Causes over consequences
Punishing sexual assault is a short-term solution, while preventing it is a long-term one
President Obama has vowed to address the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Last Wednesday he created a task force dedicated to accomplishing a series of goals, which fall into two basic categories: giving colleges better tools and resources to deal with the problem of sexual assault, and holding them accountable — legally and in the court of public opinion — when they fail to utilize these tools to the best of their abilities.
The finer details of the plan will not become clear for another three months, after which the task force will give the president suggestions for what the “best practices” are when it comes to dealing with sexual assault on college campuses.
Without making hasty generalizations, we can clearly see the reasons for the President’s focused attention specifically on incidents of sexual assault at colleges and universities. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly one fifth of undergraduate women surveyed in 2012 experienced a rape or attempted rape since the time they entered college. Additionally, the Department of Justice published a study in 2000 that concluded that for about every 1000 female students attending a university, 35 rapes will occur in any given academic year.
There are about 8000 undergraduate women at the University. That means that about 280 rapes will occur this year at our institution. That number does not include any attempted rapes or other forms of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
Presumably, this task force that Obama has established will think critically about this question: why is there such a high incidence of sexual assault on college campuses? What about the circumstances and the characteristics of a college campus make it a site where sexual assaults occur so frequently?
The president will require the task force to investigate solutions to this problem on two fronts: how to prevent rape from occurring, and how to get justice for the victims when rape does occur. These two frames provide us with potential answers to the questions raised above. Presumably, rape occurs so frequently either because college students live in a social atmosphere that is especially conducive to sexual assault, or because universities are especially negligent in addressing the issue, allowing perpetrators to avoid punishment for their offenses. Or, perhaps both are equally to blame.
The government should indeed consider both the proactive and the retroactive solutions, but looking towards the future, it is the proactive that we need to focus on. Certainly, justice for the victims is important. It establishes a sense of greater security for women, and enforces the doctrine that rape is not condoned. The federal government can play a crucial role here in holding universities accountable, just as perpetrators of sexual assault should be held accountable for their actions.
Many institutions of higher education do not have good track records of responding to cases of sexual assault. Last year, students from six universities filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education because they felt their respective institutions had failed to address incidents of sexual misconduct.
The University will hold a conference on sexual assault this coming February, as part of an effort to “launch a national discussion among higher education communities on the complexities surrounding sexual misconduct among college students,” according to President Teresa Sullivan. The University’s participation in this national movement is hopeful, as all higher ed institutions must acknowledge their shortcomings in order to improve.
Encouraging women to come forward to report sexual assault and cracking down on offenders will hopefully decrease the occurrence of rape by sending the message that this crime will come with negative consequences. But just punishing offenders is not enough. Rape is an experience that no human being should have to experience in the first place. To be robbed of such intimacy is to be robbed of a fundamental human sense of security — the sense that our bodies are our own. Our aim should not be just to decrease the number of sexual assaults on campuses; it should be to eliminate them.
It will take extensive research to figure out just why sexual assault occurs so frequently at universities. College campuses are like human petri dishes. And sexual violence is like rapidly breeding bacteria. What are the conditions that encourage it to thrive? Hopefully Obama’s task force will consider these instigating factors just as much, if not more, than the appropriate methods of response. We cannot eliminate this infection until we know what the root of the problem is. That knowledge is the first step — a step in the right direction.