Sexual assault on university campuses is everyone’s problem

We need to address sexual violence on campuses head-on.

Trent M. Kays

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a list of 55 colleges and universities last Thursday that are under investigation for violations over the handling of sexual violence claims. These investigations span the entire country’s state and private schools. This offers a problematic view of education in the United States. There are numerous violations of the handling of sexual violence claims, ranging from prolific institutions like Harvard University to small, local colleges like the Butte-Glen Community College District in California.

What’s most telling about the schools under investigation is that they transcend class strata. It doesn’t matter if you attend a school serving a primarily affluent population or one serving the working class. It’s likely that you’re at, or have heard of, a school under investigation. Some of the investigations are ongoing, while the DOE opened others just this year and, in some cases, just last month.

It should go without saying that this is a huge problem. But in many ways, we need to repeat this as often as possible because if everyone took this problem seriously, we may not have had this list. In addition, I’m sure these 55 schools are a conservative number when it comes to schools in need of investigation.

The most popular news stories I read bemoan the fact that universities and colleges continually fail to report or seriously address sexual violence on their campuses. These spaces are meant to be safe for the exploration of ideas, concepts and life. However, sexual violence continues to be a problem.

Our campuses should be locations where we interrogate the unfortunate existence of rape culture, yet there are still some people who believe rape culture doesn’t even exist. The only people who could possibly believe that rape culture isn’t real are those with little life experience or those blinded by their own privileged circumstance.

Rape culture exists, and it enables would-be attackers to “misinterpret” signals. As if forcing sex on a drunken person at a party is a signal misinterpretation. If a person cannot consent to sex, then the default mode should be to make sure they find their way home safely. That’s it.

Being drunk is not an invitation. Being stoned is not an invitation. Being flirtatious is not an invitation. You know what is an invitation? When a person verbally invites you to have sex. Consent is the only invitation. Period.

Of course, the narrative surrounding schools is based solely on maintaining reputation. Instead of protecting their students, some schools would rather sweep the issue under the rug. Moreover, some schools employ laughable disciplinary processes that only serve the interests of the school and not the interests of its students. Universities and colleges are not equipped to render judgment on criminal instances, especially charges of sexual violence. I doubt even campus police — while often fully credentialed — are qualified to handle the investigation of such serious charges.

Finally, the White House has offered guidance, or a road map, on how to deal with these issues, even launching a website to help spearhead the effort. Vice President Joe Biden implored, “Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses.” Our vice president is correct. We can no longer pretend these heinous acts don’t happen. Part of attending a university is learning how to be a good and responsible citizen. Identifying and protecting our fellow human beings from rape and other sexual assaults is our responsibility. While there was a movement to rebrand rape as non-consensual sex, it’s primarily reckless posturing. Non-consensual sex is rape or sexual assault. Rape is against the law and should be punished.

The National Institute of Justice found that fewer than 5 percent of sexual assault survivors on campuses reported their assault. That’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for a campus climate to not encourage survivors to come forward for help.

I understand the climate that forces survivors to not report. I know assault survivors, and last semester, I even heard from a survivor who said they were sexually assaulted at the University of Minnesota and felt the campus police didn’t act in their best interest or follow through. That’s a problem. We need to keep saying this, and then we need to act.

But even when we do act, we must ensure that our actions are direct and harsh. Rapists should not be allowed on our campuses, where they can continue to harass survivors. They should not be given pathetic punishments in which they only need write an essay. The proper authorities should expel and charge them. If schools want to protect their reputations, they should unabashedly pursue any allegations of sexual assault on their campuses. In this way, they will put into practice the ethics they supposedly espouse.

How much longer are we going to pretend that campus sexual assault isn’t a problem? Not only do we need to hold rapists accountable, but we also need to hold accountable those who would place the reputation of a university over the safety of the students.

It’s time to eradicate sexual assault on our campuses.