Can California Lead Charge Against Campus Rape?

The University of California prides itself on being one of the best public university systems in the country. It boasts that its 10 schools attract the “best and brightest,” and that its students consistently expand the horizons of research. Two of its undergraduate campuses are ranked among the top 25, six among the top 50 and seven among the top 100 U.S. universities by U.S. News & World Report.

But there’s a new set of rankings that won’t be a source of pride. Three UC schools—Davis, UCLA and Berkeley—ranked among the top 20 U.S. schools for the number of on-campus forcible sex offenses from 2010 to 2012. A fourth California school, Stanford, is also among the top 20.

The findings come from The Washington Post, which compiled federal crime data from every four-year university and college in the country that enrolls at least 1,000 students. Data showed that, in 2012, 55 percent of the 1,570 schools studied had at least one report of a forcible sex offense on campus. And that’s just reported offenses: It’s hard to believe that there have been no sexual assaults at 45 percent of schools given what we know about the frequency of campus sexual assault.

Of the schools studied, 64 California schools—including all 10 in the University of California system—reported at least one forcible sex offense over the three-year period from 2010 to 2012.

So how do California schools handle sexual assaults once they’ve been reported? A recent audit commissioned by state legislators found that college employees whose job it is to respond to reports of sexual violence and harassment are well-trained, but those who are often the first responders to an assault—such as dorm resident advisors and athletic coaches—are not. Plus, the audit—which surveyed more than 200 students from UCLA, Berkeley, San Diego State University and California State University-Chico—found that about 20 percent of all students surveyed were “not aware of resources available on campus should they or someone they know experience sexual harassment or sexual violence.”

Since the auditors only talked to a small sample of students, they caution that their results can’t be applied widely. Their recommendations, though, are still important to consider:

The universities should do more to demonstrate that a student who may have experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence is informed of his or her reporting options and what to expect regarding the universities’ subsequent actions. The universities then need to better inform students who file a complaint of the status of the investigation and to notify them of the eventual outcome.

The University of California seems to have gotten the message loud and clear. On June 20, Janet Napolitano, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and now president of the University of California system, announced the formation of a task force to oversee the efforts on UC campuses to combat sexual violence. She said in a press release:

Sexual violence is a serious crime that we will never tolerate. …We aim to be the national leader in combating sexual violence on campus, and the mission of this new task force is to continue to review and improve our efforts to make sure the University of California employs innovative, evidence-based and consistent practices across the system.

Rather than quashing reports of sexual assault in order to save face—as is likely happening at other schools, according to the Post data—Napolitano is acknowledging that the UC system has a problem and is taking steps to fix it. Simultaneously, the California legislature is considering a bill to update the state’s definition of sexual consent to a more modern term: “affirmative consent.” That means, specifically, “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” The bill adds,

It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.

It’s a refreshing, modern definition that California should adopt. This, along with Napolitano’s task force, and the attempt by California legislators to research the specifics, paints a heartening picture of the future, one where the frequency of campus rape is, hopefully, drastically reduced.

Photo of Janet Napolitano courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Robin Jones Kerr is a journalism major and women’s studies minor at George Washington University, and an intern at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.