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Category: Education, Violence against Women

Date Rape Revisited

| February 23, 2012

title
Mary Koss, a University of Arizona regents professor, conducted groundbreaking research on campus date-rape.

Twenty-five years after an historic campus study, why are colleges still struggling to deal with the problem?

In 1982, Ms. Magazine and an academic researcher embarked on a groundbreaking study of a little-known subject: date rape on college campuses.  At that time, most people still thought of rape, on campus or off, as committed by someone who was a stranger to the victim. The three-year study, funded by the federal government, surveyed more than 7,000 students at 35 schools and blew the top off accepted wisdom.

I was the coordinator of the Ms. Magazine Campus Project on Sexual Assault, and Mary P. Koss (pictured above), a nationally known research psychologist, directed the field study and analysis of data.  The early findings first appeared in my article in the October 1985 issue of Ms. entitled “Date Rape:  The Story of an Epidemic and Those Who Deny It.”  Among them, 1 in 4 college women were victims of rape or attempted rape, and only 1 in 4 women whose sexual assault met the legal definition identified their experience as rape. (A full report on the study was first published in 1988 by Harper and Row under the title I Never Called It Rape.) 

The article highlighted some of the colleges that were breaking ground with innovative programs to address the problem.  At Cornell University, for example, a professor helped organize an Acquaintance Rape Task Force; Ohio State University, where Mary Koss was teaching at the time, was nationally known for its rape awareness and prevention programs; and students at Swarthmore College produced a video on acquaintance rape (the other term for date rape).  In subsequent years, especially at schools that had recently gone co-ed, students of both sexes began to organize for change, calling for better safety measures and more transparency in the complaint process.  My Ms. article was assigned reading in numerous sociology, psychology, health, and women’s studies courses.

Twenty-five years later, however, recent news stories about sexual harassment and assault on campus led me to wonder why colleges haven’t been able to effectively address the problem.  At Yale University, for example, which had participated in the original Ms. study, star quarterback Patrick Witt was alleged to have sexually assaulted a woman student, which may have led to his forfeit of a Rhodes scholarship.

Perhaps more important was another story, reported at about the same time, that Yale was in the process of overhauling its sexual harassment policies because a fraternity’s members and pledges had been more than sophomorically aggressive toward women on campus, shouting insults that bordered on threats.  (The fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, happens to have been Witt’s fraternity.)  The school responded with a report about the number of complaints students had filed in the past six months and how they were handled.

Bully for Yale, but why act so belatedly?  Women have been undergraduates at Yale since 1969. I called Mary Koss, who has continued to do award-winning research on violence against women, and Wendy J. Murphy, a lawyer who has filed complaints with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to force changes in college’s sexual harassment and assault policies.  The psychologist and the lawyer agreed on many things but, not surprisingly, had different recommendations for how to solve the problem.

First, the Numbers

Koss cited the results of several studies that periodically updated the original Ms. survey showing a persistently similar ratio despite years of education about date rape:  1 in 4 or 5 women are the victims of rape or attempted rape, according to the legal definition, but only 1 in 4 of those women identifies her experience as rape.  Why?  Koss believes that now, as then, “people can’t see what happens to themselves as rape.”  And this is especially true if the rape involves alcohol.  Koss thinks that more students today are drinking to get drunk, and there is an attitude, fed by popular culture, that women can go shot to shot with men.  If they’re supposed to be men’s equals, it’s harder for them to claim rape. 

Along with self-blame comes the belief that the school won’t do anything about their complaint.  And Koss says that, as the Ms. study found 25 years ago, their assessment may be right.  She describes a balancing act between a school’s desire to present itself as the standard bearer for ethical values and academic excellence, and its desire to provide the ideal “college memory” that includes great sports and good parties—a formula for hypocrisy.  Twenty-five years ago, many schools refused to participate in the Ms. study because they feared the effect on enrollment of any negative findings. Among those participating, many thought erroneously that no problems existed.

When Koss is brought onto campuses to help resolve situations where boys behave badly, schools ask what they can do to increase sensitivity.  Her solution, which she admits is not a silver bullet, is restorative justice.  Too often, she says, college judiciary hearings are “criminal justice lite.”  They provide adversarial settings, put students on trial before untrained “judges,” and fail to shield confidential information.  This sounds very similar to the experience of the Yale graduate I interviewed 25 years ago, who had brought a rape complaint against a senior when she was a freshman (most campus date rapes happen to freshmen).  She had to hire a lawyer because the senior did, and she reported long delays and cross-examinations with excruciatingly embarrassing questions that challenged her truthfulness. The senior was able to overturn his punishment of not being allowed to graduate with his class. 

Restorative Justice or Litigation?

Restorative justice, says Koss improves on the adversarial model by focusing on the individual needs of victims, offenders, and the involved community. It fosters dialogue between the parties and looks for ways to repair the harms caused. Koss says she has seen movement toward the method, which she thinks can be fairer to everyone involved, in institutions that realize adversarial judicial responses aren’t appropriate.

Wendy Murphy takes a more litigative approach.  She has spent years trying to get colleges to be more transparent about what’s happening on campus, and has relied heavily on filing Title IX complaints to get them to change their policies and procedures.  Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions with federal funding, has existed since 1972, but the government still seems to be getting its own act together about enforcing it.  “Generations will pass before reforms are made,” Murphy says she has told the Office of Civil Rights, which enforces Title IX, “if you continue to indulge schools that believe they don’t have to do anything.”

Murphy is hopeful that a “cluster” of Title IX rulings will soon come down in response to formal complaints against several prestigious colleges, including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, and that these will influence other schools to shape up.  Another major step by the government:  last April, the civil rights office issued a strong Dear Colleague Letter, which explained in greater detail than ever before a school’s responsibility for addressing campus sexual violence, including rape.

The 19-page letter, which gives lots of examples about how schools should proceed, will help to close existing loopholes that, for example, allow some colleges to tell the complainant they believe her but not enough to justify a finding against the perpetrator.  They also tighten the timeframe for responding to and reviewing complaints.  They spell out the kind of materials the schools should provide their students and the kind of training and experience administrators should have.  And they call for fair treatment of both parties, which might go some small distance toward a less adversarial, and perhaps restorative, approach.

One major point of agreement between Koss and Murphy is that colleges will continue to obfuscate unless their sexual harassment and assault procedures are challenged and modified.  This may be why 25 years have passed without sufficient improvements.  Murphy says she wouldn’t want to send her child to a school that reported low numbers of assaults, because she would believe they’re “sweeping things under the rug.”

When I went to college, much was made of the importance of everyone contributing to the strength and well-being of the college community.  But back in those days, the institution took its “in loco parentis" role seriously, issuing stringent rules about when and where students could socialize.  Today’s college environment is much freer, and all the better for it, but this puts an additional burden on both staff and students to take responsibility for each other’s safety and to avoid what Title IX calls a “hostile environment.”  Murphy thinks this may be a moment in time when campus communities can be trained to respond promptly and effectively by expressing their lack of tolerance for sexual assault and harassment.

Student-Led Programs as Models for Change

I asked Brett Sokolow, a lawyer who is a managing partner at the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management and executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, if any good models for change exist.  Among those he cited is a program started by Columbia University students in 2000, called SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape).  It calls itself the “only organization that fights sexual violence and rape culture by empowering student-led campaigns to reform college sexual assault policies.”  This all-volunteer collective has developed a training manual, conducts in-person workshops, offers follow-up mentoring, and runs a Campus Assault Policies Database, as well as an online resource library.

Sokolow also  mentioned the “Bringing in the Bystander” program at the University of New Hampshire, which does peer training of groups of students using a “community of responsibility” model to teach bystanders how to intervene safely and effectively in cases where sexual assault may be occurring or where there may be risk.

Yale is certainly not unique, or even worst, among the Ivies for failing to solve its harassment and assault problems over the past decades.  (When I went to graduate school there shortly before women were admitted as undergrads, the worst behavior I encountered were boys putting a mirror on the floor between our subterranean library carrels to look up my skirt. Though even that felt threatening to me at the time.)  But if these elite schools own up to their failures to protect their students’ well-being, and make the needed changes, the ripple effect will be enormous.

Writing about the Witt story for the Poynter Institute, Kelly McBride urges the Yale Daily News and other student publications to take up the challenge. “Statistically, college students are at a higher risk of sexual assault than the general population,” she writes.  “Student newspapers should be looking for opportunities to explain why this is, to determine if their administrations are in compliance with Title IX, and to educate a widely misinformed audience about the true reasons for assault.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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