Controversy and lack of policy towards sexual assault on campuses reflects a large misogynistic cultural issue.
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When girls enter college, they are often unprepared for the risks that college attendance brings. Most new students view college as a new area of life experience in which they will learn and take part in the college adventure that not all people can take advantage of in life. While this is the thinking for many girls, sadly they are also increasing their risk of being sexually assaulted simply by taking part in the college experience. According to research provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a study of 5,000 women revealed that 20 percent admitted to having engaged in sexual acts against their will. While these statistics are compelling, they are also controversial because many schools argue that the defining of sexual assault and the lack of consistent reporting blurs the facts in these cases. The controversy and lack of policy towards sexual assault on campuses reflects a large cultural and social issue in which male misogynistic thinking continues to limit the education and life chances for women.
Sexual Assault and Misogynistic Culture
Analysis of sexual assault on college campuses must always begin with the defining of sexual assault. The reason that this concept must always be defined is due to the fact that opposition often attempts to diminish the severity of sexual assault by redefining the act. For example, sexual assault is often argued by colleges as being “he said she said” or “jealous/slighted women”. The redefining of these issues in this way allows colleges and universities to ignore the problem or diminish the severity of it such that it does not tarnish the reputation of the school or harm the school’s goals.
Despite the redefining of the terminology, sexual assault has a clear definition that is stated as “any incident that involves forced sexual contact with a person” (Paludi and Barickman, 1991). While this terminology appears to be clear and concise, opponents to the issue of sexual assaults on college campuses (namely the institutions) argue this idea by attempting to misrepresent the situations individually or define them in a completely different manner. For example, there is a pervasive problem in which serious sexual assaults are often “swept under the rug”, not handled properly, or completely dismissed by colleges. This problem was highlighted in the documentary “The Hunting Ground” which highlighted a number of stories where rapists were allowed to continue going to school, were never charged, given light reprimands by the university, and in many cases never faced criminal prosecution (Ziering, 2015). Despite the fact that the victims did what they were supposed to do- reporting the incidents, these incidents still occurred. The reason for these outcomes is primarily due to the misogynistic culture of colleges. So entrenched is this prejudice against women that what is normally called rape or assault is not handled by police but is instead handled by campus security. In a Senate panel on sexual assault, Senator Chuck Grassley questioned why college campus rape is not handled by law enforcement rather then campus security (NPR, 2014). This is the standard throughout the country in which rape outside of the college or institution is handled by law enforcement but when students claim rape or assault these situations are dealt with by the school. There is no credible reason that this treatment of sexual assault occurs in this manner since schools are not substitutes for law enforcement. The reason this does occur because colleges have a vested interest in maintaining control over these situations in order to reduce the bad PR that naturally occurs (NPR, 2014). However, this level of corrupt thinking can only occur when a culture of an institution is aligned in these values. This culture extends past the college as many people oppose the concept that colleges promote this culture of sexual assault.
Despite the fact that there are compelling statistics presented by institutions such as the CDC and other researchers, the question of college assault is often downplayed and written off as an overreaction. Author Emily Yoffe of Sate Magazine wrote concerning the documentary “The Hunting Ground”:
Unfortunately, The Hunting Ground is not that movie. It is a polemic that — as its title suggests — portrays young women as prey, frequently assaulted and frequently ignored by their universities and law enforcement when they try to bring charges. The movie, from director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, features numerous interviews with women who describe horrific experiences, and their testimony has raw, emotional power. But good policy about the lives of young people — female and male — needs to be based on prudent assessment. The film traffics in alarmist statistics and terrifying assertions but fails to acknowledge both the recent changes in the way the government and universities approach sexual assault charges and the critiques that those changes go too far. By refusing to engage the current conversation about this issue, the film does its subjects — and us all — a disservice (Yoffe, 2015).
Despite the evidence presented in the documentary, (which is the same statistics found by the CDC, Yoffe, refers to 20% of women being assaulted on college campuses as a “moral panic” that charges people with emotionalism and makes rational discourse impossible (Yoffe, 2015). This charge is a perfect example of how culture of misogyny allows for individuals to dismiss the facts and dilute the severity of the issue with claims of emotionalism. This type of thinking stems directly out of the misogynistic culture that prevails on college campuses.
There are a number of causes that are cited for the rampant sexual assaults that occur on college campuses. The largest of these causes is drinking which is a major risk factor for sexual assault. The problem with alcohol is that it complicates reporting and identification of sexual assault. When women are drunk, they are less likely to report a sexual assault. When participants in a National Institute of Justice survey were asked if they experience unwanted sexual contact when they were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol:
…the incapacitated group, 50 percent said they did not report the incident because they felt partially or fully responsible for what happened, 29 percent said they did not report the incident to the police because they did not want anyone to know, and 31 percent said they did not remember or know what really happened. Survey participants could offer more than one reason (NIJ, 2008).
While alcohol is a major contributing factor it cannot be viewed as the sole cause of the high rates of sexual assaults on college campuses. When compared with the national average there is compelling evidence to suggest that college campus sexual assault is the result of misogynistic culture that promotes violence and abuse of women. The prevalence of sexual assault in the US has diminished dramatically. Since 1993, sexual assault and rape has diminished 63% (RAINN, 2017). The reason for this dramatic decrease in sexual assault and rape is attributed to better investigation and subsequent prosecution of rape offenders. In contrast, to this drop in prevalence in society, college rape and assault grew by 49% between 2008 and 2012 alone (Shapiro, 2014). The problem with these numbers is that they are likely considerably inaccurate considering the fact that the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that as high 80% of rape and assaults on college campuses are not reported (Sinozich & Langton, 2014). This is a primary argument of opponents to the pervasive problem of college sexual assault in which they argue that the crime reporting does not match the reporting in surveys take of college students (Yoffe, 2015). It is true that the reported number of sexual assaults is much lower than survey results of students but this is likely due to the fact that a large number of the crimes go unreported. It is interesting that large numbers of crimes such as theft and domestic violence go unreported but this does not make these crimes controversial. This is evidence of the misogynistic culture surrounding colleges in which any argument presented showing the schools in a negative manner become open for debate despite the preponderance of evidence supporting the claims.
The Culture of Indifference
Most college sexual assaults take place at or after parties that are held on campuses by fraternal organizations. The fraternity is a centerpiece of college life which has become deeply embedded into the university policymaking and in its control. Alumni of fraternities are some of the largest donors to these institutions as well as becoming the future teachers of the institutions. Fraternities have their misogynistic culture traced back to the 1850s when these organizations began exerting control in education institutions. Since the 1950s research there has been documentation of the problem of hazing and assault in fraternities. In many ways fraternities are built on a culture of male domination and superiority which if documented by Armstrong and Hamilton (2015), who describe fraternities and sororities as a classist system and culture in which affluent students are allowed to network through colleges while less affluent students are reduced poor outcomes and crushing loan debt (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2015). This culture is not isolated to finances as these same systems reinforce systems of male domination and sexual assault through coercion, practices, and covering up crimes.
…a Georgia Tech fraternity member’s e-mail surfaced in 2013, instructing brothers about “luring your rapebait” by weakening a girl’s defenses with alcohol, Oklahoma State University professor of higher education and student affairs John Foubert observed, “The ‘rapebait’ e-mail could have been sent from almost any fraternity at almost any American college.” Foubert’s 2007 study found that fraternity brothers are three times more likely to commit rape than non-Greek students. His research team reasoned that the fraternity experience caused students to be more likely to commit sexual assault (Robbins, 2005).
The connection between fraternities and sexual assault has been well-documented but yet schools have continued to practice turning a blind eye or trying to cover up the issue. The problem is not just isolated to fraternities as colleges have vested interest in other students that promote a culture of indifference.
Researcher Laura Finley has researched the problem of college crimes with a focus on rape and sexual assaults and found that college athletes were responsible for one third of all sexual assaults committed on university campuses (Finley, 2013). Less than 1 in 10 sexual assaults by athletes were prosecuted or dealt with outside of the university (Finley, 2013). The claims by victims were not taken seriously, or they are dismissed as being the fault of the woman (Finley, 2013). The connection with fraternities is not a stretch as the majority of college athletes belong to fraternities (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2015). When one looks at these numbers it is obvious that there is a cultural issue taking place in which the most entitled students are part of system that takes advantage of women and is not held accountable. This system is reinforced by the fact that college sports and fraternities are the two largest revenue sources for universities. Combine this situation with the fact that more than 80% of leadership positions on college campuses are held by fraternity or sorority members the problem becomes clear (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2015). These leads to a larger issue in which the systems and polices of higher education are grossly ineffective at curbing the problem of rape and sexual assault.
Ineffective Reporting and Disciplinary Systems
The culture of colleges and universities condones sexual assault or at least turns a blind eye to it. This is evident in the manner in which colleges deal with the problem through policies and practices. The first issue is that campus police (who are not detectives or public law enforcement) are the first line of reporting for campus crimes. How this system has evolved in this way is almost absurd as any other major crime would be investigated by police and not campus security. Women are encouraged to report sexual assaults to the campus authorities and are led to believe that these crimes will be investigated. In the documentary, “The Hunting Ground” the practices of schools telling women things like “are you sure you were raped?” or “this is long process and there is little proof” provide the evidence that schools are not focused on achieving justice (Ziering, 2015). In many instances, victims were never referred to police until days or weeks after the rapes which almost completely eliminates the ability to collect forensic evidence (Ziering, 2015). It would be one thing if these practices were isolated to one school but they were found to be in many cases at different schools across the nation (Ziering, 2015) (Finley, 2013).
When cases were adjudicated (by schools) the perpetrators were often given light sentences such as being suspended for a semester, or expelled after they graduated (Ziering, 2015). It has only been since 2013 that the trend has started to change with many schools taking action with reporting. This change was most likely instigated by the fact that the Campus Save Act was enacted in 2013 which is a law that mandates better investigation and education of sexual assault on campuses (Govtrack, 2013). As of October 1, 2013, most US colleges must outline comprehensive plans for reducing rape and sexual assault but more importantly they must reflect in their planning how they will deal with incidents such as providing confidentiality and what will be reported and to which authorities (Govtrack, 2013). Despite this measure, most colleges appear to be unaffected by the law and continue to operate the same. In 2015, 90% of all US colleges reported zero rapes despite the fact that statistics contradict this reporting.
Lack of Resources
Part of the issue with dealing with sexual assault and rape on college campuses is the fact that the victims often turn to the wrong people for help. Going directly to school security may appear to be the immediate solution but a more effective solution would be to go to the police. The nature of sexual assault and rape (especially on college campuses) is that it is often the result of date rape or party situations which can be a leading factor in causing victims to hesitate in the reporting process (Sinozich & Langton, 2014). One solution to this problem is the rape crisis center. Rape crisis centers are available on many college campuses and provide a safe place for victims to discuss their situation and make decisions concerning reporting. However, these centers are few and are typically understaffed and supported mostly by student volunteers. Centers have few resources to help individuals such as ability to advocate for the victim. In one instance, student advocate groups were denied access to rape victims and their reporting data by the college. There are few resources available to students for reporting college rape and they are often under the pressure of the closed social structure of the institution which reinforces ideas that the rape was ‘not serious’ or ‘that it was not rape if you placed yourself in the situation’ (NIJ, 2008). Without an effective system within the university structure there is no value or importance placed on the reporting of these crimes. As a result of this lack of resources, the culture of sexual assault and rape is allowed to exist unchallenged.
The consequences of sexual assault are often described in terms of perpetrators given light sentences if they are even brought to court while victims typically suffer tremendous disruption to their lives both in social and education areas. There are a number of short term and long term effects that create extremely negative outcomes for victims. Short term effects on victims include: the initial fear of losing life, and the trauma that follows in the weeks, and months following the attack, or ordeal (Rathus, 2005). Long term issues for victims include: trouble sleeping, problems eating, headaches, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, depression; menstrual irregularity, and urinary bladder inflammation (cystitis) (Rathus, 2005). She might also begin to become, sullen, mistrustful of others, and begin to withdraw from society (Rathus, 2005). These effects can be debilitating and can cause the loss of life opportunities for many victims. Most victims end up leaving school and not finishing their programs of study as well as having the long-term impacts of assault.
Sexual assault on college campuses represents an ongoing problem in which women are devalued and not seen as equals in college life. This is evident from the lack of disciplinary systems and lack of resolve from universities to change the culture and practices that are currently reinforcing these behaviors. This system will likely continue to exert negative impact on college students until the problem is addressed from the university standpoint. There are a number of areas of thought that are highlighted in this situation such as the fraternity system. The question that arises from this research is the value of fraternities since the seem to cut against the grain of the purpose of higher education by promoting a culture of exclusiveness and promotion of sexual assault and rape. When dealing with the problem of sexual assault it will be necessary to study the fraternity system in order to determine its value.
Another area of thought that is to be considered is the place of college athletes within the collegiate system. The idolization of these individuals and their special treatment within universities along with their high rates of sexual assaults, brings this group into question as well. One must question the values of promoting systems that exclude the vast majority of students and reinforce the idea of using people as sexual objects.
A final thought that should be considered is the value of the university system itself. What is the value in a system that promotes systems that are exclusionary and damaging to students by not protecting them from sexual assault and rape? One must question the true intent of these institutions as they seem to be doing exactly the opposite of what they are intended. Ultimately, students go to college to learn and develop their knowledge and critical thinking skills in order to become effective leaders and managers. When institutions place value on protecting fraternities and athletes over their primary purpose, then one must question the intentions of these institutions and their value.
Sexual Assault Facts
- According to research provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a study of 5,000 women revealed that 20 percent admitted to having engaged in sexual acts against their will. Three percent of men in a similar study also disclosed similar details, and with sexual assault taking place on college campuses.
- Drinking is a major risk factor for sexual assault
- The culture of indifference causes assaults to not be taken seriously or they are dismissed as being the fault of the woman.
- Ineffective reporting and disciplinary systems.
- College culture is often dominated by male oriented activities such as sports.
- Fraternities are often protected due to their links with alumni.
- Athletes are protected as they are heavy investments for the schools.
- Rape crisis centers are available on many college campuses but are typically understaffed.
- Centers have few resources to help individuals such as ability to advocate for the victim.
- Crisis centers are often have mostly volunteers who work and little power beyond helping the victim from and emotional standpoint.
- Perpetrators are often given light sentences if they are even brought to court.
- Short term effects on victims include: the initial fear of losing life, and the trauma that follows in the weeks, and months following the attack, or ordeal.
- Many long term emotional and physical issues for victims.
- An ongoing problem.
Armstrong, l. A., & Hamilton, L. T. (2015). Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Cambridge , MA: Harvard University Press.
Finley, l. (2013, September 16). Sexual Assault: Among College Athletes Favorite Crimes. City Watch(32), p. 23b.
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Sinozich, S., & Langton, L. (2014, December 11). Rape And Sexual Assault Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Yoffe, E. (2015, February 27). The Hunting Ground. Retrieved from Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2015/02/the_hunting_ground_a_campus_rape_documentary_that_fails_to_provide_a_full.html
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Vincent Triola. Fri, Jan 15, 2021. Sexual Assault Across College Campuses Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/sexual-assault-across-college-campuses