Consequences for those who assault our students


I gained an education about the politics of rape on college campuses while I was still an undergraduate, coincidentally during the Clarence Thomas nomination disaster. (If you were unaware, he is not only a wholly demented Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, but also a big-time sexual harasser. The Senate knew this, and confirmed him anyway, in 1991.)

I was one of fifteen or so people who signed up to be trained as a “Sexual Harassment Advocate.” There was one other man. I received several hours of training over multiple sessions, and then my contact information was provided to anybody who had questions or concerns about campus sexual harassment policies and incidents. Though not by design, victims of sexual assault also might have contacted sexual harassment advocates.

Within a short period of time, the program was renamed “Advocates Working Against Sexual Harassment.” There were plenty of jokes that preceded the switch.

As you might expect, as a man, I didn’t get contacted often. I think it was twice, and once was by someone who was concerned about a report against him. During the same time, there were plenty of harassment incidents as well as sexual assault cases, that were not widely known on campus but definitely occurred. I graduated a year later, and I suspect the program didn’t last much longer after that time.

I didn’t realize, until much later, that this entire program on campus was essentially designed to circumvent legal channels of action. The campus was complying with the law, and genuinely concerned about its denizens, but also didn’t want people to contact external authorities.

More than 20 years later, it seems that things haven’t changed much.

What I find stunningly shameful is that some people think that students shouldn’t have the option to handle rape as a criminal matter to be handled by the justice system. What I find even more appalling is that plenty of college administrators actively discourage students to seek legal action against sex offenders. I have seen this too often, and I find it sickening.

When I was still learning the ropes as a faculty member, a student in one of my intro classes stopped attending, and she then took a leave of absence for the rest of the semester. As this was happening, I learned that another student who was also in the same class had (allegedly) sexually assaulted her. The campus was taking action to keep her from having to interact with him, but then stopped doing anything on her behalf as soon as she pressed charges. The campus wanted to punish this rapist on their own terms, by holding a little campus hearing and having some kind of little disciplinary action that would have no real consequence for him.

Meanwhile, if the accusation against him is correct, he deserved serious time in prison. Anything else would have been a miscarriage of justice. Yet administrators at my private, tuition-driven university actively sought to keep the case out of the criminal justice system and out of the public eye. As far as they were concerned, the less attention towards rape on campus, the better off the university is. That would only be true if the university were not the vehicle that allowed rapes to occur by letting the perpetrators get away with it.

In this particular case, this student transferred away from the university and never returned, and I heard indirectly that there was a criminal trial, though I never heard about the outcome.

This incident was an outlier. Most rapes that take place are never reported. Those that are reported to campus safety may or may not result in criminal charges. What affects how this happens?

Some campuses have real cops, and others have campus safety. On private campuses, the campus safety officers may be well trained, professional, and effective at their jobs, but they lack the authority of sworn police officers. They can’t issue traffic and parking tickets that are enforceable off campus, and they can’t arrest people when they do things wrong. They have to call the cops for that.

On public campuses, campus safety officers are typically real cops. Unpaid parking tickets can result in a genuine warrant off campus, and they can give you real traffic tickets that have the same legal effect as if you were pulled over by the cops off campus. They also can arrest you. They also are empowered to conduct real investigations when sexual assaults occur and are prepared to cooperate with the justice system when victims seek prosecution of their attackers.

My current campus has real cops, empowered by the State of California. We have a very safe campus, according to the statistics, and when a violent crime does happen on or near campus, we are notified about it very promptly. As far as I am aware, victims are fully empowered to go after their attackers with the full extent of the law. There’s no administrator trying to keep students from seeking the full consequences of the law off campus.

That doesn’t happen at some public universities, and I’m not aware of any private university where that happens. Private schools typically want to sweep it under the rug. It’s always been that way, and even when big incidents happen that make campuses demand more transparency and justice, I get the feeling that gains are ephemeral. Image management is paramount at private schools.

The astute administrator will realize that people concerned about sexual assaults on campus are aware that this kind of thing is far too common, everywhere. The public evidence of consequences for rapists is a good thing, because that shows the campus cares about its community. If you don’t see any talk at all about rape and its consequences, that means it’s being swept under the rug. No college is entirely safe, but there are some colleges where the criminals can actually get in trouble. It’s safer where you hear about these rapists, because that means that they are getting in trouble and aren’t shielded by the campus image police.

Until the people on all sides of the issue realize that public shaming and prosecution of rapists is a good thing, there will always be malfeasance in the guise of protecting the campus mirage of a safe environment.

3 thoughts on “Consequences for those who assault our students

  1. This is a great post, Terry. Are you familiar with the Lesak and Millar 2002 study of undetected rapists on college campuses, or the McWhorter et al. 2009 study of rape in the Navy (both summarized here: One of the startling things these studies found – above and beyond the mere fact that many men would admit having raped, or attempted to rape, so long as you didn’t use that word – was that the majority (63%) of rapists are repeat offenders. Also, nearly all (90%) targeted acquaintances.

    This just goes to show that trying to sweep it under the rug is the worst possible thing a university can do. Odds are, he’s going to try again – the repeat offenders averaged 5.8 rapes each! We simply have to start teaching everyone that rape is not just the stranger in the bushes, and we must start teaching men not to rape. Setting, and enforcing, real consequences has to be a part of that effort.

  2. Thanks for the links, Nicole. I’m wasn’t familiar with these studies (as my “training” was ten years earlier), but I am with the findings in general. This reinforces the point that it is widespread, and happens by the same people again and again, and if it gets publicized, then this is not a bad mark of a campus but a sign of a culture on campus that doesn’t tolerate these crimes.

  3. Since I wrote this post, it seems my undergrad alma mater has just been sued in a massive pro bono lawsuit taken up by Gloria Allred. I’m not sure if bringing in a media hound will facilitate change or inhibit it, but there it is. The faculty members who brought this all together are clearly getting lots of media attention. I hope it makes things better for the victims and helps prevent violence in the future.

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