Campus Rape Horror Stories Persist: How Can We Change the Status Quo?

Schools keep messing up how they handle rape cases. What gives, and what can we change?

The University of Colorado-Colorado Springs was condemned this winter for a program encouraging female students to urinate or vomit as acceptable methods of deterring rapists--because it encouraged passivity and didn't get to the heart of the problem. The University of North Carolina landed national media attention when its disciplinary board threatened to punish, maybe even expel, a female student for speaking out to the media about partner abuse--as though her outcry was intimidating her assailant.  Oklahoma State University refused to call the cops on an alleged rapist to protect his grades from being made public. Princeton has been revealed as burying reports about sexual assault. An Occidental administrator directed a letter to the entire community reflecting skepticism of rape accusations, saying, "it is not always clear what has happened in incidents like these." Dartmouth students reacted with such venom to an anti rape-culture, pro-diversity protest that the University had to cancel classes. A high school principal told a female survivor not to report her rape because it would hurt her assailant's basketball recruitment chances--and he allegedly assaulted another student shortly thereafter.

Whether these kinds of offenses take place at high schools, state schools, small liberal arts “oases,” community colleges, or Ivy League universities, many institutions of higher education--even those that have pledged to change--are failing rape survivors in embarrassing, public ways.

Every time we turn around it seems like another institution has flubbed a case. And when the reaction to rape reports hurt survivors, that can double the trauma and create barriers to equal access to education. The federal government has specifically warned universities about this  in a recent Dear Colleague Letter--saying many campus assault policies violated Title IX, and noting that "a single instance of rape is sufficiently severe to create a hostile environment"

The federal government knows something is wrong. Activists know something is wrong. Victims know something is wrong. So what gives?

While some schools have certainly made strides, it’s clear that the kind of change needed is totally systemic; a top-to-bottom overhaul from disciplinary policy, to prevention and education, to a culture shift in the way students and those tasked with their care talk and think about sex and consent.

Perhaps the steps students at some schools are taking--protesting and suing their alma maters--is the only way to get things to shift.

Beyond Taking Back the Night

As I walked across the Barnard campus near my home this week, I saw students sitting out in the cold raising awareness about rape. They were participating in a longstanding tradition: tabling for “Take Back the Night,”  the annual anti-rape event that occurs on and around bucolic-seeming college quads around the country, revealing a sad underbelly of campus life. The event usually features marches, a survivor’s speakout, and other projects to raise awareness about, and healing from, sexual assault and violence. The students organizing the marches have changed fashion and hair styles and as one Barnard student recently confirmed to me, each successive generation of activists works at making the event more inclusive, safe, and respectful of survivors.

Having a better, more nurturing Take Back the Night--or adding Slutwalk to the awareness-raising mix--is wonderful, but universities themselves remain slow to change the way they officially deal with the issue. Perhaps that’s because having the courage to really confrontin the heart of the issue, whether by convening a task force, changing policy, releasing reports, or any other kind of much-needed transparency, will bring bad publicity on any institutions. And colleges that want tuition money don’t want that kind of bad publicity. As Lisa Wade, faculty at Occidental College (which is the subject of a legal complaint), writes:

Institutions of higher education, unfortunately, have a perverse incentive to suppress reports of sexual assault and discourage adjudication. Administrators know that students may be dissuaded from attending schools that have a reputation for a high rate of sexual assault, so these numbers are suppressed all across higher education in America.

Occidental College is no exception to this rule.

After nearly five years of attempting to work with the administration, and facing deliberate indifference, the coalition decided to turn to the federal government for help, hence the complaints.

Relatedly, feminist thinking around sexual assault--with concepts likerape culture, enthusiastic consent, and focusing prevention on perpetrators and bystanders--has evolved more quickly than notoriously creaky university structures do. Even universities that have nominally stepped up in response to Title X demands may not be following through in reality.

“You can have a wonderful policy but if the people who are tasked with implementing it aren't informed, trained, and there’s no accountability, it’s a setup for failure,” says Dr. Emily Greytak, PhD, told me. Greytak authored a recent study “Moving Beyond Blue Lights and Buddy Systems” with SAFER Campus, a national group that educates campus anti-rape activists.

The results of SAFER’s study (PDF link), which surveyed anti-rape activists across the coutnry, showed that even students who are active in anti-rape work at schools may not know what exactly their schools have on the books when it comes to assault--and therefore what needs changing at a structural level. A quarter didn't know whether their school had a policy, a third had never seen that policy, and of those who knew their school's policy, only 40% had learned about it at orientation.

Why wouldn't such policies be clearly laid out and accessible? Schools are often less than forthcoming; meanwhile many students are focused on actually helping to deal with a crisis, focused activities like staffing peer hotlines and counselign rooms and organizing events such Take Back the Night. According to the students surveyed, the majority are doing this rather than, say, suing their schools to come into compliance with Title IX or organizing massive protest campaign that result in year-long review committees, grops on which pressure needs to be continually leveled to make sure findings are fair.

“Students and staff don’t have the information or resources they need,” Greytak told me. “What we found in our study is that activists want to work on prevention work or counseling someone in crisis. They may see policy as only being about discipline and consequences. Our job is communicating to student activists that policy can ensure those things too-- a good policy outlines steps around primary prevention and crisis response.”

Greytak adds that students and staff putting pressure on the administration to enshrine good policies, and have them transparent on the web, not buried in the middle of a handbook, leaves a “legacy” for the next group of students to work with.

What Makes Good Policy?

What makes good policy, besides it being transparent and comprehensive? First of all, those two qualities are a crucial start. Specifics can vary from school to school based on size, location and culture. But good assault policy starts on day one and keeps going, includes things like education and orientation for students, for instance intorducing the standard of “enthusiastic consent.” Jaclyn Friedman has explained the concept thus: "A healthy sexual encounter – one that is free of coercion or violence – requires enthusiastic consent, which means it’s your responsibility to make sure your partner is having a great time."

Good policy also means resources going into training faculty members and students on disciplinary boards and health centers.

One big hurdle with discipline is that even the most well-intentioned members of those boards may be more accustomed to adjudicating conflicts like plagiarism and theft than they are with navigating the complex personal and social politics of sexual assault, relationships and gender dynamics.

That’s why in addition to training, clarity is key. “Good policies have everything spelled out: the rights of accused and the survivor,” says Greytak. “For instance, both should have support people with them at the hearing.”

Some feminists who are both adamantly opposed to rape culture and to the flawed justice system that puts victims through a wringer and offers prison as punishment, believe that university disciplinary boards have a unique opportunity to reimagine the process, even if they’ve failed thus far.

“What other resource-rich institutions are in the position to address assault and harassment as collective problems rather than the missteps of deviants? Where else ... could survivors and allies have such a hands-on role directing their search for justice?,” asked Alexandra Brodsky in a powerful post at Feministing. “One administrator at my alma mater told me a victim had insisted that, as part of her case’s resolution, her assailant take a women’s studies class on sexual violence upon his return to campus.”

Another pioneering effective approach championed by feminists--and backed up by SAFER’s data--is to have education and prevention that targets potential bystanders and rapists themselves. This really gets at the heart of rape culture.

Recent campaigns that show drunk or passed out women, and point out that their condition--or even just thier flirting--doesn’t equal consent. Other campaigns highlight men who weren’t sure their partners were consenting, so chose to back off.

Bystander intervention initiatives encourage students to watch out for dicey situations and steer their peers away from them, whether they are obviously crossing a line or just toeing it--being active wardens against rape culture instead of passively accepting its perpetuation.

“We should be tasking universities with doing that primary intervention,” says Greytak. “Unfortunately schools are twice as likely to focus on victims.”

Students Step Up

Yet even though barriers of transparency and resources can stymie such efforts, intrepid students are continually taking up the charge, creating media campaigns designed to raise awareness and putting  legal pressure on their alma maters.

At Swarthmore and Occidental groups of students have filed suits or complaints to get the institution into compliance with Title IX and other non-discrimination laws.Reading successive letters to the student body from the Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch--the one whose initial letter about not knowing the truth about rape complaints sparked outraged--indicates that he is already changing policy due to pressure from students.

The complainants at "Oxy" join those who have filed suit at other schools. As the New York Times reports:

The complaints were not made public, standard practice in such cases, but the specifics the authors described echoed those heard elsewhere — claims that colleges are not tough enough on sexual harassment and sexual assault, suppress the reporting of cases and treat victims callously. In the past two years, such claims made about Amherst, the University of North Carolina, Wesleyan, Yale and others have led to a mix of lawsuits, federal complaints, investigations by the department, internal inquiries by the colleges, and revisions of their policies.

Dartmouth students, meanwhile, have been collaborating on a series of protests that disrupt visiting weekend for admitted students and stimulate "real talk" about harassment and rape culture on campus. Their actions resulted in a nasty backlash that served to prove their point about intolerance and hostile environments on campus.

The exciting new “Know Your IX” campaign is hoping to educate students about how well they know their rights under Title IX, while the “Surviving in Numbers” Tumblr is trying to gather stories of sexual assault to paint a broader picture of a rape culture.

These kinds of projects, emerging from young people, demonstrates their potential for creating major change.

“We should be tapping students for policy creations and oversight,” says Greytak. “They are motivated, excited, outraged and lend energy and time to this work.”

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahmseltzer and find her work at

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