Why Is Sexual Assault So Common In College? 9 Subtle Ways It Creeps Into America's Education System


It's no secret that sexual assault on school campuses is a huge problem. There are a million reasons for this, and a million reasons why more work should be dedicated to stopping it. To really get to the root of the problem, though, it's necessary to recognize the little ways that sexual assault pervades the education system itself, creating a culture in which rape and sexual assault are normalized.

The ways in which sexual assault creeps into the education system include all the reasons victims have not to report their assaults, the lack of training on school and law enforcement officials' parts, and perhaps now even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' new guidelines about how schools should handle reports of on-campus rape, just to name a few. Countless survivors of sexual assault have had their lives thrown off track, their education put into jeopardy, and their personhood irrevocably violated as a result of this culture of sexual violence.

While this is certainly an issue that society as a whole needs to address — and is in the process of addressing, with things like the #MeToo movement on social media as an example — there are concrete ways that schools, as well as the education system, could help make things better for survivors of sexual assault on campuses.

1. Betsy DeVos' Title IX Changes

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It may seem like the Trump administration has already gone on for decades, but it was really only a few years ago that the Obama administration released a series of guidelines regarding Title IX and the ways that campuses should handle instances of sexual assault and rape. Now, not even a year since Trump stepped into the Oval Office, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has scrapped those guidelines, arguing that they were unfair to the students accused of rape and sexual assault.

One specific area she addressed is the fact that now only accused assailants can appeal decisions that school officials make, leaving alleged victims without any recourse if the decision doesn't go their way. In effect, this is an extra layer of protection for those accused of raping their fellow students and a removal of protection for alleged victims, despite the fact that sexual assault is already heavily underreported and only very rarely falsely reported.

2. Dress Codes

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It seems totally normal for schools to have dress codes, right? Not when they're targeted at girls and women. When female students are singled out and shamed for wearing skirts or tank tops, it perpetuates rape culture in schools by reinforcing the idea that women and their bodies are a distraction that needs to be limited. Women shouldn't be forced to alter their style in order to prevent sexual assault; would-be sexual assailants need to learn that women aren't objects that can be taken without consent, no matter how they dress.

3. Lack Of Trained Law Enforcement Officials

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This depends on the school, but when a survivor wants to report a sexual assault, he or she will often end up going to the campus police first — and campus police are often woefully unprepared to handle reports of rape and sexual assault. Metropolitan police often also lack training in how to handle rape cases, leaving the victim with very little they can do in terms of making themselves feel safe again after a sexual assault.

By developing and supporting a system in which campus police could sensitively handle the initial report before sending the victim's case on to a police department where it could actually be prosecuted, the education system could make things more fair for everyone involved.

4. Mistreatment Of Transgender Students

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Transgender students are one of the groups most likely to have been sexually assaulted, and yet Trump's Department of Education has now made things much worse for them. First, it rescinded Obama-era orders to allow trans students to use the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity, and now the latest DeVos move changing the Title IX guidelines has created an even more hostile environment. A system bent on actually changing a toxic culture would not want to go after those who are most at risk of being assaulted in the first place.

5. Lack Of Bystander Approach Training

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According to various studies, one of the most effective ways of preventing sexual assault is the bystander approach, in which people are trained how to handle a situation in which they witness some form of sexual assault or harassment taking place. While it's not perfect — the ideal approach, of course, would target the perpetrators rather than people unconnected to the situation — bystander approach can still help victims in many circumstances. And yet, it's far from ubiquitous on college campuses. Including bystander approach training in federal guidelines could help prevent countless assaults every year.

6. Ingrained Fear Of Reporting

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Women have myriad reasons not to report a rape, and many are magnified on a college campus. There are some that facets of the system that could prove more difficult to change — the small, closed social circles that college campuses create, for example, or the binge drinking culture.

However, the system could also put concrete regulations in place that would make the situation at least a bit easier for some victims. There are many instances where victims don't want to report a sexual assault because they're afraid they'll get into trouble for underage drinking, or just because they don't understand the process of reporting. If the process were more clear, or if victims wouldn't face punishment for much smaller issues like underage drinking, they might be that much more likely to report.

7. Lack Of Administrative Accommodations For Survivors

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It should go without saying that sexual assault victims' grades suffer following their assaults, given the mental and emotional trauma that a sexual assault creates. However, very few schools have systems in place to give victims special accommodations in terms of their grades or any other aspect of campus life. This leads to a great number of victims dropping out of school, even though it wouldn't be all that difficult to simply find ways to lighten the academic or social burden on the affected student from the administration's side.

8. Not Enough Access To Specialized Health Care

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It's not just police who lack adequate training in how to deal with sexual assault — the problem plagues some health care professionals as well, not to mention the fact that health care can be hard to come by for some victims of sexual assault. A truly comprehensive effort would include having specially trained nurses available at every college health care center, ready to take care of victims with sensitivity and without judgement. Furthermore, campuses need to be prepared to provide mental health counseling to any victim.

9. Lack Of Focus On The Perpetrators

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The problem at the heart of all of this, of course, is that breaking the culture of sexual assault inherent to the educational system would mean a huge change in how everyone addresses the problem. The burden can't fall on women to dress modestly, walk home in groups, or hold their keys as potential protective weapons. Instead, it has to shift to the would be perpetrators — the (mostly) male students who apparently need to be taught, from the very beginning, that women are not objects, that consent is necessary in all situations, that rape or sexual assault is just as wrong as theft or murder. Until the education system addresses this problem, across the board, the culture of sexual assault will persist.

There's a huge amount of work to be done on this issue, but the education system, from elementary school all the way up to graduate school, has a huge effect on society. If it can address the problems within its own realm, then society will be closer to getting rid of this rape culture once and for all.

Editor's Note: This op-ed does not reflect the views of BDG Media and is part of a larger, feminist discourse on today's political climate.