Why are Sexual Assaults on College Campuses Treated Differently?
By: Gina Telega
With strong feminist positions taking a forefront and activism like the #MeToo movement, the topic of sexual assault is getting more attention than it has in previous decades. Even with these steps in the right direction, information regarding sexual assault is still being swept under the rug. According to the NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center), one in five women and one in seventy-one men will be raped at some point in their lives. Additionally, NSVRC also states that 20-25% of college women and 15% of college men are victims of forced sex during their time in college(NSVRC). Although these numbers are close when comparing students to non-students, the discrepancy comes in regard to the number of these crimes being reported. Overall, 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police, being the most underreported crime (NSVRC). Shifting specifically to women in college, only 20% of female student victims aged 18-24 report incidents to law enforcement (RAINN). (When including men, this statistic jumps to 90%) (NSVRC). This shows a clear 17-27% difference in the amount of reported sexual assaults between students and non-students.
This begs the question of why campus sexual assaults are responded to differently than non-campus ones.
Some will turn to the environment of college as an explanation. College campuses encapsulate hazardous settings for potential sexual victimization – students are exposed to intensified peer pressure, partying, heavy drug and alcohol use leading to impairment, increased opportunity for social interactions with strangers and acquaintances, concentrated housing, and even a difference is acceptable norms (Garland, 2016). These circumstances are certainly true, but as mentioned earlier, the amount of rape and sexual assault among the general population in comparison to college students is actually around the same. The issue arises when it comes to reporting these crimes. For the one out of five female students who do report the crimes, most never see a courtroom or prosecution. The cases end at campus safety reports and never make it to the criminal justice system. However, there are two compelling reasons for why it should be turned over to the criminal justice system rather than campus authorities (Cohen, 2015). First, enforcers of criminal law are more susceptible to pressure for advocacy, rather than college administrators who are divided between doing the right thing and protecting their University’s reputation. Secondly, it has been demonstrated that colleges are simply not equipped or competent to adjudicate and prevent sexual violence (Cohen, 2015).
So, what is being done about this discourse between safety and public reputation? In 2000, the Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act required that any registered sex offender involved with the campus must disclose that information to the University. Additionally, it also specifies that academic institutions are obligated to produce a statement to inform the campus community – how to retrieve information concerning sex offenders (Campbell, 2006). While this Act is great in theory, it is much less useful in practice. First, with the system failing to hold perpetrators accountable for fear of “ruining their lives”, they are not registered on the list.. Secondly, many universities prioritize the reputation of the institution over the safety of students. This translates to encouraging survivors, whether it be subtly or overtly, not to report or make the details of the case public. As I entered my fifth and final year at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, I was unaware this information was at my disposal. But, this information is also not entirely useful. When looking for such information, a University will direct you to the State list of registered sex offenders. This is not any new information, the general public has access to this, and this information does nothing to inform a student about the fellow classmates around them.
Believe it or not, we are moving in the right direction. In May of 2014, 55 colleges were under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for their mishandling of sexual violence cases (Board, 2017). Three years later, as of July of 2017, there were 343 such cases under investigation (Board, 2017).
It is hard to not feel helpless when these issues are so much bigger than the individual, but there are things that can be done. When it comes to who is committing these crimes, students need to understand that it is likely to be a classmate or peer. Classmates committed 44% of attempted rapes, 42% of attempted sexual contacts with force, 37% of threats of penetration without force, and 36% of completed rapes (Garland, 2016). However, in the same study, students who were surveyed felt that it was more important to be notified about instructors and professors who are sex offenders than any other type of person.
Students should also be more informed about this topic, starting with having access to a statewide list of perpetrators. I was never informed in a way that brought this information to my attention. The results of the Garland study also shows that notification through a university website was viewed with greater importance than any other method. I have to disagree with this, given my University took this route and I was unaware it existed. I would recommend at least a campus-wide email to bring attention to the fact that the information is there. Students of the Garland study also indicated that they were most favorable about gaining access to the offense type committed and a picture of the offender. Depending on the person, this information may or may not be listed on the Statewide list. Most importantly, higher education institutions should work alongside the criminal justice system when it comes to these reported crimes. Of course this system also has its fair share of flaws, but that is no justification to believe campus authorities are more equipped for the problem. Instead, create a set of rules to work with the criminal justice system (Cohen, 2015) and provide support and advice to survivors about reporting crimes to the police and medical personnel. Also, suspend students who are charged with violent crimes, and possibly expel upon a conviction. Lastly, provide or recommend counseling to the survivors afterwards. Only about one in six college-aged female survivors receive assistance from a victim services agency (RAINN). This is where Wayne County SAFE can help tremendously – providing those affected by sexual assault with immediate and ongoing comprehensive services, at no cost that encourage survivor healing and empowerment, promotes public awareness, and leads to social change. Wayne County SAFE also provides a safe, quiet, confidential environment with specially trained Forensic Examiners in order to provide medical examinations and forensic evidence collection for rape surviviors. You are not alone, and you have a voice that deserves to be heard.
Board, E. (2017, July 16). Campus rape? Call the police. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-edit-campus-devos-sexual-assault-0716-jm-20170714-story.html
Campbell, E. (2006, April 07). Disclosure of Education Records Concerning Registered Sex Offenders. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/hottopics/ht10-24-02.html
Garland, B., Calfano, B., & Wodahl, E. (2016). College Student Perceptions of Notification About Sex Offenders on Campus. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 29(3), 240-257. doi:10.1177/0887403416651670
About Gina Telega
Hello! My name is Gina Telega, and I am a senior at the University of Michigan—Dearborn. I am currently an intern with Wayne County SAFE and I will graduate with my Bachelor of Arts with a double major of Criminal Justice and Behavioral Sciences April 2019. I want to use my degree to help change the narrative in all aspects of the Criminal Justice System. With WC SAFE, I hope to have a part in helping those who are survivors of sexual assault by giving them better means to recover. Later, I want to create a resource for people who are being released from prison to give them a better chance to be a productive member of society, to hopefully reduce the recidivism rate and the overall mass incarceration rate.