If a dramatic decrease in reporting rates of sexual assault on college campuses was to occur within the next year, we would not be applauding—but before you tune us out as entirely insensitive, let us explain why.
Last July, The Washington Post revealed a nationwide trend of increased reporting rates regarding forcible sex offenses on college campuses, with an increase of 50 percent taking place between 2009 and 2012. Unfortunately, the common misconception is that increased reporting rates mean assaults are also increasing. However, this reading of the numbers can be misleading. Low reporting rates do not necessarily mean that assaults are not taking place. Instead, low reporting rates likely mean that the reporting process is not doing its job to protect and empower survivors.
Yet despite the fact that a report prepared for the National Institute of Justice says that one in five college women will be sexually assaulted before graduating, reporting rates are still extremely low. These low rates are likely the result of the inefficiencies and the re-traumatization commonly associated with the reporting process. This is the paradox of our national problem with campus sexual assaults: according to an estimate by the White House, as few as 12 percent of assaults actually get reported.
Rather than acting as swiftly as possible, it seems some college administrations only respond to cases appropriately if they are forced to do so. For example, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating 86 institutions of higher education allegedly denying students their equal right to education by mishandling sexual-violence reports. The length of this list, as well as the prestige of so many of the schools on it, implies that mishandling rape cases is unfortunately not the exception, but is instead the disturbing norm.
National headlines have long pointed to this same verdict. The recent Rolling Stone article involving the University of Virginia was not just about Jackie’s controversial story, but was also about the prevalence of rape culture on campus. The story is not an anomaly—it is just this year’s version. In 2013, Yale made national news because only one out of a total of six students found responsible for non-consensual sex was suspended. In 2012, it was the Jerry Sandusky scandal revealing that sexual assault had been swept under the rug for years to protect the image of the Penn State football program. So, if this is a common issue that has made news headlines time after time, how is it that reporting rates of sexual assault still remain so low?
As two students who are involved with gender issues on campus, we have witnessed the way sexual assault is dealt with on our campus over the past four years. While we are pleased with the positive developments taking place, one thing has become clear—an administration is not likely to take action without a strong push from students. In 2012, Duke’s Statute of Limitations—placing a deadline on how long a student could wait to report sexual assault to take action against one’s assailant—was decreased from two years to one. It was not until students mobilized in protest that the statute was removed entirely. Activist organization “Know Your IX” has a Duke-specific page that lists further student action. But since students have just four years to make a change, the onus should not be on us to lead the charge. Lasting change requires institutional memory and retention efforts—something that administrators have a monopoly on. Students have made their voices heard, but now is the time for the effort to become a united partnership, rather than just one group talking past another.
Fundamentally, this movement requires a culture shift. We need reporting processes to become more empowering for survivors, but getting to that point requires that society must shift the way we view the numbers behind reporting rates. For instance, during the 2013-2014 academic year at Duke, 189 students came forward to report. This may seem like a high number, except that the Greek Culture Initiative’s 2013 study states that nearly thirty-one percent of Duke females, and twelve percent of Duke male students, have experienced unwanted sexual contact. Just because we aren’t seeing those numbers reflected in reporting rates does not mean those assaults are not happening. It may just mean that a majority of them are simply going unreported because the process is assumed by many to be broken.
Of course we support due process, but many survivors feel that the system currently works to silence them. Nothing shows this lack of trust more than the massive gap between the numbers of those survivors who report and those who press charges. In comparison, many survivors take a leave of absence to overcome the depression or mental trauma caused by their sexual assault—probably far more than the number of perpetrators made to leave campus.
Our university administration is often one of the biggest supporters of social justice work. However, the tables must be flipped so that all administrations feel that this is an arena in which they must actively change in order to be leaders. In the past, wanting to be on par with other universities of comparable standing has proven to be a major incentive for progress in the social justice realm. Unfortunately, it makes sense that a university would not want to draw attention to the issue of sexual assault on their campus. Such strong actions may prompt prospective students to suspect that something horrible must be happening, and may cause them to think twice before applying. Yet while it may be disconcerting for institutions of higher education to admit it to both applicants and society as a whole, we must acknowledge that something terrible IS in fact going on—and schools must make bold changes in order to address it. Will universities allow themselves to become entirely wrapped up in corporate language that focuses primarily on application numbers and rankings, or will they instead rise to the occasion and become vocal leaders in protecting students from sexual assault?
Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior and regular columnist for The Chronicle. Molly Walker is a Trinity Junior.
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