How to Encourage More College Sexual Assault Victims to Speak Up

When a victim reports her assault, she hands over the reins to university administrators. She has no idea what will happen to the guy who, in more than half of all college cases, is her close friend or boyfriend. That can be scary - especially at a school where the recommended punishment is expulsion.

But the other side of the spectrum can be scary, too. On August 1, Yale published a report summarizing how the university had handled campus cases of sexual misconduct in the past six months. The report revealed that, of the six students found guilty of sexual misconduct (which the university defines as a range of behaviors including rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or any other type of non-consensual sexual conduct) since January 1, 2013, only one was suspended. Four received a "written reprimand" - a letter from the administration clarifying that Yale does not tolerate sexual misconduct - but taking no tangible disciplinary action. After the report was published, feminist critics, activists, and Yale students were outraged. And it's easy to see why: a written reprimand hardly seems like an adequate punishment. *

Although policies differ widely at every university, at Yale, students can report their assault to Yale's University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, or to the New Haven police. If they choose to report to the police, the school is usually not involved in the case in any way. This works the other way, too: if a victim reports to Yale, the case will hardly ever get to the police.

If a victim chooses to report her sexual assault to the Committee at Yale, a Dean will give her two options: write up an informal report of what happened, or file a formal complaint. While the Yale Title IX Coordinator told me that students are in no way discouraged from pursuing formal complaints, several sexual assault survivors at Yale said that they felt pressured by Yale to choose the informal option, after which the perpetrator can receive no formal discipline - only a written reprimand.

"When I reported my sexual assault at Yale, the chair of the Committee didn't outright discourage me from filing the formal complaint, but he was definitely pushing me towards me informal option. He kept reminding me how long the formal complaint process would be. He told me over and over that the informal complaint was the fast and easy way to do it. He said, 'just write up a report and within a few weeks everything will be wrapped up and put away,'" said a sexual assault victim at Yale.  

Both extremes--expulsion and written reprimand--in their own ways can deter students from coming forward, either because victims are afraid of inflicting a harsh punishment that will isolate them socially, or because they don't feel that the university will take their case seriously.

So what do we do? Right now, that question is being carefully considered by universities across the country. In the past year alone, Duke, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Southern Methodist University, Montana University, Swarthmore College, and others, have been working to revise their sexual assault policies. But will they actually be able to strike a balance between granting fair punishments for perpetrators, and making victims feel comfortable enough to come forward?

Know Your IX's Alexandra Brodsky has been trying to find an answer to this question ever since she was sexually assaulted in her freshman year of college. I spoke with Alexandra at length earlier this month. Here's a summary of what she suggests:

The recommended sanction for sexual assault should be expulsion, like it is at Duke. But (and this is a big "but") before the university assigns any punishment, administrators should check with the victim. They should say, "We would like to expel this student, is that okay with you?" And the answer to that question should hold real weight. At Duke, once the victim makes a formal report to the administration, the case is out of her hands. She has no say whatsoever in the kind of punishment that the perpetrator receives.

This kind of procedure has precedent in the U.S. legal system. In New Jersey, for example, the state statute mandates that victims be given the opportunity to consult with the state regarding the plea. While the victim's preference is not the deciding factor, it is considered when the prosecutor is choosing what plea agreement or punishment is most appropriate.

In addition to asking the victim for her input, and actually taking that input seriously, the administration needs to widely publicize the fact that it considers a victim's wishes. A survivor needs to know that, if she decides to come forward, her voice will be an important factor in the disciplinary decision.

That said, it's important to publicly adopt expulsion as the default punishment. Brodsky concluded by saying that, in her experience, a lot of victims who do choose to report do so because they don't want to see their assailant around campus. One of the women I talked to exceeded the number of absences allowed in her Spanish course because, on her way to class, she had to walk past her perpetrator's dorm. She would see him, have post-traumatic stress, and run back to her room. Because he was on campus, everything was a trigger. It got so bad that, walking around school, she would regularly see large white football players who weren't him and feel anxious and flustered.

It's no surprise that colleges have had so much trouble deciding how to deal with cases of sexual assault. It's complicated and can quickly become a long, drawn-out fight of  "he said, she said." However, going forward, colleges need to remember that 95 percent of college victims never report their sexual assaults. They keep the experience to themselves and try to forget about it. But all the victims I talked to agreed: that doesn't work. If you don't talk about an assault, it continues to follow you.

It's easy for colleges to forget about these silent women because they're not making any noise. They're not reporting to the media or filing Title IX complaints. But they're there. For them, colleges should shape their policies around this question: What can we do to empower a victim to come forward and speak out about her sexual assault?

* This post has been updated to include Yale's definition of "sexual misconduct."

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Caroline Kitchener is a writer based in Princeton, New Jersey.

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