I do not remember the first time I learned what rape was; I do not remember when I realized that it was something that happened to people around me. I don’t remember the first time someone told me to be careful when I leave for college in the fall, to pack pepper spray and a rape whistle as casually as they would recommend a second pair of shower flip-flops. I do, however, remember hearing plenty of jokes about how rape victims always lied and girls who dared to show their legs and drink at parties deserved what happened to them. Jokes which are, of course, true, because obviously a girl who wears a miniskirt deserves to be raped.
Just like someone who leaves their house carrying a wallet deserves to be robbed.
Or someone who walks outside without a bulletproof vest deserves to be shot.
CNN reports a recent study conducted by the Association of American Universities, which cites 26 percent of female college seniors saying that they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact over the course of their college careers. These women attended large state schools and small private schools; they were drunk and high and sober; they wore miniskirts and overcoats and crop tops and sweatshirts. And when the study shifts its focus from colleges across America to specific institutions, the numbers grow even more alarming- at three universities in particular, that 26 percent rate jumps to 29 percent, 32 percent and 34 percent respectively- and those schools are Harvard, Yale, and the University of Michigan.
The numbers skyrocket when viewing the assault history of minority populations. The number of straight senior female students at Cornell University who experienced nonconsensual penetration during their college career is only reported at 12 percent, but when looking at female students who identify as LGBT+, the percentage who have experienced nonconsensual penetration leaps to 22 percent. The same is true for disabled women: while only 13 percent of students who had no registered disabilities were victims of nonconsensual penetration, 26 percent of students with disabilities were victims. While the numbers themselves may vary, similar statistics are found at most universities and colleges across the country; when women are assaulted on college campuses, they are usually women from minority populations- primarily women who identify as genderqueer or transgender.
The exact amount of women who report their sexual assault ranges from study to study, but the decided estimate is between 5-12 percent of victims. The primary reason for this lack of reporting is that victims don’t feel that their attack was significant enough to warrant an investigation. Many students are also afraid to come forward, and who can blame them – our culture is one of victim blaming and questioning, and it is only too normal to watch a rapist or assailant walk free while the victim spends the rest of their life in traumatized angry silence. The phrases “he seemed like a nice guy” and “what were you wearing, anyway?” are almost painfully common, and the result is a growing population of rape and sexual assault victims who refuse to report their attacks out of embarrassment and fear.
These horror stories do not end with women. Although less visible and less widely-discussed, male students make up a sizable portion of on-campus assault victims: 1 in 16 male students will be victims of sexual assault during their college careers. They find similar circumstances when they attempt to report their cases – after one Brown senior reported his assault, his assailant was expelled, but he later learned that the perpetrator had two previous cases of sexual assault on his record, and had only been suspended those previous times. However, men face additional challenges when they suffer sexual assault because there are few support systems in place for male victims, and often when they come forward with their stories they are told that sexual assault is not masculine. Culturally, our society still views men as incapable of being vulnerable or weak, and as a result, male victims of assault have minimal support to turn to. Sexual assault victims are 13 times more likely to be suicidal, but men are more likely to actually attempt suicide.
Men who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community are even more likely to be victims of assault. A 2010 survey from the Center for Disease Control reveals that 40 percent of gay men will experience some form of sexual assault other than rape in their lifetimes, and 47 percent of bisexual men will be victims. One gay student explains his thoughts to the Huffington Post, saying that, “The sentiment I hear the most and feel the most is that because we’re being open about our sexuality, when someone assaults us it’s not an assault… ‘Oh, you were kind of asking for it.’” The gay community has a stereotype of promiscuity associated with it, and often victims are made to feel that it was expected for them to be assaulted.
So where do we go from here? How do we repair a broken system that many college administrations are content to pretend isn’t broken at all? The answers are varied, and it’s clear that one solution doesn’t work for every school. The Office on Violence Against Women provides an outline of steps that they feel colleges should take- strengthen victim services on campuses, improve the process by which attacks are investigated by the police, establish prevention programs for students, educate students and staff on the unique challenges that sexual assault creates, etc. Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College, explains that her school focused on bystander training, where students are trained to intervene in potentially abusive situations, and on self-defense training for female freshmen. While these programs may work to some extent, preventing abusers from carrying out attacks and ensuring that they are punished accordingly if they do, they still contain flaws. And while it may be unrealistic to believe that some day sexual assault will be eradicated entirely and that colleges can create a campus culture where sexual violence is not even a possibility that crosses the minds of students, it is realistic to involve in the program-developing process the group of people most heavily involved in the process: the students themselves.
Gross explains in her Washington Post article that the key to preventing sexual assault is allowing students to participate in the process. She states that, “We are not listening to and empowering our students to… develop the type of campus culture in which they…. will thrive socially, psychologically and academically.” By ignoring the voices of students in the sexual assault discussion, college administrations are blindsiding the group whose voices need to be heard the most. It is students who understand the culture of on-campus sexual assault better than anyone, and it is they who understand best how their peers react to cases of assault, what their views are and how to combat the problem – whether that’s increased bystander training, tighter security on campuses, or educational programs that seek to prevent assault before it happens. In an ideal world, students would be adequately educated in the dangers of sexual assault and what to do if they see or experience an attack, but that can only be accomplished if students themselves are drawn into the lawmaking process: if students help educate their peers, if the actions of students create a campus culture that seeks to end sexual violence rather than ignore it. Each school demands different approaches. At one university, the key to ending assault might be increased security in residential buildings; in another, it might be harsher punishments for assailants. No one understands the needs of a school better than the students who are educated there, and until students themselves become a part of the process to end sexual assault, a world without sexual violence will remain an unattainable dream.
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