Do we have a campus rape crisis?

—Sameena Mulla

Let me begin with my conclusion: there is not only a campus rape crisis in the U.S; rather, there is a rape crisis in the U.S. and college campuses are symptomatic of this broader issue. In the days since the campus rape crisis has been in the news, the discourse around sexual assault has begged the question as to whether sexual assault victims on college campuses are worse off than those who are raped beyond the institutional confines of a college campus. No one is explicitly arguing this, but the innuendo, the outrage, and the concern has attached itself to the university in a way that it eludes rape at large.

The first question worth asking is whether there is more rape on campuses than off campuses. Incidence data on the prevalence of sexual assault has, to date, demonstrated the same rate of sexual assault on campuses and in the general population. The latest survey from the Centers for Disease Control resulted in a victimization rate of 1 in 5 for women and girls, and 1 in 71 for men and boys. In this sense, the prevalence rates of sexual assault on campus are continuous with broader cultural trends.

Second, do on-campus rape victims fair worse in adjudication processes than those who navigate the criminal justice system? The preponderance of evidence standard that must be met during campus student conduct hearings is technically a lower standard than the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” that defines criminal adjudication, as it should be. This means that in theory, universities are in a position to hold anyone adjudicated guilty responsible for their actions; in practice, however, the consensus seems to be that there are few consequences for students who engage in sexual misconduct.

Victims participating in criminal adjudication are also challenged by the criminal justice system, and are unlikely to see the verdict that they desire. The criminal justice system privileges student defendants in that their class position is likely to align with “prosocial” elements weighed by the court during adjudication. Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the court of law is no more likely to hold a college student responsible for a sexual assault than a college student conduct proceeding.

Universities have an institutional mission that invites more public scrutiny because of their different regulatory environment. The Title IX legislation holds campuses responsible for addressing sexual assault as a matter of women’s civil rights and creates a structure of accountability that does not exist in other institutional settings. Thus, we do not hear the same outrage when rape occurs in prisons, by military contractors, or even in the military itself. In some ways, universities also represent our cultural elite, and it is possible that our collective outrage over the campus rape crisis should be read as a barometer for our sense of impunity when non-students are victimized and violated.

What solutions lie ahead? First, behavior interventions on sexual health and consent at the college level are too late, too little. Universities that focus on these measures are likely to see success with increased reports, but will not necessarily see a reduced number of assaults. Cultivation of respect for bodily autonomy, integrity, and a culture of consent and affirmative sexual practices must begin long before students reach college. If Title IX implies that we are responsible for reducing rates of sexual assault on campus, then policy directives that urge early childhood education are key and will have a broader impact on sexual assault across all sectors.

Finally, university officials should commit to applying the preponderance of evidence standard properly. This means, as in the criminal justice system, student conduct boards should rely on testimony as credible evidence, and understand that forensic evidence is rare and often inconclusive. The absence of physical evidence is not the absence of rape. In many jurisdictions, experienced prosecutors and public defenders have learned this lesson well, and it is not uncommon for criminal prosecutions to rely solely on testimony. Student conduct boards need not apply a standard that is even higher than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Proper training and ethical orientations are a necessary intervention.

The campus rape crisis is a symptom of the U.S.’s rape crisis. If we are serious about finding solutions to the problem of campus rape, we will implement changes that address the problem of sexual violence writ large.

Sameena Mulla is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Marquette University (WI). She is the author of The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Intervention (NYU Press, 2014).

1 Comment on Do we have a campus rape crisis?

  1. Wonderful entry! The larger crisis in U.S. society and its manifestation on college campuses is something to be very attentive to. I appreciate the author’s comments and this entry makes clear to us in the academy that we must teach differently, engage productively with organizations on campus, and have open and humble reach to organizations outside our campus.

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