For young women, the first semester of college can be a perilous time.
Older college guys target them as inexperienced drinkers and, therefore, less likely to resist sexual advances. One University of Massachusetts male student explained the strategy, as reported in Time magazine: “They were easy prey, and they wouldn’t know anything about drinking or how much alcohol they could handle, so you know they wouldn’t know anything about our techniques.”
The technique: Invite younger female students to a party. Have plenty of beer but also a sweet-tasting punch loaded with alcohol. When a young woman is impaired, get her alone and make your move. The UMass student admitted to pinning down a young woman by placing his arm across her chest so he could force her to have sex.
Sexual assault on college campuses is getting a lot of media attention these days. We recently published two front-page stories on back-to-back days about the subject.
There’s good reason for all the coverage. Various studies provide conflicting evidence about whether first-year women are more vulnerable in a “red zone” from August to Thanksgiving. What’s not in dispute is that sexual assault is widespread at colleges and universities – and that administrators aren’t sure what to do.
Women sharing stories
Jane Stancill, who covers higher education for The News & Observer, reported recently about a 2007 survey at two large universities. It found that 19 percent of female students experienced an attempted or actual sexual assault. Other surveys have reported similar percentages.
Universities have been criticized for minimizing crime reports about sexual assault to protect their images. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, recently surveyed 350 colleges and universities. She found that 41 percent hadn’t conducted a sexual-assault investigation in the past five years.
As of late August, 76 colleges are being investigated under the federal Title IX gender equity law, including UNC-Chapel Hill and Guilford College. Universities are required to have grievance procedures to respond to reports of sexual violence.
Stancill cites two reasons why there has been so much coverage recently.
First, the federal government is taking a stronger stance. Many colleges, such as UNC-CH, also face allegations that they failed to report accurate crime statistics required by federal law.
Second, students who have been sexually assaulted have become empowered to share their stories publicly, especially through social media.
“They have formed networks with other victims across the country to get the word out about how they believe universities mishandled their cases or swept the problem under the rug,” Stancill said.
The schools are compelled by federal law to respond to sexual misconduct. But Stancill points out that in many ways they are ill-equipped to do so.
Until recently, sexual-assault cases were sent to student honor courts or disciplinary hearings, where students sometimes sat in judgment of other students. Accused assailants were rarely found responsible or punished.
On the other hand, some students who have been expelled after guilty findings have later sued universities, saying the process was unfair. Universities can face lawsuits on both sides.
UNC-CH has adopted new policies that say a student who is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs can’t give consent. Consent has to be an affirmative choice. Only faculty and staff (not students) would serve on panels that hear the cases.
All of this media attention has been disruptive for university administrators. But this conversation needs to happen. If it leads to a better awareness of consent and a reduction in assaults, it is a conversation worth having.