This is an excerpt from the cover story of the latest issue of Ms. magazine, now available on newsstands and by subscription digitally or in print.
During her second weekend as a freshman on a California campus, Kerri accepted an offer from Mitch, a popular senior who held student office, to walk her back to her dorm from an off-campus party. When they reached Kerri’s room, Mitch raped her.
A few months later, Kerri—who had not reported the assault—learned that Mitch had raped yet another woman after walking her home from a party. And the previous year, the university had found him responsible for a prior sexual crime. His punishment? Watch a 23-minute educational video on sexual violence and write a two-page reflection paper.
This is a true story (with names and identifying details altered), and similar ones are unspooling on virtually every college campus across the U.S. According to the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study [PDF] funded by the National Institute of Justice, at least 1 in 5 women will experience a rape or an attempted rape at some point during college, and 90 percent of these rapes will be perpetrated by acquaintances. However, only 12 percent of college rape survivors will report their experience to law enforcement authorities.
That low percentage is no surprise. We have heard hundreds of eerily similar stories from survivors about how their schools “manage” this problem: Investigations and disciplinary reviews are bungled; only light sanctions are administered; and schools lack support services for those who have been victimized. Many schools discourage official reports through onerous reporting processes and not-so-subtle victim-blaming. Like the administrator who asked Amherst College’s Angie Epifano, “Are you sure it was rape?”
But there’s hope and evidence that this situation is changing, as a reinvigorated campus anti-rape movement is burgeoning across the country. The tools of this movement—Title IX complaints, the Clery Act, group lawsuits and social media—have effectively brought school mishandling of sexual assault and rape into the national discourse. And now another big hammer has arrived: The Campus Sexual Assault Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, part of the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act of 2013, will go into effect in mid-March.
On top of that, President Barack Obama unveiled a new White House report on rape and sexual assault and announced a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The president also took the unprecedented step of praising brave campus survivors who are part of the anti-rape movement, assuring them “I have your back.”
The sheer number of campuses that have now fielded Title IX and Clery complaints would not have been possible without the advent of new communication technologies. Activists use blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Google+, Skype, etc., not only to share their own experiences of sexual violence and institutional betrayal, but to connect with others.
Tufts University student Wagatwe Wanjuki was a pioneer in this realm when, in 2009, she chronicled her assault and the school’s betrayal on her blog Raped at Tufts University. Tucker Reed at USC followed this model with her blog Covered in Bandaids, and in 2011 Grace Brown started the “Project Unbreakable” Tumblr to document rapists’ statements to survivors.
By August of 2013, formal groups had coalesced to share knowledge. We cofounded End Rape on Campus (EROC), for example, to assist campuses in filing federal complaints, while Amherst’s Dana Bolger and Yale’s Alexandra Brodsky launched Know Your IX, which provides online resources for virtually every aspect of Title IX and Clery.
Many survivor activists report that their schools have made some changes in response to their efforts and federal complaints, but not a single activist we interviewed thinks their school is making the hard changes that are necessary. According to an April 2013 national SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape) study [PDF] half the students surveyed rated their school a C or lower in terms of handling sexual assault. Only 9.8 percent rated their school an A.
What would an A-rated school look like? The generally accepted opinion among activists is that it would start telling the truth about sexual-assault numbers, adopt best practices for new-student orientation, develop ongoing prevention programming and improve institutional conduct proceedings and support services.
Kerri, the young woman we profiled at the beginning of this piece, is fortunately picking up the pieces of her life, though she still has bouts of depression and rarely sleeps through the night. She expects to graduate, but her low GPA will make it difficult to get into graduate school. Meanwhile, her rapist was accepted into an MBA program. Imagine, one day he could be a successful businessperson with a long, hidden record of undetected rapes.
The struggle is far from over, but momentum on campuses around these issues is strong and growing. Schools can no longer rely on “those pesky activists” to graduate in four years and just “move on” with their lives.
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Caroline Heldman is chair of the politics department at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She specializes in the presidency, race and gender in U.S. politics and co-edited Rethinking Madame President: Is the U.S. Really Ready for a Woman in the White House? She co-founded the national organization End Rape on Campus.
Danielle Dirks is an assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College. Trained both as a sociologist and a criminologist, her research focuses on the aftermath of violent victimization, survivorship and punishment. She co-authored How Ethical Systems Change: Lynching and Capital Punishment and cofounded End Rape on Campus and the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition.