What is being done about sexual violence on college campuses?

In the spring of 2013, Sarah Butters, along with many other James Madison University students, went to Florida to celebrate spring break. After spending a day at the beach, Sarah and several of her college friends went back to her male friends’ lodging. By this time, Sarah was intoxicated. Instead of waking up with a hangover, Sarah awoke to rumors of a cell phone video depicting her three male friends sexually assaulting her in the condo bathroom while she lay helpless and unconscious. In an interview, Sarah recalled her feelings of disbelief that such a video existed, until she watched it for herself: “I watched the video and I was disgusted, it was really humiliating that so many people had seen that … I’m clearly not able to defend myself or fight them off, and we were in an enclosed bathroom, it was three of them surrounding me and none of them thought that they were doing anything wrong … I just don’t know why they did to help me instead.”

Butters responded to the assault by filing a report with James Madison University’s administration. After a long process including several appeals, the administration found the three perpetrators guilty of sexual assault and punished them to expulsion after graduation. Butters was unsatisfied with the schools desultory response and filed a Title IX complaint – a federal affidavit arguing that the school violated a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and assault. The document resulted in a federal investigation into the assault as well as into the school’s handling of the matter. The investigation is currently ongoing.

Prevalence & Scope of Campus Sexual Assaults

Sexual assaults on campuses, stories similar Butters’, are becoming increasingly common. Krebs and colleagues (2007) examined self-reported sexual victimization using a sample of 5,446 undergraduate women at two large universities. The results indicate that since beginning college, 12.6% of women experienced an attempted sexual assault and 13.7% experienced a completed sexual assault, with 7.2% experiencing both an attempted and completed sexual assault. Further, the results dismally confirm that sexual assaults remain vastly unreported. Only 2% of incapacitated sexual assault victims and 13% of physically forced victims reported the incident to law enforcement. Although it is evident that sexual assaults on college campuses represent a very serious problem, an arguably worse problem comes from the inappropriate handling of sexual assault cases by universities.

The inclusion of Ms. Butter’s appalling account was not meant to sensationalize a rare mishandling of a sexual assault case; it was meant as a representative depiction of an event and associated response that has happened many, many times. According to the New York Times, the Obama administration recently released a list of 55 colleges currently subject to federal investigations for their alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases. The list includes a panoply of prestigious ivy league, state, and private colleges suggesting that the mishandling of sexual violence is a systemic, national issue. Thus, the problem is twofold: An alarmingly high incidence of sexual violence on campus is often coupled with an inadequate, and at times inappropriate, response by college administrations.

What is being done?

Responding to a number of recent sexual assault cases at schools such as Yale, Dartmouth, and Florida State, among others, the Obama administration recently commissioned a task force to make policy recommendations universities can adopt to better protect against, and prevent, sexual assaults on their campuses. The report, released in April of this year, delineates a series of “action steps and recommendations” (p.7) to aid college administrators in handling sexual assault cases ethically and effectively. The first step involves enabling colleges to conduct “campus climate surveys” to study the prevalence and nature of sexual victimization. These surveys are an essential starting point for college-specific policies to be implemented effectively.

Not requiring an official mandate, researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Sex Offender Research Lab have already begun research looking at survivors of sexual abuse as well as primary prevention of sexual violence. One on-going study aims to examine the contextual factors of the victims’ sexual abuse experiences as well as how these experiences influence victims’ perceptions of legislation pertaining to sexual offenders. Another project hopes to take sexual violence prevention abroad by working with males in Mexico to increase awareness of sexual abuse and identify and increase protective social factors in order to prevent sexual violence.

Recent Developments

Image from campussaveact.org

Image from campussaveact.org

On March 7 2013, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act into law (VAWA). A provision of this law, called the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, aims to reduce campus sexual violence. Set to begin October 1 of this year, SaVE will mandate sexual violence training and bolster victim rights by requiring universities to report a wider range of sexual assault incidents – thus increasing transparency. In addition, a government-maintained website, NotAlone.gov tracks compliance with federal laws and provides resources for victims and activists.

In addition to the federal response, student activists at universities across the nation are doing whatever they can to help end sexual violence on college campuses. Below is a list of just a few (there are many, many more) grass-roots activism campaigns that target different aspects of sexual violence prevention:

  • End Rape on Campus (endrapeoncampus.org)                                                                                                                                                                                   Student run organization that aids victims of sexual violence, and administrative mishandling, in filing federal Clery and Title IX complaints.
  • Students Active for Ending Rape (safercampus.org)                                                                                                                                                                               A resource center that helps student activists catalyze positive changes in school sexual assault policies
  • Project Unbreakable (projectunbreakable.tumblr.comproject-unbreakable.org)                                                                                                                 A student-run organization that gives voices to victims of sexual violence and raises awareness through art and photography. In addition, Project Unbreakable staff members speak at universities all over to increase awareness of sexual violence
  • Male Survivor (malesurvivor.org)                                                                                                                                                                                                               A resource center dedicated to male victims of sexual abuse. Male Survivor offers professional training, retreats, and conferences to get survivors of abuse the help required as well as to prevent further abuse.
  • Not Alone (notalone.gov)                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Government run website that provides resources for schools and students to report and prevent sexual violence.
  • No. Means. No. (nomeansno.org)                                                                                                                                                                                                                   A forthcoming “independent information portal” that aims to strengthen current efforts at preventing sexual violence on campuses.


Written by John Vaccaro (john.vaccaro@jjay.cuny.edu)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jenn July 9, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Thanks for bringing needed attention to this issue.


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