Last week, President Obama announced the creation of the “White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault,” which was formed in response to a recent federal study that showed that 1 in 5 women are raped on our nation’s campuses. The numbers are in the same ballpark as the statistic, widely accepted among social scientists, that 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused.
Less consistently, President Obama stated that only 1 in 71 men are raped, while social scientists typically say that 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused. But those disparities may have more to do with the definition of “rape” and “sexual abuse” than anything else.
The study indicated that the women who were raped on campus tended to be students at parties, who were drunk, or otherwise incapable of resisting. But a campus is not limited to fellow students, of course. There are also the coaches, professors, and others on campus with ready access. According to the report, the vast majority of perpetrators are male. (This does not mean that no females abuse, or engage in sexual assault, but rather that very few do, as compared to males.) Shockingly, the report also stated that 7% of college males admitted to attempted rape, with 63% of these admitting to many rapes, on the average of 6 rapes each. It’s enough to consider home-schooling your girls for college! I’m kidding, of course, but these are awful statistics and they demand radical responses.
The fact that college men are attempting and getting away with multiple rapes tells us this is a much larger problem than any one man, or any one college campus. It is a society-wide problem composed of several complex elements. Let me be clear: we are all at fault when the problem is this pervasive and, as the President emphasized, “It affects every one of us.”
College Rapists Look Like Us
First, even today when we know beyond any doubt that the serial abuse of children has been perpetrated by respected priests, rabbis, coaches, teachers, fathers, uncles, and many other beloved and admired men, we still, deep down, want to believe that rapists don’t look like us or live in our universe. It is so much easier to fear and loathe Mr. Stranger Danger or the sick child-porn king than to face the fact that the rapist can be, and is, the fraternity president, the football player, the debate club champion, or the mentor. Get over it: They look like your brother, your son, or your best friend. Take your pick.
The notorious Steubenville, Ohio rape occurred in the high-school context, but it showed us the problem: We have created social systems that protect male rapists, and our society has a natural inclination to push away the facts of sex assault by young men. Finally, justice was done in Steubenville, but only after the online nudger Anonymous forced the facts in front of everyone, as I discuss in this Justia column. To protect girls and women, and to achieve justice, requires each of us to force ourselves out of our romantic reveries about life and face the reality that hurts. The mass denial that our society practiced until very recently was morally bankrupt.
Prioritizing a Concern for False Claims Over the Need for Information about Rapists
Second, we have a powerful fear of ruining a man’s reputation that keeps us in denial and allows us to protect that man to an irrational degree. I recently met with a group of distinguished attorneys who responded to the notion that more child-sex-abuse victims in their adult years should be able to go to court with outright hostility, because of their extreme fear that powerful men could be brought down with false claims. This assumption about a prevalence or likelihood of false claims is empirically false. Anecdotes of an individual man being falsely accused is no basis for creating public policy for everyone. But, worse, this subservience to men saving face at the cost of stopping rapists and child molesters compounds the problem of our mass denial. The result of what we have right now is the overprotection of men’s reputations and the radical underprotection of women and children against rape. There are legal means to deter false claims, including defamation and libel lawsuits. This pervasive irrational fear that one should not “ruin” a rapist’s future is not productive.
The Lack of Buffers for Budding Romantic Relationships
Third, the more restrained dating practices of the past have all but disappeared, leaving women more vulnerable to rape. The 1970s sexual revolution liberated women, men, and their relationships in a very real sense, but that era also tore down dating rituals and campus housing barriers that had created a safer space between meeting someone and becoming intimate with him or her. Now, many dorms are freely open to both genders at all times, and the primary way in which most women can meet a man socially on campus is to attend a party, and we all know what college parties involve: alcohol. I am not advocating returning to the pre-70s world. Nor do I think that same-sex dorms are so great.). In fact, same-sex dorms can be dangerous for our LGBT students. But colleges have a serious problem on their hands if they do not control the alcohol, and the now-known dangers to women on campus, and that do not find ways to offer events and gatherings that are safer. One way to do that is to report the rapists, as I discuss below.
What the Men Who Aren’t Raping Women on Campus Need to Do
The statistics and the problem remind me of the stories of the priests who abuse children in the rectories where they live with other priests. I have always thought that the priest across the hall, who never touched a child inappropriately, should have gone to the police, and if he didn’t, he was complicit in the rapes. The same is true for fraternity men and the other men on campus. Men must step up and report to school authorities their friends and acquaintances who are raping women. If they do not do so, they are aiding the rapists. Don’t tell me they don’t know who they are. True, it takes guts, but so does everything else in life worth achieving.
What Women Need to Do
Women also need to protect each other as much as they can, but, more importantly, they also must come to terms with the reality that drinking heavily is like dancing on a steep cliff. You may pull it off, and waltz back to your dorm none the worse for wear and with a story to tell, but you may also fall off the cliff and have your current life extinguished. Is the risk worth it, once you read this report? Colleges need first to post the statistics on campus rape everywhere. They also need to do more to train women about how to protect themselves, and how to report rape, as do high schools and parents.
Women everywhere also need to read The Gift of Fear, an eye-opening book that urges women and girls to trust their instincts in order to protect themselves. If a man’s actions make you nervous, get away, even if he looks like the All-American boy next door.
By far the most important thing that colleges need to do is to step up their reporting and stop shielding their students from the consequences of their criminal acts. The federal Clery Act requires it for any school accepting federal funds, though many have operated as though it is just a suggestion, and not mandatory. PSU experienced more reports following the Sandusky scandal, which has perked up the government’s interest, leading to an ongoing investigation of Clery compliance by the Department of Education.
The rape problem is campus-wide, but there are also pockets of power in the university system that have their own ethos, which contribute to the rapes, and repeat rapes that are more possible when rapists aren’t reported to the authorities. Coaches have an unfortunate history of covering up for their college athletes, which often makes transparency and safety virtually impossible. The federal government is doing more on this front as well, with the Department of Education’s current investigation into Penn State. Colleges also need to partner with the many sports organizations that are slowly waking up to their own scandals, including US Swimming, which improved its SafeSport program, though it has more to do, according to the Gunderson Health Systems recent review of their practices.
Sports present special challenges, though, as I discussed in this Justia column. One phenomenon, in particular, is the cycle of abuse for elite athletes. Lawyer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who was an ’84 former Olympic gold medalist swimmer, finds fault with the Gunderson report on US Swimming, because it does not fully grasp the elite athlete syndrome. She says “[t]hat it isn’t so much about a pedophile’s sexual gratification as it is about power. Research shows that the more elite the athlete, the more likely they are to be abused. A good coach can get an athlete to do amazing things—a lot of control over the athlete’s life—which extends to sexual control.” This is an apt though chilling description of any predator—they are always looking for an angle. In the sports arena, the most talented need both intense adult oversight and often are away from their homes, conditions that create the opportunities predators seek out.
It is refreshing to see the President pushing the college rape issues to the forefront, as terrible as the facts are. Facts are a precious commodity in the task of educating the public about the realities of the risks of sex assault in the United States.
There is more good to be done, though. Now that the President is a lame duck, and can’t care about re-election, it sure would be nice to hear him putting the facts of clergy abuse out there as well. How about a Task Force on abuse in religious communities across the country? I would be happy to provide a list to get it started. Is it too much to hope that that issue, so deeply important to so many Americans, would be at the top of the list when he meets with the Pope in two short months?