Rape on the Campus

Rutgers University Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance
Rutgers students and faculty marching in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault in the ‘Help Carry the Weight’ campaign, New Brunswick, New Jersey, October 2014. This march and others around the country were inspired by Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia who alleges she was raped by a fellow student and has been carrying a mattress on campus every day to protest the university’s handling of her case.

According to the most commonly cited estimate, 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted during their time at college and as few as 5 percent of these assaults are ever reported to the police.1 College authorities are required by law to investigate and adjudicate sexual assault complaints from their students, but they have repeatedly proven unwilling or incompetent to do so. (Some colleges stand accused of ignoring or downplaying sexual assault allegations in the interests of protecting themselves from bad publicity, others of conducting inept investigations and of handing out inadequate punishments to those found guilty.) The Department of Education currently has eighty-four US schools under investigation for mishandling cases of sexual assault.

Few would disagree that the systems for preventing and prosecuting sexual assault on US campuses are in need of change. But the efficacy and fairness of recent reforms that focus on making college grievance procedures more favorable to complainants and on codifying strict new definitions of sexual consent remain highly questionable. Advocates of these reforms tend to dismiss their opponents as reactionaries and “rape apologists”—a characterization that is probably accurate in some cases—but feminists, too, have cause to view these measures and the protectionist principles on which they are based with alarm.

The Obama administration first signaled its determination to tackle the issue of campus sexual assault in 2011, when the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) wrote a letter to every college in the country, pointedly reminding them that failure to adopt appropriate policies for dealing with sexual misconduct was a violation of Title IX, the section of the Education Amendments of 1972 that forbids discrimination on the basis of gender. The letter, which announced itself as a “significant guidance document,” offered detailed recommendations on what such appropriate policies would include. Since institutions found in violation of Title IX risk having their federal funding withdrawn, these recommendations were effectively government directives and schools responded accordingly.

Some of the recommendations related to “proactive measures” that schools were to take in order to prevent sexual harassment and violence. These included publishing a notice of nondiscrimination, publishing grievance procedures, training employees in how to identify and report sexual misconduct, and designating a specific employee to coordinate compliance with Title IX. There were also recommendations on what Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, has called “more victim-centered incident-intake and justice response policies.”

Schools were advised to ensure that “steps…

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