How to Encourage More College Sexual Assault Victims to Speak Up

Schools should promise strong punishments for assailants and offer victims a voice in the process.
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In May, Duke University announced plans to adopt one of the most extreme college sexual assault policies in history, changing the recommended sanction for perpetrators from suspension to expulsion. That means that whenever a student is found guilty of committing a sexual assault, expulsion is the first punishment the Duke disciplinary committee will consider.

In 2011, the Department of Education issued a "Dear Colleague Letter" to administrators across the United States specifying that, under Title IX, schools are required to protect students from sexual harassment and assault. This letter was in large part a reaction to a jarring statistic from a 2007 National Institute of Justice survey: One in five women are victims of completed or attempted sexual assault in college. The Dear Colleague Letter warned schools to take the issue seriously: "If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects."

This past Wednesday, a legislative committee in California voted unanimously to investigate the sexual assault policies of four universities. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Anthony Rendon, a member of the state assembly who requested the California audit, said, "These incidents are terrible and shouldn't be tolerated, but the reaction, or lack of reaction on behalf of campus officials, was just something that was just as reprehensible." Student victims, newly empowered to assert their rights, have started speaking out in larger numbers, attracting more media attention than ever before. Last year, an unprecedented number of victims from 29 schools filed Title IX complaints, claiming that their university failed to properly address cases of sexual assault. By and large, these students are asking their schools to adopt the same kind of stringent policy that Duke announced this year.

But here's the problem: those outspoken victims represent just five percent of students who experience sexual assault at college. 95 percent of college victims never report what happened to them. And while a policy like Duke's might spell out justice for the vocal minority, it is also likely to keep the majority silent.

This seems counter-intuitive: Shouldn't mandating harsher punishments for perpetrators make a victim feel more supported? Wouldn't that support make her more likely to come forward? Maybe in some cases. But not on a college campus, where 9 out of 10 victims know their assailant.

At college, a rapist is hardly ever a stranger. He's that guy in your 12-person English seminar, or the Vice-President of the fraternity you party with. Almost a third are a "close friend" of the victim. 41 percent of the time, the perpetrator is the victim's boyfriend.

These relationships make it difficult for students to talk about what happened to them. Often, the victim does not report the assault because she's either afraid of ruining the guy's life, or of the stigma and social isolation she will feel if she does.

This is where policies like Duke's get tricky. Duke widely publicized its decision to change its recommended sanction from suspension to expulsion. But at college, where perpetrators are so closely connected to victims, and where the perpetrator's punishment can have such extreme implications on the victim's own college life, that change can actually discourage students from reporting an assault.

"A victim will think, 'I've been with this guy for two years. I don't want him to be expelled,'" said Alexandra Brodsky, a 2012 Yale graduate and Founder of Know Your IX, an organization devoted to educating college women about their Title IX rights, particularly their right to an education free from sexual violence and harassment. "If a mandatory expulsion policy is going to deter someone from reporting, that's a big problem."

I talked to ten women from colleges across the United States who experienced sexual assault in college but didn't report it. When I asked them why they chose not to speak up, they answered in a lot of different ways, but there was one response I heard from almost everyone: I was scared of how his punishment would affect me.

***

In the third week of her freshman year, a junior at St. Lawrence University - let's call her Stephanie - met a guy through a mutual friend. This guy - let's call him Chris - invited Stephanie over to watch a movie. They talked, and Stephanie trusted him. One of her best friends had been close with Chris in high school, and a few of her girlfriends had met him, too. They all said the same thing: "He's a really nice guy."

The next Friday night, Stephanie went out drinking. After the pre-game, things got a little blurry. The next thing she remembers clearly is waking up in her bed, naked, lying next to Chris. He told her she'd been begging him to have sex with her. Stephanie doesn't remember that.

A few days later, Chris did the "nice guy" thing to do. He wrote Stephanie a letter, apologizing for having sexual relations with her when she wasn't responsive. He said that he didn't realize how drunk she was.

Stephanie didn't consider reporting the incident to any kind of university authority.

"It was October - I was a freshman, trying to fit in and make friends," she said. "If a guy is well-regarded on campus and generally considered a 'good guy,' you get worried that no one is going to believe you. I didn't want to isolate myself by telling people what he did and getting him in trouble."

***

The victims I talked to were afraid of how reporting a sexual assault would affect them socially at college. They had already been through intense trauma, and didn't want to do anything that might cause them more pain.  I heard this hypothetical again and again: If a victim reports and the perpetrator ends up expelled - or even just suspended - that victim risks facing social stigma from a community that doesn't want to believe her.

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Caroline Kitchener is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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