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Commentary: Education Key To Ending Sexual Assaults On Campus

Earlier this month the Obama administration released the names of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints.  The problem of sexual assault and rape on college campuses is significant.  In this edition of The Moral Is, Fresno State communication professor Diane Blair says a culture change in this area will require education, and a lot more. 


Recently the White House issued new guidelines and expectations to combat sexual violence on college campuses. The measures call for better survey data about the extent of the problem, more transparency regarding university enforcement, and increased support for survivors of sexual assault and harassment.

The statistics are startling: One in four sexual assaults occur on college campuses. 20-25% of college women experience rape or attempted rape. Freshman and sophomores face the most sexual assault, and students who live in sorority houses are three times more likely to be raped than students who live off campus. Alcohol is involved in the majority of college rapes, and 80-90% of college sexual assaults involve people who are acquaintances. In a 20-year study of college men, one in 16 admitted they had used physical force to have sexual intercourse or had sex with someone who was too incapacitated by alcohol or drugs to resist.

Sexual violence is an underreported crime for several reasons, and more than 40% of rape victims who didn’t report their attack said they feared retaliation by the attacker or others. This occurs in a context where students found responsible for sexual assault on campus often face little or no punishment. Rarely are rapists expelled from college, even in cases involving repeat offenders. More frequently, victims of sexual violence find their own lives disrupted, and many drop out of school due to a lack of institutional support and fear of reprisal for reporting the violence.

College administrators often place their university’s reputation above acknowledging the danger lurking on their campuses. The Department of Education recently released a list of 55 colleges under investigation for violations of Title IX and the Clery Act over their handling of sexual violence on their campuses. The list includes community colleges, statewide universities, and Ivy League schools—demonstrating that the problem is widespread. Administrators argue that sexual violence is a complicated issue that frequently has no witnesses and a victim who wants to remain anonymous. Additionally, a lot of students don’t know what constitutes sexual assault or consent. In a recent speech, the President of Dartmouth admitted that binge drinking has become the rule and not the exception on college campuses, and students who engage in alcohol and substance abuse are at an increased risk for sexual assault.

Maybe these new federal requirements will encourage increased awareness among administrators and students alike, but it is just a start. In addition to empowering the victims of these crimes, we also need a better understanding of the perpetrators, of whom the vast majority are men. In addition to better reporting and enforcement measures, preventative measures are also needed. That means asking important questions like: what are the prevalent attitudes and behaviors on college campuses that normalize and excuse sexual assault? And how can the campus culture be changed? In an environment dedicated to knowledge and achievement, education about this issue is still sorely lacking.    

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