Editorial: Fighting sexual assault on campus


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President Obama last week announced a renewed push to curb sexual violence, particularly on college campuses, a subject that had not previously received much attention from the White House.

“These young women worked so hard just to get into college. Often their parents are doing everything they can to help them pay for it, so when they finally make it there, only to be assaulted, that is not just a nightmare for them and their families,” Obama said. “It’s an affront to everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve. It’s totally unacceptable.”

The president’s statement came on the heels of a new report from the White House Council on Women and Girls that analyzed the most recent sexual-assault data and found that college campuses are among the highest risk areas for sexual violence.  According the report, 20 percent of women have been sexually assaulted while in college.

We applaud Obama for drawing attention to the problem. The need for a renewed effort to stamp out sexual violence is particularly apparent at the University of Iowa. This week, a student reported a sexual assault to the UI police that reportedly occurred in a residence hall. Four assaults were reported last semester, three of which occurred on campus.

The troubling frequency of these reports is made worse when one realizes that the sexual assaults that are reported are most likely only a fraction of those committed at the UI. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs estimates that only about 12 percent of student victims report the assaults to law enforcement.

Unfortunately, many of the fixes proposed by the White House — establishing best practices for universities dealing with sexual-assault reporting, information campaigns, and abuse hotlines — probably won’t strike at the heart of the sexual-assault epidemic. At the core of this problem are poor prosecution and conviction rates for rapists and a culture that allows sexual assault to persist.

As noted above, a small fraction of sexual assaults are reported, and of those some studies indicate that as many as two-thirds reported cases are dismissed. On top of that, a few peculiarities of on-campus sexual assaults further compound the difficulty of convicting those who commit sexual assault. Many women who are sexually assaulted in college are incapacitated — drunk, passed out, etc. — and thus may not be able to accurately remember and report the crime.  Furthermore, many sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances, which could further disincline victims from filing a report.

The somewhat promising news is that even a marginal change in conviction rates could lead to a dramatic reduction in the incidence of sexual assault. A 2002 study on repeat offending among undetected rapists found that while 7 percent of college men admitted to committing or attempting rape, 63 percent of those men admitted to repeat offending. That 7 percent averaged six rapes each. In other words, convicting a few extra rapists could prevent a lot of sexual violence.

The most important thing we can do to fight sexual assault, however, is to change the prevailing culture surrounding sexual violence. There is an unfortunate tendency to blame or doubt the victims of sexual assault — particularly when alcohol is involved — that encourages victims to stay silent and insulates criminals from the consequences of their actions. The societal tendency to ostracize the victims of sexual violence must be reversed.

Clearly, there is much to be done to reduce the incidence of sexual violence, but measures that fall short of changing the legal and cultural framework surrounding these crimes will likely also fall short of fixing the problem.

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