Silence and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Last spring I was hired by Drake University to provide recommendations about their campus sexual assault prevention and response policies. Today I face a moral dilemma.

In August 2010, Drake University student Anthony Bertolone was charged with third-degree felony sexual abuse for assaulting a Sigma Chi fraternity brother. According to police reports, the victim was not fully conscious during the assaults (he claims he was drugged). Discovery of the sexual assault occurred only when the alleged victim came across stills and video on Bertolone’s own computer. Bertolone was kicked out of his frat but remained enrolled as a student until his recent suspension.

I considered writing about the alleged assault in August but decided against it. I didn’t want to jeopardize professional and personal relations with the Drake community. Nor did I want to detract from criminal and campus procedures by calling out what could have been done to prevent it and diverting attention from the actual crime.

Now it looks like Bertolone may have sexually assaulted another victim.

This time I cannot remain silent. The matter of social justice far outweighs any personal dilemma.

I am compelled to speak up because sexual assault breeds in a Petri dish of silence. Certainly the potential danger in coming forward is critical for rape and sexual assault survivors. Yet even vocal bystanders risk violating a tacit cultural agreement to keep such problems hushed up. I’m not pointing a finger at Drake; I’m calling out every university that puts the right of the accused before the right of an alleged survivor. Band-aid programs of buddy systems and well-lighted areas also contribute to the problem. We need effective prevention and response policies on every campus. We need to talk honestly about drugs and alcohol and assault. Administrators must be held accountable.

Top administrators are committed to fixing the problems. In doing so, they, too, risk violating the codes of silence surrounding sexual assault by admitting there is a problem. They risk bad PR, donor dissatisfaction, lawsuits and potential enrollment issues. But sexual assault is not Drake’s problem. It is everyone’s problem.

Bertolone’s alleged second victim knows that all too well. He recently stated:

Our society is scared to talk about sexual assault, our society doesn’t know how to talk about sexual assault, there is no discourse for sexual assault. If the question is, could Drake do a better job of raising awareness about sexual assault? The answer is yes. But, as much as this is a fault on Drake, this is a fault on our society as a whole.

Fortunately there are models for progressive change. In September, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) hosted nearly 900 participants and 80 workshops at the 2010 National Sexual Assault Conference. The Center for Public Integrity released a series of reports about widespread patterns, including the lack of consequences for sexual assault cases, discrepancies in Clery Act numbers and Title IX-related evidence that “colleges had acted indifferently or even retaliated against students who reported that they had been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted on campus.”

The Line Campaign has teamed up with One Student and Men Can Stop Rape to encourage dialogue about healthy and consensual sex in promoting their Hot Safe Spring Break initiative.

Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER) and V-Day are compiling a searchable database of sexual-assault policies detailing what universities are doing to prevent, reduce and respond to sexual violence on campus. Among schools included in the database, 72 percent “offer primary prevention programs to address the root causes of sexual violence, [but] only 9 percent mandate student participation in such programs.” Seventy-five percent of campuses have security measures such as escort services or campus blue lights–a nice gesture but utterly useless, since the vast majority of sexual assaults involve a perpetrator who is known to the victim.

The process of policy implementation and norms change is moving too slowly. But while there are problems there is also hope. With education, clear policies, and a zero-tolerance cultural climate, many assaults can be prevented on our streets, in our homes and on campus. Maybe one day it won’t be risky to speak out about sexual assault. Maybe one day we won’t have to.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. suburbanfeminist says:

    We have a had a record high sexual assaults in one semester where I go to school. It is sad to see the women worried and the men just laugh at the postings around campus.

  2. First of all I totally agree with you! "We need effective prevention and response policies on every campus. We need to talk honestly about drugs and alcohol and assault." We need to be having these conversations now! Especially on college campuses. I don't understand why during freshmen orientation these issues aren't brought up. The school gives you a tour, the least they can do is discuss these issues or let the student know where to go if they want to seek information. In my opinion it is necessary. If you can tell me statistics about pyramids then you should be telling me statistics about sexual assault and discuss prevention. I agree, "with education, clear policies, and a zero-tolerance cultural climate, many assaults can be prevented on our streets, in our homes and on campus". I want to thank you for this insightful piece and I am glad you are speaking up about these issues! Its refreshing to read about the things that should be done instead of restating the need. We know the need is there and now as a society we need to do something about it. Your awesome, thanks for the post 🙂

  3. rapedattufts says:

    Thank you for speaking out. Even tho I was raped at college years ago, the effects of it and the consequences of the school's inadequate actions haunt me every day. Not a single day goes by when I am not reminded of what happened to me and how the system failed me.

  4. This is a story that truly hits close to the heart for me is upsetting. I for one, am a Sigma Chi in which it has been 8 years since I graduated. What makes this a very interesting story is that when I decided to rush Sigma Chi, I held a secret of a traumatic event that happen to me 4 years before I joined the fraternity.

    I was on a late night fishing trip by myself in which 3 other men showed up to fish whom I did not know. I connected and bonded with them as it was just a bunch of men hanging out fishing. After awhile when the three men left as I stayed to fish, they attacked, beat and gang raped me at gunpoint. It took me seven years after what happen and still about two years after graduating college before speaking out. I was 22 at the time and went back to college when I was 25.

    When I decided to join a fraternity, it was not only a challenging decision but at the same time a scary one. I needed the fraternity because I had the need to reclaim my masculinity as a straight male who happened to be gang raped. The reason for the fear of joining a fraternity has so much to do with what happen at Drake University and I know for a fact that this is an issue that has been happening for centuries. My biggest fear was that I would somehow become a victim like the one individual but I easily convinced myself that things like this don't happen just as I continued to convinced myself that I was not raped and that it doesn't happen to men.

    As the issue of sexual violence has been so much geared towards women as victims, this is a strong example that this issue affects BOTH women and men not just as victims but as allies. Through the years after finally speaking out, I have grown to learn that men still do not "get it" when it comes to how their behaviors affect others. Men…RAPE IS NOT A JOKE and in no way should there ever be any form of wisecracks made about it because one day, you can easily find yourself as a victim. It happen to me and it can happen to you!

    Visit my website (under construction) to learn more about my work in sexual violence and watch a recent videoblog created

  5. In 2007-2008 I was a freshman at Drake University. There is no way I can stress this enough: this university must be held accountable for what it does to victims. I'm now a senior at the University of Iowa and can remember exactly why I transferred.
    I hope you got a chance to talk to those of us who went through the piss-poor system of reporting Drake had (has?) to offer.

    Nothing will get a student kicked out of that university. It would simply be terrible for their image of a pompous upper crust school where the good kids go to get a nice education. When I filed a complaint accusing another student (and frat member) of sexual harassment there was no venue for me to go through except the dean of students.* No womens' resource group. No victim advocacy group. Simply myself in a room with some guy politely recommending I seek therapy and that I really didn't have to go to the police, let the university deal with it!** The university would simply ban the individual from going into the dormitory where I lived (they did not enforce this) and I should stay away from my friends in the same fraternity as this charming individual (who, by the way, did not kick him out).
    You know, so we could come to an amicable solution and we could both still be students there and everything would be hunky dory. No need for police involvement! After all, we're family.
    This university knew (knows?) damn well what it's doing. It knows that its solutions are lazy and rely heavily on victim blaming.
    The climate at Drake was apologize apologize apologize. They didn't know! They were simply being a rowdy boy you know how they are. Good on Sig Chi for kicking out that member and shame on the university for allowing him to remain a student there. Though, I am not surprised.
    There is nothing worse in this world than being forced to interact with the person who violated you. Being forced to act happy and remain calm or else you're being a bitch. They are perfectly happy to ignore it and hope it goes away. And it absolutely must come to light, the flaws in their "system".

    This university will hold on to the ends of the earth to keep their sparkly image of higher education flawless. And the people who suffer are the ones who come forward. It is wrong and it is shameful that this university allows its students to violate each other in such ways. And it fosters the students attitudes. It breeds this apologism by engaging in it. What are the students supposed to think when their peers get little more than a time out for egregiously wronging another human being?

    *which, by the way, I had to figure out myself. They did not cover who to report to at orientation. I was sent from one office to another so they could "take this very seriously".
    **I do believe that he thought he was telling the truth.

  6. "I’m not pointing a finger at Drake; I’m calling out every university that puts the right of the accused before the right of an alleged survivor".

    What is the alternative to this? This is how the legal system in this country works. And how are they putting the rights of the accused before the rights of his victim? Because they still let him attend school while he was charged for a crime but not yet convicted?

    The only other thing the university can do to flip that around is to say that if you are charged with a crime, then you must leave the university until your innocence is proven, which is in direct conflict with the "innocent until proven guilty" principle that this country's legal system is founded upon. Not to mention, sure that would provide more protection to sexual assault victims, but wait till somebody accuses you of something like stealing their laptop and you have to sit out of school for a semester. The majority of college students would be against that system if it were put to a vote I'm guessing.

    Also, if the university was to condemn the accused before he was convicted, and he went to trial and was found to be innocent (not saying that is the case here), there would be a huge backlash to that as well, so what are they to do? If the victim feels the presence of his assailant on campus jeopardizes his safety, he or anyone else that shares that sentiment is free to attend another university or defer enrollment until the man is tried. If he is convicted he would surely be removed from the university community.

    Saying the university should operate outside the law and enforce some kind of vigilante justice on the guy before his trial is not realistic.

    • Pam Redela says:

      Careful: your indoctrination into rape culture is showing! So the victim is supposed to completely alter his/her life and change schools in order to accommodate the functioning of a flawed "system"? Nice victim-blaming attitude. University policy needs to acknowledge sexual assault issues in society UP FRONT; in their mission statements, upon admission and throughout all areas of campus life. On my campus students have learned NOT to report sexual assault to campus police; they come to professors and the student-run Women's Center because they know of the ridicule and doubt aimed at those who report by the "authorities". University police departments are more concerned about presenting a "crime free" stat report each year than with actually protecting the population they are paid to serve.

    • The alternative is to suspend students while investigation is pending. Universities are also obligated to provide timely warnings to the campus and community so that students can attempt to protect themselves from identified perpetrators when campuses decline to do so. Students are routinely suspended for non-violent offenses like cheating, drinking, or even low grades, yet universities claim their hands are tied when the offense is rape.

  7. Wow, what a different response in the media when men rape other men than women. When was the last time you saw a tv news story about a campus rape where the victim was female?

    • What a stupid comment. I guess you think we should keep it quiet if it is a male victim. The author did the right thing. A lot of people make life hard for anyone who puts the university in a bad light, but in the long run it is best for everyone, especially the very university being criticized. Thank you for breaking the silence.

      I ended up getting arrested in a sit-in to draw attention to how a university covered up a rape and abused a female rape victim. Now that university is considered to be a model of what should be done. When I read this article it brought up a lot of the same feelings and I didn't even think about what gender the victim was. It isn't okay and university programs need to deal with it before and after it occurs to anyone.

  8. I hate to say this, but when I read posts like this – focusing on policies and education – I can't help but be extremely jaded by the naive remarks that somehow that will cause change. When the institution does not punish for the behavior and in fact, rewards them by allowing them to play in their sports activities, no amount of education and policy can make this scourge better. I applaud the work being done, definitely. However, things are getting worse and I think we need to reevaluate our focus and approach.

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