The Rise of Sexual Violence on the American Campus

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Art Credit: Andrea Rose

The reality of sexual assault is one that too many young men and women have to confront before receiving their college diplomas.

When I graduated only two years ago, I could count several friends who told me about their assaults during our undergraduate careers. Since graduation, many more of my schoolmates have come forth as we’ve reminisced on old times, talking about the wounds inflicted upon them in dorm rooms, on dance floors, and in classrooms that they never revealed while we were students together.

I now need all of my fingers to number the friends who have told me about the deep pain they've suffered as survivors of sexual assault. And these are only the ones I know about.

According to a January White House report, 1 in 5 college-aged women and 1 in 71 college-aged men have been sexually assaulted in their lives.  Meanwhile, the report states that 7 percent of college-aged men have admitted that they have committed rape or attempted to do so, and more than half of these have been repeat offenders, "averaging six rapes each," according to the report.

In its ubiquity in defining relationships and sexuality on college campuses—Ivy League and state schools, firmly Christian and staunchly secular, as well as in cities and young adult communities—sexual assault threatens to alter a generation’s social structures and scripts if inadequately challenged. Or we have the chance to change the factors that contribute to the proliferation of assault if we understand the factors that lead to sexual violence and work to address them.

But to get this right, we need to fully understand the problem.

One of the most neglected cultural pieces that contributes to the spread of sexual assault on campus is the growing popularity of the nebulous hookup as a social script among college students. To create a culture of respect for sexual boundaries on college campuses, we must re-establish an understanding of sexual boundaries as something more than the arbitrary preferences of individuals.

Limited Solutions

To help protect students, the White House has issued a set of suggestions for universities to implement, along with public awareness materials.

The Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault suggests that colleges take an active role in understanding sexual assault on their campuses through surveys, promotion of “bystander intervention,” and provision of ongoing support to assault survivors through trained advocates.

Though based on Centers for Disease Control best practices for reducing sexual violations, these suggestions have not been met with universal praise. Some critics have questioned the underpinnings of the study, saying that the number of students who are assaulted is exaggerated, while others have said that instead of focusing on awareness and surveys, colleges should target law enforcement protocol in ending binge drinking and co-ed dorms.

The suggestions laid out by the task force and some of those given by critics to improve law enforcement and limit contributing factors do have their merits. However, to have truly effective solutions requires that we address all aspects of sexual assault—particularly this culture in which boundaries are reduced to casual preference, and are thus rampantly crossed.

This cultural misunderstanding in which boundaries are not seen as part of a larger system of sexual integrity undermines the administration’s attempts to promote both bystander intervention and consent. When sex has no inherent meaning, boundaries are not hard and fast lines, but opinions—preferences that can be changed—that bear no real consequences if  bypassed.

Understanding the Problem

Sexual assault and rape are, sadly, not new experiences: Descriptions and prohibitions against forceful sexual misconduct can be found in historical texts from around the world, though the treatment of victims of assault varies between cultures and eras.

Yet, the trauma and pain are still as cutting for victims, regardless of whether they are one of a handful in the world facing assault or one of millions.

A 2014 report by the Department of Education shows that in 2011, 3,300 sex offenses were reported on college campuses. While every other kind of campus crime decreased during the same time period, the report showed a 51 percent increase in campus assaults from 2001. While some of this marked increase could be aided in part by a rise in awareness and subsequent reporting, this report nonetheless shows a concerning number of reported sexual assaults on campus.

Meanwhile, a 2000 study by the National Institute of Justice, using national data estimates that up to 1 in 4 young women are sexually assaulted by the end of their college careers.

But this data hardly paints a clear picture of how intense the problem of sexual assault really is on college campuses, much less how it is changing. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, introducing a significant margin of error into nearly all studies on the topic. Other studies estimate that as few as 5 percent of completed or attempted rapes are reported to law enforcement officials.

While we may wait indefinitely for perfect reporting and complete data on sexual assault, the lived experience on campuses around the country paints a painful—and urgent—situation. While each story is the survivor’s to tell and is unique to the situation, there are similarities that many share, particularly a misunderstanding by those not close to these situations of what contributes to assaults, and the lack of repercussions for perpetrators, even when publicly accused.

According to analysis by the National Institute for Justice, 9 in 10 survivors of sexual assault know their offender personally. Shadowy strangers preying on random victims do not perpetrate these offenses; sexual assault is more likely than not a betrayal by someone close to the victim.

It can be a boyfriend or girlfriend, a confidante, a study buddy.

There is no easy way of identifying who is a likely offender on first sight. The common thread linking them together is an insistence on placing their sexual desires ahead of respect for another person, a drive to put their wants first before the safety and well-being of others.

While much has been made of studies highlighting a link between binge-drinking and increased rates of sexual assault, teetotalers are not immune from sexual assault. Nor are college women oblivious to the link between drinking and assault:  More than three-quarters of college women report that they do not drink anything given to them by strangers and 9 in 10 women report that they will not touch a drink after it is left unattended.

A contributing factor to sexual assault that I observed in my time at college and have heard again and again from friends sharing their own experience is the ubiquity of the hookup as a social script among college students.

The hookup, most simply, is a physical encounter that can consist of nearly any physical action, and takes on only the meaning ascribed to it. Its definition is purposefully vague, stripping context from a range of sexual expressions, changing its meaning vastly from person to person and situation to situation. In her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, comic Mindy Kaling picks up on this confused term and the possibly embarrassing consequences of misunderstanding its meaning. A friend tells her she hooked up with someone and Kaling asks if she had sex:

It’s not that I’m some pervert looking for lurid details … it’s just that I have no idea what you are talking about. There have been times when friends have said they hooked up with someone and all it means is that they had a highly anticipated kissing session. Other times, it’s a full-on-all-night-sexathon.

But the consequences can be more than embarrassment. Such a vague and variable system of sexual expectation crashes hazardously against the dominating idea of today that we young people must seize what is before us in order to get what we want. The fuzzy definition of hookups eliminates any idea of sexual integrity—the idea that sex in and of itself has meaning more than recreation—along with any notion that a healthy sexuality contains boundaries founded upon anything more than mere whim.

I know several survivors who have had their boundaries violated under the cover of “hooking up.” The perpetrators expressed that their vision of what a hookup should entail was not being honored, and through coercion or force pushed past the survivors’ boundaries—even in the face of active and vocal opposition.

The hookup script not only blurs boundaries in a sexual encounter, but it makes it much harder for a bystander to even identify a potential instance of sexual assault. For even the closest of friends, it can be nearly impossible to identify if a hookup, whether it be a dance floor make out or intercourse, is desired, and if it is ignoring boundaries.

Those who have more stringent sexual boundaries face not only the suspicion that their sexual continence is a form of repression but the reality that they have more boundaries to be crossed. And with the reduction of sexual boundaries to preference there is no reason, in such instances, to respect a more reserved person’s sexual boundaries, and indeed, such limits are frequently met with disdain and derision.

This seems to be a common way for assailants to trespass their victim’s boundaries, particularly within relationships. I have known several survivors who, over the course of weeks and months, had their boundaries mocked and pushed more and more and more, in a steady war of attrition over perhaps the most intimate of topics.

When these beleaguered students shared this experience with friends, many boundaries short of sexual intercourse itself were dismissed publicly as “prudish” or irrelevant, with the victim hearing on all sides that their integrity held no more weight than a simple preference, and that they may have even owed it to the partner that was pressuring them to “give in.”

If sex is only recreation—as the hookup promotes—it is unclear why coercing someone into sexual activity by continuing to press until they finally do consent is a form of sexual assault, though the government defines it as such. If a classmate asked me to play ultimate Frisbee and then continued to badger me until I said yes, it would certainly be annoying, but it wouldn’t be assault. What makes this particular form of coercion more heinous than any other? It is only with a more robust vision of sexual health that we can see it as a violation of a person’s sexual integrity.

On the other hand, while a vague and libertine vision of sexuality does not protect victims from those who wish to exploit them, certain kinds of strict boundaries also contribute to the struggles facing survivors of sexual assault.

An understanding of sexuality that ties a simplistic vision of purity to a person’s self-worth can compound the psychological damage experienced by a survivor of sexual assault. Instead of models that view a healthy sexuality as a habit and continuous series of positive choices—these limited visions liken someone who has their “purity” taken from them to a piece of chewed gum, leaving them not only violated, but calling into question their sexuality and worth as a person.

With a problem so broad and multi-faceted, though, how can we possibly bring an end to this?

Where Do We Go from Here?

Firstly, we must realize the immensity and scope of the problem of sexual assault. It is not only a question of the violations themselves, but also of the culture at large and all of the messages we teach young people about sex and its meaning. Addressing sexual assault on college campuses requires a response that reaches beyond the ivory towers and fraternity houses.

It necessitates that we start viewing sex not as an activity that we can compartmentalize, separating its ramifications from the rest of our lives, but instead as an intimate and powerful connection—worthy of respect and with repercussions for good and, if abused, for ill.

On campuses themselves, we can begin by having a more open conversation on sexual integrity and on a more robust understanding of a healthy sexuality. We can be honest in saying that sex does have meaning, that it is more important than just something fun to do on a weekend, and that it—and its violation—holds consequences.

To do this, however, college administrations must stop the promotion of casual sex and hookups as a mode of campus interaction: Sex cannot be sold by colleges as both “fun” and “healthy” and consequence-free while at the same time these institutions are trying to educate students that boundaries have meaning and that sex and sexual assault have a profound impact on people.

As systemic as the issue of sexual assault is, it is a problem that we can address, and the administration and many of those who have critiqued its work have outlined important steps we can take to curb sexual assault on college campuses.

However, to truly conquer the grip assault has on the college landscape, we must stop blurring the lines between meaning and diversion, between consent and just changing someone’s mind. We need to reclaim both boundaries and consent as part of a larger vision of sexual integrity, of a healthy sexuality that is part of a person’s life.

NOTE: While each has its own definitions for sexual assault and rape, as well as the legal specifications for the prosecution of sexual offenses, the U.S. Department of Justice defines rape as the “forced sexual intercourse including both psychological coercion as well as physical force” of a victim.  The department further defines sexual assault as other kinds of “victimizations, separate from rape or attempted rape,” including attacks or unwanted sexual contact.

Because some states include both rape and other sexual offenses under the term “sexual assault,” as have federal surveys of sexual offenses, this work will use “sexual assault” to include a range of unsolicited sexual contact, including the definitions of both rape and sexual assault accepted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Furthermore, some survivors of sexual violence choose to identify the offense as a “sexual assault” as a means of coping with the offense or with social stigmas associated with rape.