will be returning to campus in the fall," according to Jezebel. The sixth perpetrator faced a year of suspension.

Of course, rape is an extremely sensitive issue, and one that is incredibly difficult to handle. It is hard for universities to administer definitive punishments in he-said-she-said situations. Uncertainty about individual rape incidents is exacerbated by the fact that alcohol is often involved. Alcohol plays a part in 43% of rape cases, and one in three perpetrators of sexual assault are intoxicated at the time of the incident, according to Campus Safety.

Still, the prevalence of rape on college campuses simply cannot be ignored. Colleges must do more to ensure that they are providing the physically and mentally secure environments that they boast about.

Female students are leading the crusade. Over 168,000 students have signed a petition that asks the government to "hold colleges accountable," and step in to ensure that the Department of Education carries out federal laws.

Their pleas have not fallen on completely deaf ears. Duke University, for example, recently recognized the need for reform, and revised its guidelines for dealing with sexual assault. The new guidelines declare that permanent expulsion "will be the first option considered by a panel of the Undergraduate Conduct Board that finds a student responsible for sexual assault." Swarthmore College, too, recently announced that it is making "several changes in its approach to sexual violence and harassment on campus."

There is still far more work to be done, and reforming policies and sanctions, alone, will not solve the problem. Universities must also strengthen their alcohol and sexual awareness programs, and they must create an environment in which students have support systems, and feel comfortable enough to come forward about rape.

By Hannah Lowentheil

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College Higher Education Policymic Rape Sexual Assault Women's Rights Yale University