Sexual assault is epidemic in the United States.
Recent media reports, public outrage, and activism have been focused on the institutional settings in which these assaults occur. Colleges and universities, as well as the military and athletic programs, have come under increasing scrutiny as settings that not only fail to deter, but possibly foster rape.
Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Maryville, Steubenville, Florida State, and the University of Missouri, to name a few, are among the recent highly-profiled institutions in which student athletes allegedly committed rapes that were ignored or downplayed by school administrators. The victims in these cases were treated with hostility by the schools, police, and even their peers who considered the reports of rape to be exaggerated responses to a party culture where “everyone is just trying to have fun” and where “stuff happens.” Some of these victims have committed or attempted suicide.
Social consciousness around putting the victims of rape on trial may be evolving, but are the environments that foster these assaults really changing? President Obama recently promised women who have been sexually assaulted in college: “I’ve got your back.” Should we be guardedly optimistic that this message from the top signals change, or do policy trends indicate attempts to protect institutions at the continued expense of victims? In this Viewpoints, five experts weigh in on the question of situational factors and institutional accountability around rape.
Lisa Wade reviews what we know about who commits rape on college campuses and the conditions that support this behavioral profile. She asserts that campus officials need to understand the interplay of cultural, psychological and situational causes for rape in order to make viable policy decisions. Brian Sweeney highlights the connection between alcohol consumption and sexual assault. He argues that campus policies that address binge drinking are doomed to fail unless they take into account that, for many young people, drinking and casual sex are rewarding. Amelia Seraphia Derr focuses on federal policies for reporting campus rape. She notes that colleges and universities are beginning to take these regulations more seriously, but raises concerns that they may trend in the direction of a “culture of compliance,” where the fear of litigation that drives policy making could be counterproductive for prevention and support programs.
Michael A. Messner turns the lens on rape culture among male college athletes and asks what can be done. He’s not convinced that current reform programs that target individual men and men’s sports teams will mitigate sexual violence. He suggests we need a deeper understanding of the link between sexual domination, and the ways we celebrate male athletes and their violent domination in sports. Writing about a different, though familiar context, Carol Burke examines recent rape scandals in the military. She chronicles the mounting evidence for a high-level official blind eye on sexual assault and the resulting outrage among congresswomen who are calling for accountability. Is change in the offing? Read on and see what these experts have to say.
- Understanding And Ending The Campus Sexual Assault Epidemic, by Lisa Wade
- Drinking And Sexual Assault [Kids Just Wanna Have Fun], by Brian Sweeney
- A Culture Of Compliance Vs. Prevention, by Amelia Seraphia Derr
- Can Locker Room Rape Culture Be Prevented?, by Michael A. Messner
- Failure To Serve And Protect, by Carol Burke
Understanding And Ending The Campus Sexual Assault Epidemic
by Lisa Wade
College attendance is a risk factor for sexual assault. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in five women who attend college will be the victim of a completed or attempted sexual assault, compared to one in six women in the general population. Up to 90 percent of these women will know their attacker. Only about half will identify their experience as assault and fewer than 5 percent will report their experience to campus authorities or the police. Four percent of college men also report being sexually assaulted, overwhelmingly by other men.
Scholars have been working to gain a better understanding of the prevalence of rape on campuses, why it’s infrequently reported to authorities, and what we can do about it. In a 2006 article, Elizabeth Armstrong and her collaborators point to cultural, psychological, and situational causes. In the effort to prevent sexual crimes, colleges and universities need to
understand these interrelated causes and how they contribute to rates of sexual assault.
What are the psychological factors? A small number of men may be more predisposed to assault their peers than others. In a 2002 study by David Lisak and Paul Miller, 6 percent of male college students admitted to behavior that matched the legal definitions of sexual assault or rape. Of those men, two-thirds were serial rapists, with an average of six assaults each. Serial rapists plan their assaults, carefully choose their victim, use alcohol as a rape drug, and employ force, but only as a back-up. Lisak and Miller find that these men are more likely than other men to engage in other forms of violence as well.
What about context? Some men may be inclined to harm others, but whether they do so is related to their opportunities. The right context can offer these men an opening to do so. Peggy Sanday first recognized the role that context plays in facilitating sexual assault. Studying fraternity parties, she found that some are generative of risk and others are less so. Parties that feature loud music, few places to sit, dancing, drinking, and compulsory flirting are, she explains, “rape prone.” In these more dangerous places, rape culture camouflages the predatory behavior of serial rapists—like plying women with alcohol or pulling them into secluded areas—making it look normal and more difficult to interpret as criminal.
And then there’s culture. Rape culture narratives—those that suggest that rape is simply a matter of miscommunication, that “date rape” isn’t “real rape,” that women frequently lie about being sexually assaulted for vengeance or out of shame— make it difficult for bystanders to justify intervening and for some victims to understand that their experience was a crime. Rape culture also gives rapists plausible excuses for their actions, making it difficult to hold them accountable, especially if members of the campus administration buy into these myths as well.
Armstrong and her colleagues show that all three of these causal factors interact together and with campus policy. Strict penalties for drinking alcohol in residence halls, for example, especially when strongly enforced, can push party-oriented students off campus to less safe places. Rape-friendly contexts offer a target-rich haven for the small percentage of individual men who are motivated to use force and coercion to attain sex. Rape culture contributes to concealing the predatory nature of their behavior to victims, their peers and, all too often, their advocates.
Currently, we’re in the midst of a transformation in how colleges and universities handle sexual assault. While our understanding is far from complete, we know more than ever about the interaction of situational, cultural, and psychological causes. If institutions of higher education want to, they have the tools to reduce rates of sexual assault. And, even if they do not make this a priority, they face increasing pressure to do so. A strong national movement now aims to hold institutions accountable for ignoring, hiding, and mishandling sex crimes. Thanks largely to Know Your IX, 30 colleges submitted complaints to the U.S. Office for Civil Rights in 2013, nearly double the number from the year before. We should expect even higher numbers in 2014. Praising these activists, President Barack Obama announced that he was making the end of men’s sexual violence against women a priority. The combination of “insider” and “outsider” politics, and a sympathetic media, is a promising recipe for change.
Drinking And Sexual Assault [Kids Just Wanna Have Fun]
by Brian Sweeney
Getting wasted is fun, as is hooking up. In today’s campus hookup culture, alcohol and sex often go together, and both can be rewarding experiences for young adults. Party culture glamorizes heavy drinking, making it seem less dangerous and, too often, causing students to dismiss the negative effects—whether getting puked on at a football game or being sexually assaulted—as “just stuff that happens.” But sexual assault is a predictable result of party subcultures characterized by extreme drinking and sexual double standards. A majority of college rape victims are drunk when attacked, and rapists use alcohol as a weapon to incapacitate their victims. Men—and other women, for that matter—may see overly drunk women as fair game, giving up their right to feminine protection because they have failed to be respectable and ladylike. Given the connection between intoxication and sexual assault, many ask, “Why not just tell women not to get so drunk?” But a mindset that places responsibility on women ignores the widespread attitudes and practices that encourage men’s sexual predation and victimization of women in the first place.
To be clear, drinking, by itself, does not lead to sexual assault. Drinking heavily makes women more vulnerable, but it is overwhelmingly men who take advantage and rape. It is also men who stand by and watch their male friends ply women with drinks, block women from leaving rooms, and sometimes gang-rape women too drunk to walk home. Equipping women with “watch your drink, stay with your friends” strategies ignores both the fun of partying with abandon and the larger structures of domination that lead men to feel entitled to (drunk) women’s bodies. Moreover, while rape-supportive beliefs are widespread, their influence over men’s behavior is dependent on rape-supportive social and organizational arrangements—campus party culture and alcohol policy included.
Drinking subcultures have a long history on American college campuses, but since 1984 and the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, all 50 states have opted for billions in federal highway aid in exchange for passing Age-21 laws. As a result, many college campuses send mixed messages and endorse confused policies. Students are regularly fined and written up for drinking infractions but also educated about drinking responsibly. Students flock to so-called party schools and then spend most of their college years trying not to get caught—secretly “pre-gaming” with hard-alcohol in dorm rooms, hiding out in fraternity basements during party inspections, and nervously sweating as the bouncer checks for fake IDs. Alcohol becomes a coveted commodity, with many students seeking access to it and fortunate others wielding control of it.
Problems related to drinking exist, in part, because we have constructed a firewall between students and the adults who run universities—a divide that surely undermines our mission of creating safe and rich learning environments. We are allowing young people, unsupervised, to initiate each other into adulthood, often through rituals built around drinking. The campus pub is long gone at most schools, a relic of a bygone in loco parentis era when many professors lived among students and mentored them academically and socially. We could perhaps learn valuable lessons from a time when drinking was less illicit and student social life more open and watched over. Bringing drinking “aboveground” would disrupt some of the party scenes that sociological research has shown to be productive of sexual danger for women, would remove some of the constraints college administrators face in crafting effective alcohol education and policy, and would embolden sexual assault victims to come forward, reducing their fears of being punished for drinking violations.
Many schools are trying to get students to drink more responsibly. Since 2008, over 125 college and university presidents and chancellors have signed on to the Amethyst Initiative, which calls for “informed and dispassionate public debate” on Age-21 drinking laws. The supporters of the initiative, while not explicitly endorsing a lowering of the drinking age, believe Age-21 laws drive drinking underground, leading to dangerous binge drinking and reckless behavior among students. Five years after its inception, it is unclear if anything will come of the Amethyst Initiative. Federal and state government officials seem stubbornly unwilling to open discussion on Age-21 laws. And yet, because the initiative focuses on moderate and responsible drinking among students rather than abstinence, its ideas should have traction in correcting party cultures that, as they are currently organized, produce both fun and sexual danger. What is fairly certain is that sexual assault policies that ignore the collective, rewarding nature of drunken, erotically charged revelry will likely fail among many young adults.
A Culture Of Compliance Vs. Prevention
by Amelia Seraphia Derr
The under-reporting of campus sexual assaults has become a social problem. Students around the country are waging protests and demanding accountability from university administrators who have been accused of making light of alarming rates of sexual violence on college campuses. In 2011 the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, in reaction to a Department of Justice report on the serious under-reporting of campus sexual assaults, and with the encouragement of Vice President Joe Biden, issued a Dear Colleagues Letter (DCL) on the topic of sexual violence. Specifically, the DCL emphasized and reiterated the legally mandated expectations for systems of reporting and adjudicating cases of sexual violence, for training staff, and for developing prevention and support programs.
Legislated reporting of sexual assault is the fruit of efforts dating back to the 1972 issuance of Title IX of the Education Amendments, which included sexual violence along with a variety of other forms of gender discrimination. In 1986 the Clery Act clarified and expanded the reporting requirements that were part of Title IX by establishing clear expectations for support services for students who are victims of sexual violence, and for the types of sexual violence-related reports that colleges and universities must file annually.
This legislative action intensified in 2011 when Bob Casey (D-PA) learned of Title IX violation complaints against Swarthmore College, alleging under-reporting cases of sexual misconduct, and took action. He introduced the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (The SaVE Act), which became law with the passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act in August 2013. This act closes a serious gap in the existing law by requiring clearer and more publicized policies, education on student’s rights, “bystander education” for the purpose of prevention, expanded reporting requirements, mandated prevention programs, and procedural rights for the accuser and accused.
This federal-level attention has created a sense of urgency in higher education, prompting university administrators to revisit policies on sexual assault to ensure compliance. But does it actually help change an organizational environment that is highly conducive to assault?
Institutionalizing accountability is essential; policies are a sustainable tool for addressing sexual violence on campuses. Evidence of the effectiveness of such policies can be seen in the fact that since the 2011 DCL there has been a steep increase in the number of Title IX and Clery Act complaints filed. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 62 Title IX complaints dealing with issues of sexual violence and harassment were filed between Oct. 1, 2012 and Sept. 30, 2013 alone.
However, a heightened regulatory environment may create a culture of compliance where the fear of litigation—rather than expert knowledge on prevention—drives policy-making. Institutional priorities and resources are directed differently depending on whether a university focuses on compliance-based reporting policies or prevention and support programs (which also include reporting policies, but within a framework of victim advocacy rather than institutional protection). For example, the DCL states that “if a school knows or reasonably should know about a potential sexual assault it is required to take immediate action.” Ambiguity about what this means may prompt universities to adopt a mandated reporting policy for adult-aged students similar to those in place for minors or other vulnerable populations in order to avoid litigation.
Duke University (along with University of Montana, Swarthmore, and several others) has instituted such a policy, naming almost all of its 34,000 employees as mandated reporters. When staff or faculty members realize that students are about to share a concern with them, they must inform the student that the information they share will be reported to the designated administrator, with or without the student’s permission. Duke University states that reports have increased since this policy was adopted. However, some victim’s advocates oppose the practice. They counter that campus policies that mandate reporting irrespective of the victim’s desire perpetuate a campus environment of silence and isolation and limit victims’ options for confiding in trusted sources. A student Resident Assistant (RA) at Swarthmore, where RAs are considered mandated reporters, was recently fired from her position because she refused to break confidentiality by identifying a victim. Critics warn that these policies could ultimately lead to decreased reporting from victims who feel there is no safe space for them to turn in confidence. This is especially likely to be the case at a campus with few or insufficient survivor support services.
The real issue is how to move beyond a culture of compliance to a culture of prevention. In response to the requirements of the Campus SaVE Act, university policies should foreground survivor self-determination, provide strong perpetrator-prevention programs, offer robust victim support services, and promote increased dialogue about sexual violence with all members of the university community. These efforts will take us beyond the high visibility that reporting requirements have had, and into the areas of support and education required for true change.
Can Locker Room Rape Culture Be Prevented?
by Michael A. Messner
Recipe for sexual assault: Assemble a group of young men. Promise them glory for violently dominating other groups of young men. Bond the group with aggressive joking about the sexual domination of women. Add public adulation that permeates the group with the scent of entitlement. Provide mentors who thrived as young men in this same system. Allow to simmer.
What have we cooked up? Horrendous sexual assaults on unconscious girls by high school football players in Steubenville and Maryville as well as an ongoing parade of sexual assault accusations against college football players, most recently at Florida State, Vanderbilt, and the United States Naval Academy. Do we over-emphasize cases of football player sexual misconduct because of their high profile? Perhaps. But research by sociologist Todd Crosset since the 1990s has shown that men who play intercollegiate sports are more likely than non-athletes to commit sexual assault—especially those in high-status sports that valorize violence.
Of course most football or ice hockey athletes don’t rape women. Recently, some male athletes have even formed organizations to stop violence against women.
“Male Athletes Against Violence” has done peer education at the University of Maine for years. And since 1993, Northeastern University’s Mentors in Violence Prevention program has created a template for a national proliferation of sports-based programs that deploy a “bystander” approach to violence prevention. These programs attempt to disrupt the ways that high status male groups—like sports teams and fraternities—layer protective silence around members who perpetrate violence against women. A bystander approach teaches men to intervene to stop sexual assaults before they happen—for instance, stepping in when seeing one’s teammates dragging an inebriated woman to a back room. A good man, the bystander approach teaches, steps forward not only to keep a woman safe, but also to keep the team safe from public trouble.
The years of silence surrounding Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial sexual assaults of children is one example of the absolute failure by high-profile university coaches and administrators to model the responsible bystander behavior they say their young athletes should engage in. This case showed that, rather than resulting simply from the actions of one bad man, sexual assault is embedded in the routine values and culture of silence in organizations.
A number of years ago, I assisted psychologist Mark Stevens—a pioneer in working with athletes to prevent sexual violence—in an intervention with a college football program after members of the team were accused of sexually assaulting a woman at an off-campus party. Before the first of two workshops, I asked Stevens if he really thought that a few hours of talk could change the culture of sexual dominance that so commonly cements football team members’ loyalties while simultaneously putting women and vulnerable men at risk. Stevens answered no. “But,” he added, “if we can empower one or two guys who, down the road, might intervene in a situation to stop a sexual assault, then our work will have made the world safer for at least one woman.”
I still worry that such interventions do less to prevent acts of violence than they do to contain the public relations nightmare that sexual assaults create for athletics departments. Confirming that fear, a man I recently interviewed told me that he had been hired by a big-time college sports program to institute a violence prevention program, only to find it “incredibly disappointing” when he learned his employers had hired him mostly to work with male athletes of color to keep them eligible to play sports. “I thought that they were genuinely ready to do something, you know, make some changes… I got kind of duped. I had this particular background [in violence prevention] so that was really enticing for them, and they had no intention of actually letting me do any of that work.”
While some schools have adopted sexual assault prevention programs for some of their men’s sports teams, we just don’t know how well they work. We need good research that points to how, or under what conditions prevention programs within institutions like football (or the military) can actually succeed in mitigating gender-based violence. To have such an impact, I believe these interventions will need to confront how sexism is routinely intertwined with male entitlement and celebratory violence. To be truly successful, I suspect, such a program would render the game itself to be no longer football as we know it.
Failure To Serve And Protect
by Carol Burke
Military scandals in the past two years have brought new attention to old problems: sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the potential for bias in the handling of these crimes. The general who commanded the 82nd Airborne was charged with forcible sodomy, indecent acts, and violating orders, and was issued a reprimand and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine. The commanders in charge of Lackland Air Force Base apparently didn’t realize that, over a two-year period, 62 recruits were assaulted by 33 drill instructors. Even those tasked with preventing sexual assault were charged with the crimes they had pledged to thwart. A lieutenant colonel who headed the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention program at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was arrested and charged with stalking an ex-wife and sending her threatening emails in violation of a restraining order. A lieutenant colonel in charge of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program was charged with the sexual battery of a stranger in a parking lot. His alleged victim, according to witnesses, took justice into her own hands and after pushing away the drunken officer, ran after him and punched him in the face. At trial, the officer was acquitted.
Ultimately, the scandal that ignited the outrage of several congresswomen was Lieutenant General Craig Franklin’s decision to overturn Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson’s court-martial conviction for sexual assault. To Franklin, it seemed incongruous that a man “who adored his wife and his 9-year-old son,” a man who as a pilot had flown in the same unit as him, and a man who had been selected “for promotion to full colonel, a wing inspector general, a career officer” could be a sexual predator. So Franklin exercised the power granted him and other commanders under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to reverse any verdict without explanation. Although this might have looked at the time like the decision of an out-of-touch commander from his lonely and lofty post, identifying more with the plight of the accused than of the victim, emails related to the case revealed that generals of even higher rank than Franklin’s supported his decision.
According to the Defense Department’s own survey, 26,000 anonymous respondents claimed that they had been sexually assaulted in 2012, yet only 3,374 complaints were officially reported in that year. The incendiary mix of the skyrocketing rates of assault and the apparent indifference of some commanders to the plight of victims captured the attention of many women in Congress, and they demanded reform. These congresswomen, joined by some of their male colleagues, took aim at the heart of military culture, the sacrosanct military justice system, which can only be as impartial as the commander who oversees it. Senator Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY) proposed a two-part judicial system akin to those of many of our NATO Allies, a system that would take the most serious crimes like murder and sexual assault out of the chain of command and ensure that decisions to investigate, prosecute, and convict could not be arbitrarily reversed by a commander. In a statement issued December 20, 2013, Gillibrand said, “Nowhere in America do we allow a boss to decide if an employee was sexually assaulted or not, except in the United States military.”
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) fashioned a more moderate compromise that left the investigation and adjudication of crimes of sexual assault in the hands of commanders but that lifted the five-year statute of limitations on courts-martial for sex-related crimes, criminalized retaliation by commanders (but not by peers), provided counsel for victims, and did away with the “good soldier defense.” The compromise carried the day, much to the chagrin of victims who regard the UCMJ as a system that often denies them justice.
For several years now the Department of Defense has required mandatory training intended to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment, crafted public service announcements for broadcast on military TV stations, established hotlines for victims, and posted pleas in bathrooms on bases here and abroad for bystanders to step in when they see abuse taking place. Unfortunately, these costly efforts have failed to build trust in a military judicial system. Victims see these public campaigns as the military’s efforts to protect the institution and not them. As long as the investigation and adjudication of sexual assault cases remain within such a command-centric judicial system, the partiality of a single individual can easily trump justice.
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