I've been struggling with this topic for a few days. I posted this originally at One Utah.
There's a major discussion happening right now about sexual assault on college campuses (i.e. it's made the NY Times; some other posts and articles here, here, hereand here). The basic shape of the conversation can be described fairly simply:
Rape and sexual assault are already underreported crimes. Students on college campuses are victims of rape and sexual assault on a regular basis; college campuses nationwide engage in efforts to minimize reporting of sexual assault on campus and take minimal actions against perpetrators. New regulations are shining a light on the situation.
The consensus seems to be that colleges aren't doing enough to protect students from sexual assault and aren't doing enough with regard to punishing perpetrators; it seems to me the worst a college can do is expel a perpetrator and even then they run risks they may prefer to avoid. As I think about this issue, it seems that colleges are trying to thread the needle with regard to legal liability - in the absence of specific knowledge about specific threats to a student from/by another student, they can't take any action; they can't expel a student because he might rape someone. Without evidence, they can't punish a student. In many cases, victims can't identify the perpetrators.
Colleges face perverse incentives around reporting sexual assault. They have an investment in demonstrating their campuses are safe for all students but they also must accurately record the number of reported sexual assaults. So, while they want to create safe camuses, they are also motivated to not accurately record incidents of sexual assault which would allow them to address the problem. Many colllege administrations reinterpret instances of sexual assault as hook-ups gone wrong or as miscommunication. They encourage students to report to counselors and therapists who may not be required to report rather than law enforcement which is required to report. Based on the accountsI've read, I'd guess a sizable majority of rapes on college campuses are acquaintance rape - not necessarily someone victim know well but someone they at least recognize.
The woeful tendency of both students and administrators to believe colleges' internal disciplinary systems are capable of handling sexual assault compounds the problem. Collegiate bodies are simply not equipped to investigate allegations or prosecute crimes, which I think explains the dissatisfaction of so many victims with those systmes.
Students and administrators rightly regard college as a unique environment. College life, especially at smaller schools like Grinnell, quickly takes on the feeling of living inside a bubble. It's easy to forget on campus that there's a world off campus that's much bigger than anything you can find on campus. Living on campus you can start believing campus life is the end all be all. Each school, especially residential ones, is it's own ecosystem with its own language, attitudes and standards, which means of course differing sets of attitudes toward sexuality, dating, drinking and gender roles.
College life encourages erratic behavior and schedules. Students are out at all hours, often alone. Many dorms on larger campuses see a constant flow of people coming and going. People study until the library closes and set out across campus on foot. Roommates and floormates can go days without seeing someone and not think twice about it. Despite living on top of each other in dorms, people can remain remarkably anonymous if they choose.
Students frequently and wrongly assume campuses are safe and so they tend to come and go without taking the normal precautions they'd take in any other setting. Most college women would never think about going to a strange city, drinking until they pass out and assuming everything will be just fine, but they'll drink until they pass out at a campus party. I'm not blaming the victim, I'm pointing out that working on the assumption that campuses are safe leads students to engage in behaviorsthey would otherwise avoid:
Alcohol, involved in 90 percent of all rapes on college campuses, is also a factor, he said. In the fall, students participate in the autumn round of celebrations, including football parties, Halloween and fraternity and sorority rush, and partying brings drinking.The harsh reality is that women who get extremely drunk in public are at higher risk for assault. I'm not talking about a drink or two. On a recent evening out with friends, I saw a group of college aged people - both men and women, I presume they were students based on the prevalence of college t-shirts and sweatshirts - so drunk in public I don't know how they managed to walk and several of them didn't manage it. People that drunk cannot give meaningful consent, no matter their gender. I have no idea how the legal system sorts through allegations of rape when both partners were drunk. I've seen drunk friends give consent that they later wished they've never given.
“If you’re drunk in a party with people you don’t know, yes, you’re more vulnerable,” said Jill Lee-Barber, director of psychological and health services at Georgia State University. Four sexual assaults were reported at Georgia State last year.
The experience of being away from home for the first time can compound the risk:
“College-age women are at very high risk for sexual violence,” said Adam Shipman, director of education and advocacy for the Sexual Assault and Family Trauma Response Center in Spokane, which sees students from Washington State University, Eastern Washington University, and Gonzaga University. Many are away from home and in dating relationships for the first time. They are experimenting with new, sometimes risky behavior, such as drinking and drugs, as they test their independence."Students living in dorms aren't normal tennants and colleges aren't normal landlords. Most college students are legally adults. College administrators cannot police students like they did in the bad old days of in loco parentis. FWIW, I'm not sure if the older policy regime prevented any sexual assault but it created a sense of security. And since attitudes toward sexuality were different, women were even less likely to report sexual assault, the result was a greater appearance of safety.
Most universities, if not all, include sexual assault prevention discussions in new student orientations. But these safety measures can go by the wayside as many freshmen, newly sprung from home, feel a sense of liberation that often clouds their judgment. Kaplan advises students that if they remember nothing else, above all, “Trust your instincts. Use your judgment and follow it. If you feel that something is wrong, it is okay to do something about it…It doesn’t always mean you’re going to get humiliated or laughed at, and even if you are, so what! It’s important to do the right thing because you have to live with yourself.”Eduational efforts around college students, sex and alcohol need to be emphasize the ways in which alcohol impairs and changes our ability to make decisions and choices. I'm not talking about the cliche message that you must abstain from alcohol lest your entire life be ruined by the drink. I'm talking about reality based education, emphasizing that a drink or two is not harmful but getting rat-assed leads to bad decision making. Students, especially female students, need to be proactive; making plans with peers and friends to care for one another when drinking (just like having a designated driver, have a designated sober). We need to practice being mindful with one another, watching each other's backs when we're partying. Buildng into our student orientation programs alcohol awareness education seems a necessary first step - we teach about reducing the risks of STIs and condom negotiaton skills, and we provide condoms, why not apply that same model to alcohol consumption? Rather than crack down on drinking, which only drives it underground, adopt harm reduction programs to help students better manage their alcohol consumption.
Colleges need to embrace effective sexuality education and require students living in college housing to attend. Programs should cover contraceptoin, consent and communication (the three C's). Make compliance with these educational programs conditions for fraternities and sororities to remain on campus.
In my earlier post about the rape culture, I linked to some videos on bystander intervention. Part of the college education process could include building skills for bystander intervention (one of the videos, as I recall, showed students distracting a drunk male from his drunk partner and getting her away from the situation). Boosting students skills and confidence with different methods of bystander intervention could go a long way toward redressing the problem.
Ultimately, colleges cannot prevent all rape or sexual assault on their campuses. Many of the incidents could be avoided through education and consciousness raising (for lack of a better term). Collaborative efforts at creating a campus wide culture that encourages bystander intervention, that reduces alcohol consumption, especially binge drinking, and better sex education efforts on campus could all go a long way toward creating safe spaces.
Finally, I want to touch on the public discourse around sexuality in general and female sexuality more specifically.
I believe the last few years have seen the ugliest public dialogue around female sexuality I remember in my life. Sandra Fluke, for instance, testified that the expense of contraception is prohibitive.
For my friend and 20% of the women in her situation, she never got the insurance company to cover her prescription. Despite verifications of her illness from her doctor, her claim was denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted birth control to prevent pregnancy. She’s gay. So clearly polycystic ovarian syndrome was a much more urgent concern than accidental pregnancy for her.Fluke's testimony was attacked in ways that are truly ugly. Rush Limbaugh, for example:
After months paying over $100 out-of-pocket, she just couldn’t afford her medication anymore, and she had to stop taking it . . . Without her taking the birth control, a massive cyst the size of a tennis ball had grown on her ovary. She had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary as a result.
This woman comes forth with this frankly hilarious claim that she’s having so much sex, and her buddies with her, that she can’t afford it. And not one person says, did you ever think about maybe backing off the amount of sex that you have? … And amazingly, when there is the slightest bit of opposition to this new welfare entitlement to be created, that all of a sudden, we hate women, we want them barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, all of these other things. And so, that’s where we are. And so, at the end of this week, I am this person that the women of America are to fear the most.It's not that we expect anything other than bilious venom from Limbaugh, but his attacks were echoed across the entire right wing blogosphere. Consider that about a month ago, the supposedly Christian OneNewsNow published an article the read in part:
Remember the Georgetown student, Sandra Fluke, who went before Congress to demand taxpayers foot the bill for her sex life? We on the right were considered "sexist' and "narrowminded". If this report tells us anything, it's the sexual revolution is not working. We are in worse health, spending more money, and flaunting our sin.Read Fluke's testimony. No where does she discuss her own sexual behavior.
Toxic public attitudes and statements toward women's sexuality hinder the ability to discuss rape and sexual assault in general and hostile attitudes toward educated women make it even harder. Limbaugh's vile attack on Sandra Fluke was at least partly motivated by the fact that she's an educated woman seeking even more education which makes her threatening to lots of men. To put it more simply, if Sandra Fluke had been maid in a hotel, I think Limbaugh's attach wouldn't have been as nasty as it was and I don't think it would have been echoed around the right wing echo chamber as much as it was. Even at prestigious colleges, cultural attitudes crop up all the time. To take one example, at Grinnell College a survivor campus sexual assault described her experience:
When six survivors and I shared our stories of sexual assault, some common themes emerged. Based on our experiences, there is a hypermasculine sense of entitlement that most of our rapists embodied.Putting aside the usual Grinellian language ("hypermasculine sense of entitlement" is a beautifully Grinnellian turn of phrase), what the author is describing here is a cultural motif about sexuality which teaches that women lie about sex, before and after, that women don't truly know their own minds and are incapable of communicating so that men cannot possibly know what a woman wants or is truly thinking. This cultural myth says that women say no when they mean yes and that men must persuade women to say what they really want. It creates a catch 22 for women - even when they clearly say what they want, the men around them have been culturally conditioned to think they don't really mean it. These men then, relying on the cultural myth, believe they need to ply women with alcohol and cajole them into saying what they really mean, which is what the guy wants or thinks he wants to hear (which is "yes" to sex).
Our sexual assaults were not an aberration from Grinnell’s sex culture. They were an extension of it. The more we compared our experiences (both consensual and non-consensual), the clearer it became that a sense of pressure and disempowerment is more common than not.
We noticed a pattern throughout many of our sexual encounters of not being comfortable with some sex acts that our male partners wanted. It was rare for them to accept this and allow themselves to simply enjoy sex we could both agree to. Instead they often bargained, argued, pestered or coerced us into performing the sex acts or reluctantly accepted our limits. This is not sexy, and not sex positive.
Sexual assault is not a dramatic departure from Grinnell’s sex culture. It is the final step on this spectrum of bargaining, arguing, pestering, and coercing. I believe that it is the rare man who happily respects consent, although most do not cross the line into sexual assault.
For those who do cross that line and sexually assault their fellow students, they seem to think there are no consequences. Usually there are none.
These cultural stories about sex and romance are powerful. Their cultural rip currents - you hit them and they pull you along before you really get a chance to think about what's happening. These same cultural stories downplay women's autonomy and sexual agency. Women need to be wooed, seduced and convinced, women don't know what they want. The male side of the narrative says that men have to be aggressive, that they have to push, cajole, demand. Combine those cultural narratives with toxic public discussions of female sexuality and you have a troubling scenario in which students are going to have problems navigating sexual conduct and relationships.
Which brings me, I suppose, to a final thought. By the time students arrive at college, they've generally had extremely poor sexuality education. Colleges can and should offer better sexuality education to students, but with too many students having been through sexist, inaccurate and ineffective abstinence only programs in high school, they will struggle to be effective. We need to start effective sexuality education earlier, not later if we want to start solving these problems.