“The Hunting Ground,” a documentary film about sexual assaults on US university campuses, opens with anxious women college applicants peering into websites to know whether they have been accepted. After tense moments, they break into OMGs, squeals of delight, and teary laughter along with their parents and other well-wishers as they learn they have clinched a seat at their preferred university.
A bright and happy future awaits most of them. For many students, however, campus life is likely to include some traumatic episodes. In 2015, the American Association of Universities (AAU) conducted a sexual assault survey involving 150,000 students at 27 institutions, including several top universities.
The big question was – what percentage of women and men are sexually assaulted in college? The survey found that 20 percent of women students and 5 percent of male undergraduates were victims of nonconsensual sex.
Other statistics also give a similar gloomy picture. According to numbers collected by RAINN (Race, Abuse & Incest National Network), 23.1 percent of female undergraduate students and 5.4 percent male UG students experience rape or other sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. As many as 11.2 percent of all students on campus are victims of sexual assault.
“A lot of parents think that, well, we will drop our daughter off, she will have a great college experience and she will be fine because the college has a great reputation of being a safe place. It’s not [a safe place],” says John Foubert, professor, Oklahoma State University.
But the incidence of sexual violence on campuses is no new revelation. David Lisak, clinical psychologist, says in “The Hunting Ground”: “We have known for about 25 years now that the problem of sexual assault on campus is enormous.”
Colleges’ response to victims
For many victims, sexual assault is only the first incident in a series of highly stressful weeks and months. Most of them are forced to suffer in silence, hesitant to inform their universities or even their own families. Support from their kin may come, but their efforts to make their college authorities initiate punishment for the perpetrators run up against a high, slippery wall, , more often than not.
A woman student from a university in North Carolina interviewed in “The Hunting Ground” says she gathered courage to report that she had been raped only when another woman student narrated to her a similar experience. However, when she reported the incident, she didn’t find adequate support from the university authorities, who told her she might have been drunk. “We were just getting blamed and blamed,” she says.
Student victims of sexual assault from several universities interviewed for the documentary film, produced by Amy Ziering and written and directed by Kirby Dick, and praised and criticized in many quarters, say investigators asked them what they were drinking, or what they were wearing, or whether they said no to the perpetrator.
Victims have been also forced to endure their college authorities’ cold-as-ice insensitivity. A female student from a college in Pennsylvania says her institution appeared to side with the rapist, saying, that the “rapist might have been going through a hard time.” A female student from an Ivy League university says the authorities told her that she didn’t have any “written admission of guilt” from the rapist and therefore had no proof, she tells her interviewer in “The Hunting Ground.”
Factors behind sexual assault
Alcohol consumption, environmental and cultural factors (such as a sense of sexual entitlement and peer group pressure, as seen in fraternity institutions), attitudes to women, and inadequate steps to prevent incidents on campus are among the main factors that lead to sexual assault at colleges. One in two incidents of sexual assault at universities are associated with alcohol use, according to Wikipedia. Research has found that 74 percent of assault perpetrators and 55 percent of victims of rape had been drinking.
A study published in mid-2016 found that myths about rape abound among male students on campuses and provoke feelings that lead to assaults. These myths include that women often allege rape to get back at men; that rape isn’t legitimate if a woman doesn’t physically struggle to prevent it; and that survivors who were intoxicated at the time are partly responsible for their sexual assault. They also harbor feelings of male entitlement to sex. Unfortunately, many men and women of all ages, even those in law enforcement, continue to believe in these myths wholeheartedly.
Fear of reprisal
Many sexual assault victims don’t report the incidents to their colleges or to police. Statistics collected by RAINN reveal that four out of every five female victims (age group 18-12) don’t report the matter. A US Justice Department study of sexual assault on campus also says that 80 percent of incidents go unreported to police (compared with 67 percent of incidents among the general population).
Apart from the cold-shouldering by university authorities, there are personal reasons why a large number of victims don’t report sexual assault. A Time article points out that victims don’t want anyone to know; it’s a social risk to talk about it. “I may be blamed. I think I won’t be believed,” victims believe. Some victims lack awareness, not knowing what constitutes rape.
It is not as if the criminal justice system rushes in to support rape reporting. The system fails victims in the most astounding ways and manages to send only a small percentage of the accused to jail.
Only 26 percent of rapes reported to the police lead to an arrest in the US, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 2010. Even if investigators do their job efficiently, most district attorneys don’t want to take the cases. Therefore, only one in five rapes reported to the police is prosecuted. Even if a case is prosecuted, the sentence comes after many months or years. During this time, the perpetrator is free to repeat the crime.
But convictions and jail sentences do come, though rarely. In one case, the rapist, a university footballer, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for aggravated rape, aggravated sexual battery, and unlawful photography. He took a woman student he was dating into a dorm where three men raped her. He told the court that at the time of the incident he was an “inexperienced drinker” and that he was “truly sorry,” according to a CNN report in November 2016.
Rape reporting by colleges
Colleges themselves don’t seem too keen to report incidents to police. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), 91 percent of college campuses disclosed no incident of rape in 2014. The AAUW says that only about 10 percent of campuses disclosed reported incidents of dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking on campuses.
Why do universities fail to respond to victims’ complaints promptly and sympathetically? Obviously, any news of a sexual assault on the campus would tarnish a university’s prestige. It could have serious repercussions for its image as a safe campus and upset prospective applicants and students. Burying a complaint in a file helps universities to nip a problem in the bud and artificially keep down campus crime rates.
Above the law?
Universities may be quite laggard in taking action on behalf of ordinary victims, but they certainly do seem hyperactive in suppressing allegations of assault against their top athletes. Some are even known to bar campus police from entering their sports facilities for investigation.
It is no surprise, then, to read about a 1995 study that found that although less than 4 percent of college men are athletes, 19 percent of reported sexual assaults on the campus are committed by them. Some universities take action against football players accused of sexual assault only well after they have completed their athletic assignments.
Fraternity institutions, whose facilities are often the scene of rapes and other forms of sexual assault, are also treated with kid gloves. Buildings of fraternity chapters are often located on the campus, making it easy for members, or “brothers,” to bring their girlfriends to a drinking party at the place, often leading to sexual attacks. Universities do not want to take on fraternities, which have strong connections with alumni, a major source of donations to universities. Besides, alumni and former fraternity members have political clout and huge representation in the corridors of power.
However, universities sometimes are made to pay for protecting their erring football players. In early 2016, The New York Times reported that the Florida State University (FSU) had agreed to pay $950,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Erica Kinsman, a former student who accused FSU footballer—and later, nationally known star—Jameis Winston of raping her in 2012. In the lawsuit, she accused FSU of failing to investigate her complaint promptly and violating Title IX protections.
Prevention of sexual assault crimes on campus
A pivotal change in universities’ handling of sexual assault complaints came after the rape and murder of Jeanne Clery in her campus dormitory 1985. More recently, sexual violence on campuses has received increased attention in the US since the “Dear Colleague” letter (2011) from the US Department of Education regarding Title IX (against gender discrimination in education) and sexual violence; the reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA, 2013); and the formation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (2014).
Schools and colleges have been told to improve their policies and programs to adequately respond to sexual violence. The Clery Act, passed in 1990, requires institutions included in federal financial aid programs to report sexual violence statistics on their campuses.
Fifty-five colleges and universities now face Title IX sexual abuse investigations. Sixty universities have been put on notice by the Department of Education. More than 100 colleges are facing federal investigations for their handling of sexual assault complaints.
But as things stand, more than 100,000 college students in the US will suffer sexual assault every academic year.
Labeling of a sexual assault allegation as false is disgusting and deeply hurtful for the victim. An accusation that is eventually proved false is equally disturbing for the accused as it doesn’t fully wipe out the stigma caused by the accusation. Meanwhile, gray areas in definitions of “consensual sex,” particularly in a situation where intoxication is involved, are not helping to distinguish a genuine complaint from a false one.
In the late 1990s, the US Justice Department and the FBI reported that 8 percent of rape allegations in the US, nationally, were false. David Lisak, clinical psychologist, found in his study “Violence against Women “ (2010) that eight out of 136 rape complaints reported at an American university over a ten-year period were fake. Similarly, Harvard University reported in 2010 that 18 percent of rapes reported on the campus were false.
More male students who feel they have been falsely accused of sexual assault are filing lawsuits. They are fighting colleges’ denial of due process and violation of the basic justice principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” In one instance in 2015, a Colorado university paid a male student $15,000 for settling a lawsuit.
Those who are believed innocent are finding a voice. Nineteen professors from Harvard Law School issued a statement criticizing the handling of a rape allegation against a school student in “The Hunting Ground.” A website “helpsaveoursons.com” has been created for supporting families whose sons in colleges have apparently been falsely accused of sexual misconduct.
From the “Take Back the Night” march in San Francisco in 1978 to the SlutWalk rally in Toronto in 2011, there have been many campaigns against sexual assault on campus. Emma Sulkowicz took up a “Mattress Performance” at Columbia University, carrying a 50-pound mattress around the campus demanding the expulsion of a male student she alleged had raped her.
Dainelle Dirks, author of Confronting Campus Rape: Legal Landscapes, New Media, and Network Activism, says: “On college campuses, it is not a person jumping out of bushes or in the parking lot who is going to rape you. It is a person whom you do know that you should be really worried about.”
Dr. Sarah Desmarais, who published a study on campus violence in the journal Violence Against Women, told Medical Daily that she hoped her study would remind athletes to act responsibly as students and treat women with respect. She also said she hoped that young women would see the study as a reminder to the dangers that exist on campus.
RAINN, in an article on staying safe on campus on its website, provides general tips to reduce risks: Know your resources (whom to approach for help); stay alert; be careful about posting your location; make others earn your trust; and lock your doors/windows when you’re asleep or away.
In social settings, make safety a priority. For example, go to a party with a person you trust, make a plan to leave together and watch out for each other. Don’t ever leave your drink unattended or use a drink that has been left unattended. Do not exceed your drinking limit. If you feel uncomfortable at a party and want to leave, do so—it is all right to make an excuse.
If you’ve fallen victim to sexual assault, make use of resources on the campus. Request a schedule or housing change to avoid seeing the perpetrator. If you require confidentiality, approach a care provider in the community.
When sexual violence turns campuses hostile, students’ focus on academics and other college activities are affected during their crucial years. If colleges report complete and correct data, policy-makers can better understand the scope of the issue and college administrators can make adequate responses.
Sexual assault victims who dare to speak about the incident continue to endure torment well after the incident. They are often threatened and intimidated by the perpetrator and his friends. Depression and suicidal thoughts are common. Revealing the incident to family or friends can itself be painful.
Men also become victims of sexual assault, though the number of cases may be small, and are similarly affected as women. They face questions (“Why didn’t you fight them off?”) and insults (“Men are supposed to be strong and not let this happen to them”). Male victims are even more uncomfortable about talking about their experience than women.
Many survivors manage to climb the cliff back to normalcy. Some go on to complete their education and start engaging careers. Some find it in themselves to become activists.
Unfortunately, sexual assault sometimes snuffs out bright and beautiful young lives. Thomas Malone, 20, a student at a college in Massachusetts, committed suicide in 2012 following a sexual assault. He left a note describing the college authorities’ “hand washing” of the case. Elizabeth Seeberg, 19, a student of a women’s college near Notre Dame, took her own life in 2010 following an alleged sexual assault by a Notre Dame University footballer.
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Image credit: The Hunting Ground (RADiUS)