Last week, a list of names entitled “Sexual Assault Violators on Campus” appeared on the wall of a women’s restroom at Columbia University. The list was subsequently removed by school officials, however, it quickly reappeared several times in the bathroom of a different building, this time more glaringly titled “Rapists on Campus“.
The Columbia “Rapist List” is not the first instance of students publicly outing alleged rapists in an attempt to change the way sexual assault cases are handled on their campuses. Hearkening back to a similar incident at Brown University in 1990 that involved a list of as many as 30 names emblazoned on restroom walls, the Columbia list is a pointed effort to push the administration to adopt more effective policies on sexual violence. Columbia officials have said they are treating the first incident as graffiti, which implies that students will face serious disciplinary and possible legal consequences if caught.
The decision to publicly out a rapist is a complicated one: While naming your rapist on social media or to the press can get you into trouble with your school administration or law enforcement—as it did in 2012 for University of North Carolina student Landen Gambill, who named her rapist in an interview with a journalist and was subsequently threatened with expulsion—feminists such as Jessica Valenti have called the act “straight up heroic.”
Making the world more uncomfortable for rapists—letting them know that there will be consequences that include public shaming—is something I’m entirely at ease with.
But even knowing the potential consequences for their actions, it’s little wonder that Columbia students are fed up with their school administration to the point of taking matters into their own hands; they’ve been taking action against campus sexual assault for months without seeing any real change. For example, in response to an incriminating report outlining three poorly handled cases of sexual assault, the university promised to address the problem and improve its policies. Months after Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, issued a statement promising to “hold accountable students who violate university policies” and release anonymous, aggregate data revealing information about the gender-based crimes committed on campus, little had changed.
Unsatisfied with the administration, a group of 23 students filed a federal complaint last month against Columbia, alleging violations of Title IX, Title II and the Clery Act. (Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination and the Clery Act requires colleges and universities to disclose information about crimes committed on campus; both offer recourse to students who suffer sexual assault. Title II is a part of the Americans with Disabilities Act). The more than 100-page complaint cited numerous examples of such violations, including unequal treatment of sexual assault survivors and alleged perpetrators, serial offenders remaining on campus after receiving little to no punishment, and LGBTQ+ students facing discrimination in counseling, advising and other aspects of campus life.
“Filing now is a way of saying we’re not going to back down,” Marybeth Seitz-Brown, one of the Columbia students behind the complaint, told the Columbia Spectator. “This is the last resort—it’s time to get the law involved.”
As Seitz-Brown says, students’ attempts to work with their college or university’s administration to develop better sexual assault policies often meet extremely frustrating ends, and schools like Columbia tend to make promises they don’t keep as a way to save face. However, the tide may be slowly turning: The Obama administration has stepped up its efforts to combat campus rape this year, creating a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, releasing a moving PSA and launching a federal investigation into 55 colleges and universities that may have mishandled sexual violence cases. In keeping with the White House’s promise to make sexual assault policy more transparent, the list of schools is available to the public, and includes prestigious institutions such as Harvard University, Princeton University, UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.
The progress in the White House, as well as nationwide efforts to call out schools that put their students’ health and safety at risk, are largely a result of student activism. And though the Columbia students’ current vigilante campaign against campus rapists is unfortunately more likely to get them in trouble than the alleged rapists, it draws necessary attention to Columbia’s lacking sexual assault policies. The fact that students have resorted to public shaming points to a serious gap in their trust in the administration’s ability to effectively handle sexual violence cases. Moreover, it contributes to the broader narrative centering on the widespread unacceptable responses to campus rape nationwide. We applaud student activists everywhere for taking on this crisis.
Rachel Kassenbrock is a writer who works at the Feminist Majority Foundation and occasionally blogs for Ms. Follow her on Twitter at @rkassenbrock.