The Institutionalization of Rape on Campus

shutterstock_176417336Editors’ note: We wanted to address the controversy surrounding the op-ed below, and note that we have changed the title and one asterisk-marked sentence in order to more accurately represent the position of the author. We are extremely concerned about the horrors of ISIS’ terrorist campaign of rape, grotesque violence and murder and want to be clear that neither the Ms. Blog nor Amy Lauricella, the author of the piece, intended to equate ISIS’ mass rapes as an instrument of war with rape on college campuses. The author, an attorney who is fighting on the frontlines of the movement to end violence against women, intended to issue a wake-up call about the high and unacceptable levels of institutionalized rape on college campuses. Ms. and the Ms. Blog have always provided a platform for feminist ideas, including controversial positions. While we certainly do not think that the rape campaign of ISIS terrorists can be equated with the high levels of college rape, we do think that sexual assault is becoming institutionalized on college campuses, and we must continue to push college administrators to take action to protect students. It is believed on the basis of sound research that at least one in five college women will experience a sexual assault on campus. And a recent report from the Association of American Universities put that number at least as high as one in four. This is unacceptable—and it’s an institutional, not individual, problem.

The horrors of the Islamic State are becoming increasingly well known. This month, The Washington Post released a series covering life in the Islamic State, with one piece centering on women and highlighting that they live in constant fear of sexual violence. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch reported on “a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery and forced marriage by ISIS forces” of Yazidi women.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, David Brooks expressed his alarm about ISIS’ rape program. Writing, “[t]his wasn’t supposed to happen in the 21st century,” the reader gets the impression that ISIS’ treatment of women is an anomaly in modern-day society. As an attorney at Global Rights for Women, a nonprofit that works around the world to achieve effective reform on violence against women, I know that the institutionalization of rape occurs around the world, even in the U.S. According to a 2013 global review, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence.

While ISIS actively promotes sexual assault, American college administrations facilitate and perpetuate the rape of women on campuses through complicity and inaction. Sexual violence has thus become institutionalized.* Recently published survey results show that as many as one in four women experience sexual assault on U.S. college campuses. The American Association of Universities surveyed 150,000 students at 27 colleges and universities in the spring of 2015. More than 27 percent of female college seniors reported that, since entering college, they had experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact. Nearly half of those, 13.5 percent, had experienced penetration, attempted penetration or unwanted oral sex. A significant percentage of students say they did not report because they were “…embarrassed, ashamed or that it would be too emotionally difficult” or “…did not think anything would be done about it.”

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating more than 100 universities for their inadequate responses to sexual assault complaints. A Yale fraternity remains suspended after pledges marched on campus in 2010 chanting “No means yes, yes means anal,” leading to a federal investigation of the college’s “failure to eliminate a hostile sexual environment.”


Sexual assault on campuses has become so widely discussed and studied that a new term, “target rape,” has been adopted to provide a more accurate description of the perpetrators’ behavior in situations of acquaintance rape. The term appropriately shifts attention to the behavior of the rapist rather than focusing on the relationship between the victim and the offender. Target rape involves members of male-dominated social groups, such as athletic teams or fraternities, engaging in behavior that is premeditated, intentional and often repeated, to accomplish the rape of women. A recent trial involving St. Paul’s boarding school provides an example of the phenomenon of target rape and the difficulty in obtaining convictions. St. Paul’s senior Owen Labrie was accused of assaulting a freshman girl as part of a sexual score-keeping ritual known as the “senior salute.” Labrie was acquitted of felony sexual assault charges.

School administrations can be complicit in perpetuating target rapes by failing to investigate or influencing the adjudication process of the allegation. In August, Sam Ukwuachu, a football player for Baylor University, was sentenced to six months in county jail and 10 years’ probation for raping a freshman soccer player two years ago. Baylor issued a statement on the day of sentencing insisting it provides a safe educational environment, noting that perpetrators of sexual violence “will find no shelter on our campus.” In contrast to this strong statement, Baylor was silent on the sexual assault allegations for two years while Ukwuachu remained on the football team, conducting a hollow investigation that did not even involve reviewing the rape kit. Too often, the American educational system protects its athletes, reputation and monetary interest over the victims of sexual violence.

ISIS’ treatment of Yazidi women as sexual slaves may seem far removed from fraternity or athletic team members’ treatment of women as sexual objects for conquest, however the results are distressingly similar. As tempting as it is to deny the parallels, we must acknowledge that institutionalized rape exists throughout the world and in the face of legal prohibitions. Recognition will help identify and eliminate the behaviors within our own culture.

ISIS’ sexual enslavement of the Yazidi population is abhorrent and must be addressed. Propagating the idea that “they” commit atrocities while implying that “we” are innocent of condoning sexual assault does not help us understand and effectively act to end sexual violence against women and girls everywhere. We need to keep in mind that all women deserve the fundamental human rights of equality and freedom from violence. Merely distancing ourselves from “them” and their immoral behavior doesn’t help break down the barriers women still face in our own society.

Photo via Shutterstock


Amy Lauricella is a staff attorney at Global Rights for Women. Amy has experience in advocacy and legal representation for victims of violence both internationally and locally.