With the recent uproar due to disturbing responses by some to the Steubenville rape case, the knowledge of the general population about sexual assault has been called into question. As a founding member and former president of Case Western Reserve University’s Sexual Assault and Violence Educators (SAVE) student group, I have spent a number of hours discussing this topic with students and staff at our university. When I read about the response of Amherst University’s Dean to a rape survivor at Amherst – “You never took your case to trial, so you don’t actually count as a rape survivor” 1- or UNC’s former dean saying she was forced to underreport sexual assault cases 2, it makes me question the priorities of universities across the country. At this time, it would seem fair to say that most universities are far more concerned with their reputation than their students when it comes to sexual assault. While I can understand why this is the case, the reality of the situation is that 20-25% of women in college report having experienced an attempted or completed rape while in college and 90% of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape know their assailant4. At this point, it is inevitable that there will be women on any college campus who will be raped by someone else at their college.
Based on the stories I have heard on this campus, the response to sexual assault on college campuses is not effective. The only means to bring perpetrators to justice is through the legal system and/or through CWRU’s judicial procedures. I want to be able to encourage the women and men who come to me and share what has happened to them to seek to bring the perpetrator to justice, because currently that is our only solution. Yet I have heard horror stories about women seeking CWRU’s help and being ignored, accused of breaking other rules and in some cases being expelled. These are women who are recovering from a horribly traumatic event and our university refuses to protect them. While I have heard more positive stories with better outcomes, they are certainly not the majority – whether at CWRU or at other universities. Until the system changes to respect the rights of the survivor and make them feel safe and believed, I cannot in good conscience recommend reporting what happened to them. This, in turn, leaves the perpetrators out there to assault other individuals on campus and in the community. The current system protects the perpetrator and accuses the victim. Some of the individuals found responsible of sexual misconduct in the judicial system at CWRU are required to go through a “sexual harassment/sexual assault prevention training” where they learn about sexual assault, but do they really understand what these victims have gone through? Have they sat on the phone for hours with a friend sobbing uncontrollably after having been raped? Do they know what it is like to start hyperventilating whenever you run into the person who assaulted you or return to the dorm you lived in together? The lack of an appropriate response to these issues leaves not only the survivors unsafe, but the entire university. If we allow perpetrators to go unpunished for their crimes, it leaves them more likely to assault again. While there is no ideal solution at this point, there can be improvements made to help support the safety of our students as a priority far more important than the reputation of our university.
Mary Theresa Jennings