Can Obama Really Help Solve the Campus Sexual Assault Crisis?

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Think about your college – the one you dream of attending, the one you’re at right now, your alma mater. How big a problem would you say rape and sexual assault are on campus?

A Walk a Mile in Her Shoes men's march to raise awareness about rape, sexual assault, and gender.

A Walk a Mile in Her Shoes men’s march to raise awareness about rape, sexual assault, and gender. (Lisa Norwood / Flickr)

The White House realizes that nationwide, it’s actually a big problem. And they’re doing something about it.

President Obama signed a memorandum yesterday that will establish the “White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.”

The task force will focus mainly on college campuses, where the statistics are staggering: 1 in 5 college women have been sexually assaulted, but only 12% report the assault.

The main goals are:

  • To improve colleges’ responses to accusations of sexual misconduct.
  • Improve how survivors are treated by the criminal justice system.
  • Support survivors as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

(You can read the full memo here.)

This builds on other federal efforts that have been created in recent years, including revising the federal definition of rape to include rape against men, and revising the Violence Against Women Act to include provisions for members of the LGBT, Native American, and immigrant communities, who face disproportionate amounts of violence.

So why is a federal response to sexual assault necessary? Unfortunately, because it is a huge problem, especially on college campuses, and it’s not going to go away unless there’s a coordinated effort to change that fact.

Rape on campus: the ugly truth

(snipergirl / Flickr)

Here’s the good news: Most colleges have safety measures in place that aim to prevent sexual assault from occurring. If the institution uses the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) – which pretty much all colleges/universities do – they are required to provide information about prevention of sexual assault and about how it should be reported if it does happen. They’re also required to have specific procedures in place for students to go through to make sure it’s reported and prosecuted fairly.

A Sexual Assault Awareness Walk at Roanoke College

A Sexual Assault Awareness Walk at Roanoke College. (roanokecollege / Flickr)

But here’s the bad news: Even if there are disciplinary procedures in place, there’s no guarantee that they will be followed correctly or that the human beings behind said procedures will judge fairly. Last August, Yale found six students guilty of “nonconsensual sex” – AKA rape – and then allowed all six rapists to remain at the school and continue pursuing their degrees. (One was suspended and then allowed to return, four were just given written reprimands, and one was put on probation. This is for a crime that carries a prison sentence of years if convicted in federal court.)

Yale isn’t the alone in under-reacting to sexual assault:

The effect on college sexual assault victims

Vassar College

At Vassar College (Adam Jones / Flickr)

While those convicted of sexual assault are often allowed to walk free with little to no consequences, their victims’ lives are changed forever. The trauma itself has devastating effects: rape victims report developing PTSD, experiencing major depression, and contemplating suicide.

They are also 13.4 times more likely to have problems with alcohol abuse and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.

When that is compounded with an uncaring response from the university – or worse, no response at all – victims of sexual assault report dropping out of school simply to avoid seeing their rapist.

With every statistic that’s revealed, it becomes more and more obvious why there’s a federal task force to try to fix this problem.

Hearing that it’s a White House priority might inspire colleges to take it more seriously.

Are you part of the problem?

At SlutWalk DC 2011. (Ben Schumin / Flickr)

It’s easy to classify sexual assault as something that happens to other people or an issue that “they” will fix. (Who are they, anyway?) But there’s a bigger picture to all of this. Why is it that so many women and men experience such trauma?

That’s a question with a complicated answer. But the simplest one to give is rape culture.

What is rape culture? Basically:

“Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”

Consider this. How many times have you heard (or said) sentences like these?

  • “Well, she was asking for it.”
  • “She’s a slut anyway. Who cares?”
  • “Boys will be boys.”
  • “She’s probably lying anyway. I bet he didn’t even touch her and she’s just making it up for attention.”

All of these feed harmful ideas – that women deserve sexual assault, that gratuitous sex with women (consensual or not) is “just what guys do,” and that women lie about rape more often than they tell the truth. Absolutely none of these are true and all of them contribute to rape culture.

Consider this, too: How many times just in an hour of television is a woman’s body used to sell you a product? How many sexist jokes are cracked in a span of two hours? How many one-dimensional or weak female characters are on the shows you watch?

Society sends the message that women are property and the female body is there to be used. We’re told that men are the strong, dominant gender and can’t be raped.

Before you say that we can think for ourselves and recognize that neither of those statements are true, consider this: most people convicted of rape on college campuses have no idea they did something wrong until after they are accused.

Clearly, there’s something wrong with the way we’re talking about rape. It’s much too early to tell how much impact President Obama’s new task force will have – but at this point, any increase in communication would be an improvement.

HOW TO TAKE ACTION

Seek help with the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline >>

Find out what to do if you are a victim of sexual assault >>

Donate to RAINN >>

Follow SAFER Campus >>

Ask your elected official to increase efforts to stop sexual violence >>

Join Equality Now >>

Take the Consent Is Sexy pledge >>

Sign a petition telling college presidents to stop protecting rapists >>

Call out sexism in the media with #NotBuyingIt >>

Spread awareness with ConsentEd >>

Bring The Consensual Project to your campus >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

Lauren Wethers

Lauren is originally from outside Saint Louis, but traveled down the Mississippi River to be a student at Tulane University, where she is the editor-in-chief of The Tulane Review and director of the New Orleans Universities Relay for Life. She has also written for NOLAWoman.com and Winnovating. One day she'll figure out how to make the Time Turner reality, but until then, she'd like to thank coffee for her success.

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