Dorm rooms, shower baskets, Frisbees flying through a sun-streaked courtyards — these are traditional iconic images of a college school year’s kickoff. Today’s college students, however, might also add “sensitivity seminars” and warnings about the prevalence of sexual assault as one of the rites of passage for the start of college.
There’s a good reason for all the discussion about sexual assault on college campus: It happens too often. Americans often hear the statistic “one-in-four,” suggesting that fully one-quarter of college women will be victims of rape, sexual assault or attempted assault while in college. Fortunately, an examination of the survey data behind this statistic reveals that it overstates the prevalence of the heinous crimes that come to mind when one hears the terms rape or sexual assault.
Regardless of the exact numbers, however, sexual assault is undoubtedly a problem, and the relations between the sexes tend to be unhealthy on college campuses. Alcohol-fueled parties and hook-ups — other images of college life — are a big part of this story. Much of what is lumped in with sexual assault are encounters that occur under the influence, at least begin as consensual, and somewhere along the line go horribly wrong. Rather than clear cases of violent crime, the result is often many blurry lines. Was the woman so incapacitated that she was unable to consent? But what if both parties were equally incapacitated? Hazy recollections compound these problems, making figuring out what exactly happened difficult, if not impossible.
This presents a challenge to statisticians and those interested in trying to determine the amount of sexual violence on college campuses. More importantly, it makes adjudicating accusations of misconduct incredibly difficult. In recent years, universities have been pushed by the federal government — under the threat of losing access to federal funding — to embrace a quasi-judicial system relying on campus tribunals for considering charges of sexual harassment or assault that heavily favor accusers. The federal Office of Civil Rights has pushed universities adjudicating sexual assault cases to use a “preponderance-of-the-evidence” standard, rather than the more stringent “clear-and-convincing” proof standard (or the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal proceedings). That means that the university officials are supposed to find against the accused even if they believe it is almost as likely that he is innocent. As 28 Harvard Law School professors recently protested, this regime undercuts traditional concepts of due process and fairness.
Such an unjust system also creates new victims. One male graduate of Boston College recently filed suit against university trustees, alleging that he was denied a fair hearing when facing a charge of sexual assault. Dozens of other men have sought similar recourse after being expelled from school and publicly labeled sexual predators, for what are often he-said-she-said situations. While it seems politically incorrect to acknowledge it, women sometimes do use charges of assault as a weapon to punish men they believe have treated them badly or to seek attention, as was vividly seen with the infamous Rolling Stone story about an alleged gang rape at University of Virginia.
In Massachusetts, the state legislature is considering a bill that supporters say will give the public a better understanding of these problems. The bill would create a task force to develop a “sexual assault climate survey” that would be given to students across the state with the goal of “determining the prevalence and perception of sexual assault on college campuses.” The task force would consist of representatives of rape crisis centers, the government, and from the college and university system. That may sound like a nice idea, but it seems unlikely that such a commission and yet another study will really help clarify the issue. One fears that the focus will be more on generating attention-grabbing statistics that hype the problem, rather than identifying anything that might actually discourage sexual misconduct in the first place.
There is no easy solution to changing campus culture for the better. Men need to be reminded that “no” means “no,” no matter the situation, regardless of whether someone has been drinking, and even if an encounter has already begun. But women also need to be encouraged to behave responsibly and recognize that decisions made while under the influence are still their decisions.
Regretting a sexual encounter the next day is not the same as having been an unwilling participant the night before. One hopes that these are some of the messages that students are hearing this week as they move into dorms and settle into college life.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum.