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This past Sunday, The New York Times published an extensive article about a case of sexual assault at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
An in-depth look at the incident, the aftermath, and the surrounding culture, this piece was a stunning indictment of the state of affairs for women on campus today. It is hardly an isolated incident; this same story has been replayed at colleges and universities across the country. The frequent result: little or no consequences for the assailants but devastating consequences for the victims, leading to serious implications about the safety and culture of some our most respected institutions.
Anna, a freshman at this small liberal arts school in Geneva, New York, found herself in a typical situation. It was September, early in the school year; Anna didn’t know that—
she had entered what is commonly known as the Red Zone, a period of vulnerability for sexual assaults, beginning when freshmen first walk onto campus until Thanksgiving break.
“Students arrive and you have a new environment, new social circle and the fear that goes with new expectations,” said Robert S. Flowers, vice president for student affairs. That can lead to experimentation, including excessive drinking and attendant problems.
Like many co-eds, she headed out to a party. By the time the night was over, Anna claimed, she had been sexually assaulted by three members of the football team. There were witnesses to one (disputed) act, including a male friend, also a football player, who tried to intervene. Though she remembered few details, she did not delay in her attempt to press charges. Her friends called Campus Security by 3 a.m., and she was evaluated at the hospital:
The nurse told Sergeant Pluretti that she had found “internal abrasions and heavy inflammation” and believed that Anna had suffered a forceful sexual assault.
The campus security guard told Anna that she could report the assault to the police, but the process would be drawn out and difficult compared with handling it as an internal matter at the school. That advice turned out to be a mistake for Anna.
The Times account of the investigation launched by the school shows that it was short (“a little more than a week,” when, according to the Education Department, “a sexual-assault investigation typically takes around 60 calendar days”) and the subsequent hearing was sloppy, incomplete, and unprofessional. (“The hearing . . . bore little resemblance to a court proceeding . . . . Two of the three panel members did not examine the medical records showing blunt force trauma . . . . questions to Anna jumped around in time, interrupted her answers and misrepresented witness statements.”)
All three boys were cleared of charges, and Anna, left reeling, found herself the object of scorn and harassment as a result of her accusations. She withdrew from school, going home to try to recover.
Would Anna have found more solace had she gone to the police instead? Would she have found a “Detective Olivia Benson” (the fierce but famously supportive officer portrayed by Mariska Hargitay on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit)?
Turning to the police may not offer a more equitable alternative. For example, as The Times reported in April, the Tallahassee police conducted virtually no investigation of a Florida State University student’s rape complaint against the star quarterback Jameis Winston.
Indeed, The Times reported Anna’s experience as part of a widespread problem. Sexual assaults on campus are not always reported, and the results are wildly unreliable depending on the school. And in May of this year, 55 colleges, including Hobart and William Smith, were named as being “under investigation for possibly violating federal rules aimed at stopping sexual harassment.” The list includes some of our most prestigious institutions of higher learning.
Why are our college women (and some men) not being protected in these highly selective schools? What has happened to the old “ivory tower” image that these colleges used to project? Was it a myth in the first place, or is there a different culture on campuses now than in the past?
For many students, college represents their first experience of living apart from their parents. In the past, the school promised to act “in loco parentis”—in the parents’ place, as caretakers of these young people. In fact, Anna’s parents knew a professor who had expressed his admiration for her and promised to keep an eye on her. One of the many hopes parents once had when they sent their children off to school was that they would be getting an ethical, as well as intellectual, education. The lessons that they, as parents, had tried to instill up until this point would be reinforced, not only by the school’s regulations and codes, but also by the modeling that the administrators and professors themselves offered.
Often, though, it seems that universities and colleges don’t expect, teach, or model ethical behavior. They are businesses first, and students are commodities: a star football player is presumably more “valuable” to the college than the average female freshman. One of the players involved in Anna’s case had already been arrested for fighting and resisting arrest in 2012. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, but there is no report of his having been subject to any disciplinary action from the college. And it’s not just the administration that feels this way. Woman such as Anna who accuse football players don’t get support from the community—rather, they let themselves in for abuse, harassment, and ridicule.
While rape is understood to be more an expression of violence than sexuality, the “trivialization” of sex has become common on campus, and it contributes to this state of affairs. Officials at Anna’s college mandated that students watch an interactive video upon returning from winter break, as part of their response to her case.
The video generated instant controversy, beginning with its title —“ThinkLuv.”
“So right from the start, it’s the kind of program that’s fun and playful and not something that needs to be taken seriously,” said Kelsey Carroll, a recent graduate who founded a student group to combat sexism. “Rape is not about love. It is about violence and power.”
The campus paper said the video attempted to educate students “while slut-shaming, generalizing and even being sexist in the process.”
In fact, the past several decades have brought many changes to the way men and women relate to each other sexually. Advances in reproductive rights, especially the pill, freed couples from the frightening possibility of an unwanted pregnancy. Feminism gave women the power to be proactive about their sexual needs and sought to put the sexes on a more equal footing. But as sex became less “dangerous” and feared, did it also become less respected? Meanwhile, the ubiquity of pornography has led to women’s being more objectified than ever.
As sex has become divorced first from procreation and now from intimacy, the “hookup” culture, in which students begin and end as strangers, prevails on campus. It’s not surprising that anger and aggression find their way into couplings in which the participants are barely acquaintances, let alone friends. This situation can be damaging to young people, especially women, even when the sex is consensual. Exposing yourself to a stranger is not a safe emotional strategy; it is not possible to protect yourself adequately when dealing with a complete unknown, no matter how “wide open” your eyes are.
And when a young woman is “blind drunk” she has no ability to judge the situation or maintain control. There is still a tendency to “blame the victim” in many of these cases, however. She is often held accountable if she was drinking or behaving provocatively: Anna’s assailants said she gave one of them a “lap dance.” Boys will be boys, as they say, but can girls be girls without inviting danger? If someone says something provocative enough to get beaten up, the law still holds the assailant responsible for his actions regardless of how much the victim of the beating “may have been asking for it.” But in cases of sexual assault, there is still a tendency to look at the victim as somehow complicit. The woman is usually ashamed and embarrassed, and her reluctance to come forward is reinforced by this attitude. And those that do, like Anna, often come up against a system that makes them feel as if they are being raped all over again.
Anna, courageously, is planning on returning to the school in the fall. Her parents are worried for her, but she has a mission: “someone needs to help survivors there, “ she told The Times. It’s too bad those who had accepted the trust to protect her did not take their own duty more seriously.