Feminists, journalists, and campus activists were finally heard this year when the White House announced its intention to attack the scourge of sexual assault in the US head-on. It made good on this promise toward the end of April, with the White House Report on Campus Sexual Assault. Despite a few problems, the report was full of facts and recommendations that will hopefully curb the repugnant rate of sexual assaults on college campuses. Too many women and men have been (and are currently) victimized by sexual assault and then silenced by their university’s policies on rape and sexual assault.
One of the most impressive recommendations in the report was the insistence that rehabilitation programs should be put in place for students found guilty of sexual assault. Most sexual assailants are repeat offenders; attempting to reprogram why they think rape is OK is a great step in preventing future violence.
On top of White House action on the issue, there have been stirrings from both the House and the Senate to make tangible policy changes to help victims and prevent future assaults. House members Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Patrick Meehan, D-Penn., were signatories on a letter sent to US News and World Report urging the publication to include rates of sexual assault and the campus’ record of handling the issue in its annual college rankings. This is added incentive for colleges and universities to actually follow through with the White House’s policy recommendations.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, has suggested an easily accessible database of sexual assault cases on college campuses be created so that students will be able to get specific, accurate information on how each institution handles the issue, and how widespread problems of sexual assault truly are on campuses that insist safety is a top priority.
These policies will force colleges to be accountable when they do not take responsibility to keep students safe. Universities that have up to this point failed their student body will be faced with a choice: actually work to prevent sexual assault and put programs in place to help victims, or take on the reputation as a rape-apologist campus.
The report and subsequent legislative action are all steps in the right direction when it comes to addressing the US’ sexual assault problem, but the focus on college campuses is too narrow. Only 20% of the US population will go to college. Even fewer attend a residential 4-year college or university. This means that the majority of men and women do not live in a community that is being asked to change and is under a Title IX obligation to do so.
Rates of high school sexual assault in this country is high; about 10.5 percent of girls are sexually assaulted before they graduate high school. In some states, that rate is higher than 17 percent.1 There are horror stories of students being raped on school grounds and their high school administration doing nothing. In some of these cases, perpetrators are teachers. For high school girls and boys, better collegiate policies on rape and sexual assault are too little too late.
Although the White House report does encourage education and preparedness in high school, it is tangential to the recommendations for college campuses. Most people in the US don’t go to college, but they do have at least some high school education.
These students desperately need training in consent, bystander intervention, and sexual assault awareness. Most young women view sexual assault and harassment to be normal behaviors that men can’t help, and significant rates of high school boys and girls believe “forced sex” to be okay in certain situations.2 By creating a culture of consent starting in high school, we can prevent future assaults.
We also need to be conscious of the adults who have never been exposed to this kind of education and do not have easy access to help. We need to sponsor community outreach programs and better publicize rape crisis centers.
Though the circumstances of rape in college communities are abhorrent, I fear we are forgetting those who can’t or don’t go to college. The original White House report found that rates of assault are about the same for those in college and the general population.3 When it comes to sexual assault, no survivor should be left behind.
1. Boys are also sexually assaulted, but at lower rates. I have yet to find data specific to high school-age boys.↩
2. 56% of girls and 76% of boys believed there were situations in which “forced sex” was acceptable. Rape was referred to as “forced sex” for the purposes of the study, to glean students’ true attitudes about rape. Rape is not sex, it is assault. Additionally, this study is over 20 years old, so its numbers may not be representative of today’s young people.↩
3. Admittedly, these rates are a departure from those I was familiar with before. Likely outdated, prior to the White House report it was my understanding that rates for college women were higher than those for the general population.↩