Sexual assault survey challenges colleges to act

I don’t know what’s more alarming: The recent report that 27% of women who’ve spent at least four years at UNC-Chapel Hill have experienced “nonconsensual sexual penetration” or the muted response to that sickening finding.

What’s worse, the UNC numbers are not an outlier. They are consistent with trends identified by the prestigious Association of American Universities in a survey of 181,752 students at 33 elite private and public schools, including Harvard, Yale, Northwestern and the University of Oregon.

To put those numbers in context, the Department of Justice’s Criminal Victimization survey for 2018 found that less than 1 percent of Americans aged 12 or older were victims of rape or sexual assault.

The study’s bottom line: elite schools may be the most dangerous places in the world for young women — and men. “Nonconsensual sexual penetration” is not unwanted sexual touching but a euphemism for rape. The AAU reports this horrific crime occurs more frequently at UNC and Yale than in war ravaged dictatorships.

Their ivy covered landscapes turn too many boys into predatory criminals who blithely act with unimaginable cruelty and women into victims with scars that may never heal, and traumas that may haunt them the rest of their lives.

The numbers are especially disturbing because they are not surprising. Sexual assault has been a top issue on campus at least since 2011, when the Obama administration demanded that schools start cracking down on the problem. And yet, the study reports the numbers have risen since then.

If the report is correct, this is not merely a problem — it is a law enforcement crisis of monstrous proportions which the universities have proven unwilling or unable to address effectively.

If the rates of rape and sexual assault in the broader society matched that reportedly occurring at elite universities, we’d be hearing calls for martial law. In this context it is hard to understand how campuses can get so exercised about Confederate statues or the liberal bias of professors while this criminal conduct continues.

If the report’s findings are correct, we need far more than town hall meetings to air concerns. A complete ban on alcohol and monitored single sex dorms should be discussed as we consider replacing the current leadership which has failed to protect students.

The report raises other questions: Why isn’t there a panic on campus? Why did most news outlets shrug off the findings as a one-day story? Why are parents still desperate to send their children to these schools?

Some experts say it’s because the numbers are cooked — that the AAU sensationalizes and ultimately criminalizes a broad range of sexual interactions that are far more nuanced. The most thorough book I’ve read supporting this view, “The Campus Rape Frenzy” by K.C. Johnson and Stuart Taylor Jr., noted that the federal government found that reported incidents of rape and sexual assault on campus declined between 1997 and 2013 and that in 2014 the Bureau of Justice Statistics “estimated that 0.61 percent of female college (and trade school) students are sexually assaulted per year, of whom 0.2 percent are raped.” (The rates for women aged 18-24 not attending schools were higher – though that receives little attention.)

It is hard to reconcile the AAU’s and the government’s numbers. Part of the problem is that the vast majority of incidents measured by the AAU were not officially reported. Many undergraduate women felt embarrassed, ashamed or complicit — alcohol was often involved — and 58% believed their experience “was not serious enough” to report.

Although the picture is murky, the path forward is clear. If UNC accepts the AAU’s findings, it must take drastic action. If it rejects them, it should say so. Academia should be a search for truth. Regarding sexual assault, the truth is hard to find.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.