The California State Senate’s passage of a bill to require affirmative consent for sexual behavior among college students further highlights the national epidemic of assaults on campus. In fact, the Obama Administration has made reduction – and transparency – of sexual assaults at college a cause de rigueur, and, fundamentally, a good one at that.
Even so, no small amount of murkiness may ultimately obscure the imperative of keeping young people safe from crimes that not only bruise the body but also savage the soul.
Let’s start with the stats. At the public unveiling of a White House Task Force report, Vice President Joe Biden stated, “One in five of every one of those young women who is dropped off for that first day of school, before they finish school, will be assaulted in her college years.”
One-in five. Twenty percent. Wow.
According to PolitiFact.com, that statistic was born of a definition provided by WomensHealth.gov, which states that sexual assault can be “verbal, visual or anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention.” The statistics themselves reside within the recently released Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA) conducted for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice. That project surveyed undergraduates at two large public universities, receiving 5,446 responses from women ages 18 to 25 via the web. The majority of respondents cited oral, vaginal or anal penetration.
The relatively small sample size, mediocre response rate, and reliance on large universities as a representative of all colleges have all been used to cast doubt on the predicable and projectable value of the data.
Nevertheless, with widespread belief that such crimes are significantly underreported, quibbling about the scientific design of the study in question seems a distraction, if not a down right diversion.
Other elements adding to the murkiness include the fact that school officials, rather than law enforcement, are often the investigating bodies sorting out fact from fiction when allegations are brought forth. And more than a few of those administrators struggle to ascertain the truth. For example, in a May 2, 2014 Washington Post story, Robin Hattersley, editor of Campus Safety magazine said that many victims are unsure about the details of the assault because they were drunk or high at the time.
For those, and other reasons, the aggrieved often don’t wish to press charges.
Federal laws covering everything from student privacy to Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at schools receiving federal aid, and the Clery Act, which requires the maintenance and disclosure of crime statistics on and near campus, further complicate matters for even the most concerned college or university.
Additional backlash can be found in the stories of three young men suspended or expelled from Vassar College, the University of Michigan and Duke University, respectively, for sexual assault they each claimed was consensual, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times story (June 7, 2014). Each is suing their school on the grounds that their due process rights were violated.
Similar tales can be found at Occidental College, the University of Michigan, Columbia University, Xavier University, and Swarthmore College, according to the Times.
On the other side of argument are the scores of victims speaking up and stepping out – perhaps even prompting the federal investigation of 55 schools (including Harvard, Princeton and the University of South Carolina) and placing pressure on the Princeton Review to rank schools by the number of sexual assaults on campus each year, according to MSNBC. The effectiveness of their outreach can be found in successful representation provided by the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, Massachusetts which reports a 98 percent failure rate five years ago contrasted with a 90 percent success rate today.
Even the political commentariat, in the form of Fox News Contributor George Will, has weighed in – essentially arguing that accusations of sexual assault must be considered in the context of the “hook up culture,” hormones, alcohol and the “faux sophistication” of an increasingly elongated adolescence.
According to the CSA report, the majority of sexual assaults occur when women are incapacitated due to their use of substances, primarily alcohol; freshmen and sophomores at greater risk for victimization than juniors and seniors; and the large majority of victims of sexual assault being victimized by men they know and trust, rather than strangers.
From those conclusions logically flow common sense steps schools can take to keep young people safe.
Finally, while most of the attention has been focused on female victims, males may being paying the price of sexual assault as well. According to a 2012 reporting from the Centers for Disease Control, 1.4 percent of men report having been raped at some point in their life and approximately one in twenty (5.3 percent) experienced sexual violence other than rape, such as being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, or non-contact unwanted sexual experiences in the twelve months prior to the survey.
For women and men, girls and boys, on campus or off, the issue of sexual violence can be disputed but not ignored … as the victims paying the price will neither retreat nor surrender.
And that’s a good thing.
Stephen Gray Wallace, director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.
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