Psyching the Zietgeist:
Current Culture Through a Mental Health Lens

Sexual Assaults on Campus

There has been a lot of press lately about sexual harassment and rape on campus. It has been reported that one in five college women experience some form of inappropriate sexual pressure, and colleges are scrambling to respond appropriately. Should these cases be handed to the police for criminal proceedings? Should colleges expel found perpetrators (and at what level of evidence)? Should there be government investigations of schools considered too lax in their own investigatory processes? These are the difficult questions this issue raises.

According to an article in the Huffington Post, Harvard College Faces Probe For Alleged Mishandling Of Sexual Assault Cases, the US Department of Civil Rights is investigating complaints by sexual assault survivors at Harvard who accuse the university of providing conflicting and incorrect information, denying victims protection from their alleged assailants, and blaming victims. As of June 2014, 64 schools are under investigation by the Department of Civil Rights.

The Sunday New York Times recently ran a front-page article, Reporting Rape and Wishing She Hadn’t, which highlighted the flaws in a college’s investigation of a campus rape:

Whatever precisely happened that September night, the internal records, along with interviews with students, sexual-assault experts and college officials, depict a school ill prepared to evaluate an allegation so serious that, if proved in a court of law, would be a felony, with a likely prison sentence. As the case illustrates, school disciplinary panels are a world unto themselves, operating in secret with scant accountability and limited protections for the accuser or the accused.

Another New York Times article, A Star Player Accused, and a Flawed Rape Investigation, highlighted the biased treatment which can result if the accused is a star football player: “The police investigator who handled the case, Scott Angulo, told her (victim’s lawyer) that because Tallahassee was a big football town, her client would be ‘raked over the coals’ if she pursued the case.”

In a recent article in The Nation, Why the Campus Rape Crisis Confounds Colleges, the author looks at the thorny issues that arise when one compares criminal justice in a court of law, which rarely finds the accused guilty and subjects many accusers to humiliating lines of questioning, to campus disciplinary procedures, where the level of evidence is not as strict nor the punishments as severe, and where the panel is often poorly trained in law, evidence, and appropriate procedures.

Amid the furor, some conservative pundits wonder about justice for the accused, while one, George Will, belittles the issue of sexual harassment and its consequences for the women involved. In an opinion piece published in June, he claimed that colleges are making “…victimhood a coveted status that confers privilege, and therefore victims proliferate”. He was later dropped from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over these controversial comments.

Obstetrician-gynecologist Jen Gunter has much professional experience dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault. She is also a rape survivor, and wrote a moving response to Will’s column. In particular, she took issue with his pooh-poohing date rape as being ambiguous enough to not qualify as assault. She graphically depicts the physical and emotional distress she, and too many others, have gone through, and how hard it is to come forward in an atmosphere where too often the woman is not believed. “I am a 47 year-old financially and professionally secure woman in a stable, loving relationship and it took 25 years and your jackass column to get me to speak up about my rape. How easy do you think it is for a scared 20 year-old to call 911 or walk into a police station and say, ‘I was just raped’?”

On a positive note, colleges are responding to the lawsuits and publicity with fairer and better-defined policies. In July 2014, Harvard announced a new “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which means that there’s a more than 50% likelihood that the accusation is true. Occidental College, highlighted in The Nation article referenced above, also announced new procedures which attempt to remediate a number of prior complaints. It is also important that colleges, and students, address the drug and booze culture which often sets the stage for abuse; abuse which can affect both accused and accusers far into the future.

By Christine Wick