It Can Happen To Anyone: Sexual Violence prevalent on college campuses

Roze Brooks

College-aged individuals are highly likely to experience or witness sexual violence during their academic tenure. The national conversation about sexual violence tends to revolve around the experiences of women as survivors. However, this demographic is not the only one susceptible to sexual victimization. Anyone, regardless of gender, race, class, sexual orientation or other identities, can become victims or abusers.

April has been officially recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month since 2011. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, SAAM aims to raise public awareness about sexual violence and to educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence.

On college campuses, sexual violence takes the main stage in various ways. Accusations against student-athletes, incidents with fraternities, parties and other social events are just a few of the default areas that have regularly received media attention.

Power, control and coercion are the common driving forces behind all instances of these crimes. By empowering those who have been sexually victimized to report and seek help, power-based violence can be progressively eliminated.

Students are en[titled] to protection

Title IX is a 40-year-old legislation that states government-funded educational institutions cannot discriminate based on sex. A new campaign, Know Your IX, was launched to aid students in filing reports against schools that were noncompliant with the law’s expectations of how sexual violence claims are to be handled. Based on a report released by the Department of Education last month, 55 universities and colleges are currently under investigation after complaints were submitted stating the schools illegally mishandled instances of sexual violence.

Many of the schools listed are reputable institutions such as Harvard Law School, Princeton University and Pennsylvania State University. Several of the institutions have responded to the report by announcing new programs, hiring positions or other methods to focus attention on sexual violence issues on their respective campuses.

“We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Underreporting of sexual violence crimes is a reoccurring issue even outside university life. There are several reasons why individuals do not feel safe or empowered to report their attacks. Embarrassment, fear and disbelief are common feelings for survivors, and the process of reporting sexual violence can be arduous and discouraging.

Dr. Stacy Mallicoat, associate professor of criminal justice at California State University- Fullerton, states that five percent of college-aged women report attempted or completed rape to the authorities, though some research indicates the report rate to be as low as two percent. The Know Your IX campaign adds that one in four women will experience a rape or attempted rape by the time she graduates college.

Another contributing factor to underreporting is the perception by the victim that the incident does not qualify as rape or sexual violence. Results of a national survey of college women indicated that 48.8 percent of victimized women did not consider their attack as rape.

Legal definitions of rape vary by state, adding to the confusion and hesitation many may have when considering reaching out for help.  In the state of Missouri, sexual intercourse is defined as “any penetration, however slight, of the female sex organ by the male sex organ, whether or not emissions results.”

This applies to the chargeable definition of rape in the first degree whereas “a person commits the offense of rape in the first degree if he or she has sexual intercourse with another person who is incapacitated, incapable of consent, or lacks the capacity to consent, or by the use of forcible compulsion.”

This definition poses limitations for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. The statute implies that an instance of sexual violence can only considered rape if penetration of a female sex organ is involved. Forced sexual activity between individuals of the same gender does not fall under this definition.

Even when instances of sexual violence are reported to authorities, the legal system presents many other obstacles for incarcerating, or imprisoning, an attacker.  Mallicoat breaks down how quickly the criminal justice system can reduce the likelihood that an offender will be punished. According to her findings, it’s estimated that 39 percent of rapes are reported to police but there is only a 51 percent chance the report will result in an arrest. In cases of an arrest, there is a more optimistic 80 percent chance of prosecution. After prosecution, however, there is a less ideal 58 percent chance of conviction. So among the 39 percent of filed reports, only less than 17 percent of rapists will ever see the inside of a prison cell. This endless trail of hurdles means that 15 out of 16 attackers will walk free.

 Alcohol and drug consumption increases risk of sexual violence

A research report called “The Sexual Victimization of College Women” by Bonnie Fischer, Francis Cullen and Michael Turner found that rates of sexual assault appear to be higher on college campuses.

“The collegiate experience contains many variables that may increase the risk for sexual assault—campus environments that facilitate a ‘party’ atmosphere, easy access to alcohol and drugs, increases in freedom and limited supervision by older adults,” the report said.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about four out of five college students drink alcohol. Additionally, about half of college students who drink consume alcohol through binge drinking. The Centers for Disease Control defines binge drinking as “a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration … to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours.

Several studies have cited that “roughly half of all rapes experienced by college students involve alcohol use knowingly or unknowingly consumed by perpetrator or victim.” Drug-facilitated rape occurs when an unwanted sexual act is committed when the perpetrator deliberately intoxicates another individual.  Incapacitated rape occurs when an act is committed after a victim voluntarily consumes alcohol.

These types of crimes are also results of date rape drugs such as Rohypnol, also known as roofies.  Alcohol is considered the most common because it is—generally— legal and easily obtained.

Though alcohol consumption can heighten the risk of sexual violence, it’s important to create a national culture that does not further victimize individuals based on intoxication levels. Society tends to discredit reports from victims who were under the influence of alcohol during their victimization.

 Sexual violence often has a familiar name

Though the immediate image that can be elicited when one thinks of sexual violence is one of a stranger lurking in the bushes late at night, this is not the most common profile for an attacker.

Among college women, 90 percent of rapes were acquaintance rapes, meaning the survivor knew their attacker. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is also a serious issue that many anti-violence campaigns and resources target. Even within seemingly secure and healthy relationships, sexual violence can surface, and victims often have greater struggles seeking out help. Couples who are not married or living together are not exempt from potential instances of sexual, physical or emotional violence.

Dating violence on college campuses is common among students, with reports indicating as many as 32 percent of students having experienced violence during a relationship. Twenty-one percent of students in a current relationship have experienced violence.     

Intimate partner violence also encounters issues of underreporting. Some major inhibitors of reporting include shame, not being believed by authorities or fearing that their partner will commit a greater act of violence. Trends in conviction and prosecution of individuals who commit intimate partner violence are also inconsistent and often end in the abuser being charged with lesser crimes.

One misconception that also limits reporting of intimate partner violence is the belief that rape cannot be committed by a partner. If consent is not given, then the sexual act is illegal.

Without a trusted person to confide in, poor interactions with police or internal dismissal of the situation, victims of sexual and intimate partner violence hit a perpetual roadblock in improving their situation. This contributes to a common issue with IPV occurrences where the abused party feels unable to leave their abusive partner.

The Bureau of Justice revealed statistics stating that 1,159 women were killed by their partners in 2004. According to Mallicoat, research indicates that three-quarters of IPV homicide victims attempted to leave their abuser in the past but did not receive the help or protection they needed.

Psychologist Dr. Lenore E. Walker created the cycle of violence, a diagram that alludes to why many victims of domestic violence are unable to separate from an abusive partner. The cycle is broken into three stages.

The first stage is “tension building,” in which the abuser increases control of the victim over time. The second is the “abusive incident” in which the major instance of battering occurs. Phase three is called the “honeymoon period,” which consists of the abusive partner ensuring the victim that they are remorseful for their behavior and compensates for the abuse by being loving and attentive. The victim often interprets these claims as true and forgives the loved one. However, the honeymoon phase is temporary, and relationships often return to phase one of the cycle and repeat.

 Victim-Blaming is an act of violence

An endless list of phrases, assumptions and societal projections make the national movement against sexual violence an arduous task. In addition to flaws in the legal system, victim blaming is a phenomenon that poses the greatest threat to anyone seeking help for their victimization.

Rape myths heavily contribute to survivors of sexual violence, making them feel as though they were at fault for the crime committed against them. Media coverage of sexual violence also perpetuates how society interprets a victim’s experiences.

Comments such as “they were dressed promiscuously” or “they shouldn’t have been drinking so much” convey a message that appearance and libations are items that can invalidate an act of sexual violence. Another myth is the assumption that once someone consents to sex,  they have consented to future sexual encounters.

One myth that stems from the belief that women lie about their rape or sexual violence is that they secretly enjoy it or that they retrospectively regret having consensual sex. However, reviewing the process of a rape kit could lead those who believe this myth to reconsider.

Rape kits are often intrusive procedures that require a victim to feel more vulnerable and embarrassed, as they must be executed almost immediately after a sexual attack. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the contents of an evidence collection kit may vary by jurisdiction. A head-to-toe physical examination is typical of most kits. They may also include collection of blood, urine, hair and other body secretion samples, photo documentation, collection of the victim’s clothing, especially undergarments and collection of any possible physical evidence that may have transferred onto the victim from the rape scene.

Violence wheels keep on turning

All matters of sexual and domestic violence derive from one person exerting power and control over another. In 1984, staffers at the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project  compiled qualitative responses from battered women. They chose the most universally-used tactics to create the Power and Control Wheel.

The initial wheel consisted of eight spokes with categories including using coercion and threats; using intimidation; using emotional abuse; using isolation; minimizing, denying and blaming; using children; using male privilege and using economic abuse.

Since its original drafting, many national organizations have adapted the wheel to fit their target group or educational mission. For example, the first wheel was not gender neutral. The DAIP states that it intentionally used female-gendered language to best reflect the experiences of the battered women they had consulted. Local domestic violence shelters such as the Rose Brooks Center utilize the original wheel for training and advocacy in Kansas City.

The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project devised an inclusive wheel in 2000 that avoids gendered language. Its version includes several of the spokes included in the original wheel. However, it also adds LGBTQIA-specific experiences including heterosexism, HIV-related abuse and homo- bi- or transphobia.

A safe place to confide

Numerous organizations, campaigns, celebrities and politicians are continually bringing awareness to issues of sexual violence. Many spread the word by negating common myths about sexual violence and insinuating a no-tolerance mindset about sexual violence of any kind against anyone.

A public service announcement video featuring several male-identified celebrities recently went viral, with Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama advocating that “one is too many.” The video, released by The White House, emphasizes the staggering statistic that one in five women experience sexual assault while in college. The PSA does insist that while men comprise a smaller number of survivors, their plights are no less important in the stride towards eliminating sexual violence.

The No More campaign has partnered with several national anti-violence organizations to provide tools for increased public discussion of sexual and domestic violence issues. The campaign’s recent public service announcement video project, directed by actress Mariska Hargitay of “Law and Order: SVU” features 50 celebrities demanding “no more” to a vast number of commonly heard statements about violence victims. Among the many proclamations include no more to “he didn’t mean it,” “it’s not my problem” and “I’ll say something next time.”

The Greater Kansas City area has an extensive number of resources and outlets for victims of sexual and intimate partner violence. Safe Home in Overland Park, Kan., offers educational services to the community. The Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault provides resources for sexual assault/abuse, prevention/education, treatment and intervention. The Kansas City Anti-Violence Project focuses on domestic violence, sexual assault and bias crimes within the LGBTQIA community.

At UMKC, Michelle Kroner serves as the victim services adjudication coordinator. She is available to consult those who have been sexually victimized and offer referrals to medical, legal and other support services to students, faculty and staff. Kroner’s position is a staple of the UMKC Violence Response and Prevention Project. The VRPP encourages anyone who has been victimized by sexual violence to consider the resources provided by Kroner, the Women’s Center or local and national resources.

We don’t need advocates against sexual violence only in the women’s studies department,” said Harvard University Prevention Education Schuyler Daum.”We need them in the locker room, the fraternity and in corners of the campus where no one seems to care.”

Although April is the official awareness month for sexual violence, consistent attention to these issues could provide eventual obliteration of these crimes. An abundance of research indicates that college-aged individuals are at a heightened risk of experiencing or witnessing sexual violence. As national efforts are made to alleviate these power-based incidents, universities across the globe would benefit from rigorous programming, policy changes and early education about sexual violence.