Colleges Need a New Attitude to Stop Sexual Assault on Campus

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Photo: Getty

Daniel Craig. Benicio Del Toro. Dulé Hill. Steve Carell with a day’s worth of stubble. A new White House PSA features what could be People’s Sexiest Men Alive speaking directly to would-be rapists and bystanders. “If she doesn’t consent — or if she can’t consent — it’s rape, it’s assault, it’s a crime, it’s a wrong,” Del Toro says. The PSA is part of a new White House effort to raise awareness of sexual assault on college campuses and provide tools for universities to keep students safe.

Perhaps the actors should have cut a second PSA addressing college administrators: “If she says she didn’t consent — or she couldn’t consent — it’s rape, it’s assault, it’s a crime, and it should be reported and promptly addressed.” Getting universities to be transparent about assault on campus, and to improve not just their policies but their practices, has proved to be no easy task. Schools are required, by a federal law called the Clery Act, to disclose accurate campus crime statistics. But 63 percent of colleges fail to do so.

When schools do move to address assault claims, the response can fall short. At BuzzFeed, Katie Baker has reported even the “fixers” that colleges hire to help them deal with sexual assault cases tend to do more to bolster universities’ public images than secure justice for survivors. And even some campuses with engaged student coalitions against sexual assault have administrations that have been accused of trying to stifle their efforts. This is especially true at expensive liberal-arts colleges like Occidental in Los Angeles, which has allegedly retaliated against faculty who spoke up on behalf of assault survivors.

If the White House really wants to make inroads on this issue, it'll have to hold administrators as accountable as rapists. The U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday it was going to investigate 55 colleges' and universities’ sexual assault reporting procedures. And the White House task force is considering making it mandatory for universities to participate in federally run surveys that would “gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus” and “test students’ attitudes and awareness about the issue.”

This is a great start. But making colleges get serious about addressing sexual assaults will probably take more than just urging them to mend their ways. One of the institutional deterrents to encouraging more assault survivors to come forward is that it often means a marked increase in crime statistics. Last week the Pentagon reported that, after a similar campaign to change the way the military handles assault, reports of sexual assault jumped more than 50 percent. This is actually good news for survivors: It means more of them feel comfortable coming forward. But it doesn’t look good for the institutions involved. Universities are eager to please parents and woo new students, which has often led them to prioritize their own reputations above survivors’ needs. As the release of the DOE list demonstrates, sweeping assaults under the rug isn’t a great long-term strategy for an institution that wants to look good. And some legislators hope to go even further, making assault response part of colleges’ U.S. News and World Report rankings. Transparency could become an asset: Colleges will need to rethink their ideas about what looks “good” and “bad” when it comes to reporting rape statistics.

They’ll also need to rethink some ingrained ideas about assault, victimhood, and who’s at risk. For example, while it’s refreshing to see a sexual assault PSA in which men discuss the importance of consent, the White House spot is also reinforcing the notion that women are the only people who get raped. Men can be victims of rape and sexual assault, too; and they face even greater stigma than women. The U.S. military estimates half of sexual assault victims are men — which makes a certain amount of sense, given that the military is still a mostly male institution — yet only 14 percent of reported assaults involve male victims. College campuses have a more balanced gender distribution, but that doesn’t mean male students don’t experience rape. Last week at Slate, Hanna Rosin wrote that after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invented a category of sexual violence called “being made to penetrate,” reported rates of sexual violence against men and women basically equalized. Rape is rape, no matter what the victim’s gender, and it’s a bit disappointing that the White House PSA is propping up the notion that “sexual assault” is men violating women, not anyone violating anyone.

Universities need to get over their fear of higher crime statistics and negative publicity, and start seeing publicized incidents of sexual assault on campus as opportunities to improve policies, and express support for victims of all genders. It’s pretty clear that, after decades of Take Back the Night marches and legislation to force better campus crime reporting, colleges need more than a better education on handling sexual assault. They need an attitude shift.