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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/9/14

Finally, National Coverage of College Rape

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College sexual assault is suddenly getting the attention it deserves.

The picture can be bright or not for our college girls
The picture can be bright or not for our college girls
(Image by Chaval Brasil)
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Courageous college activists nationwide have shone the spotlight on sexual violence with their Title IX complaints and first person accounts. This has prompted a White House commission to recommend policy changes and President Obama, along with actors Benicio del Toro and Daniel Craig, to make the "1 is 2 Many" public service announcement airing in theaters. Recent New York Times coverage has effectively highlighted the tragic cost of dangerous campus climates. But many institutions refuse to bear witness or effectively advocate for traumatized college students. Our greater awareness must remind us -- as alumni, parents, citizens, students and journalists -- to sustain the push for safe university campuses.

Many colleges have inadequately addressed the greatest threat to the wellbeing of their majority female population: their male students. So college activists, who in the past took on issues of global injustice like apartheid and wars, now focus on the sexual assaults of 1 in 5 girls around them. This resulted in the US government recently releasing the names of 55 colleges being investigated for their handling of sexual harassment or violence.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars discrimination based on gender in programs benefiting from federal financial assistance. In 2011, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights warned colleges, through a letter, that their handling of sexual assault cases falls under this statute. Grassroots organizations like "Know Your IX" have helped students get better support after assaults, improve collegiate policies, and file federal complaints. Another tool is the Clery Act which mandates that colleges receiving federal money report on sexual assaults. But many colleges tally just a few. And the Princeton Review, which reports on many aspects of college life, has not included sexual assault information as part of their data (although we can change this).

Women live on campuses where a "rape guide" was published (Dartmouth), a "rape factory" was known (Wesleyan University), and lewd chants by aspiring pledges greeted freshman (Yale). Many female students experience sexual assault only to see their case ineptly handled like the undergraduate in "Dear Harvard: You Win" who was unable to get her attacker moved out of her dorm, or the orphan at Amherst College, whose experience led her to drop out. Victims are often discouraged from reporting the crime to the police, although it is more likely to result in harsher punishment (despite 3 percent of rapes bringing prison time). Fellow students and professors are often included on investigative panels, although they potentially play a role in victims' future campus life and are often insufficiently trained.

All this results in horrible, avoidable realities. Rape victims are often re-traumatized through intrusive questioning then devastated by decisions. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz said after the adjudication process, "I've never felt more shoved under the rug in my life." Two other sexual assault complaints were made and dismissed against her attacker that year, and so was hers. She reflected, "Has anything ever happened to you that was just so bad that you felt like a shell of a human being?"

The White House and some Congressional representatives have fortunately taken on this issue. On April 29, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault made recommendations for all colleges. In the 20-page report they recommended systematic surveys of sexual assaults and attitudes on campus, bystander intervention, trained victim advocates, as well as an option to cut part of federal funding for colleges. Sulkowicz spoke out at a news conference with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to push for improved policies.

A Few Bad Apples and "Entertainment"

But the root causes for the widespread, intense violence are addressed in a superficial manner. Perpetrators are often described as "a few bad apples", though we would gasp if serial killers were compared to fruit. The numbers do not add up, either. Assuming each male individual committed one crime, about half of male students would be implicated. If, as is more likely, each perpetrator was responsible for about 4 crimes, 5 percent of the student population -- at Harvard, a full 500 undergraduates -- are assailants who freely roam the campus.

Another sad truth is violence, and violence against women, has become socially acceptable entertainment. In repetitious video games like Grand Theft Auto, "players" solicit prostitutes and sometimes kill them. Hard core pornography similarly normalizes extreme gender violence. But even mainstream television has grown less interested in portraying straightforward sex as Time magazine pointed out in 1999 in "Sex on TV is " Not Sexy!". Movies and TV programs today show scenes of extreme violence against women. Sunday's New York Times described the highly ranked "The Game of Thrones" as including sexually brutal scenes of child marriage, gang rape, incest, and sexual punishment. The novels' author George Martin said, "Rape and sexual violence have been part of every war ever fought" and HBO's president for programming cited the "vision and artistry" of the "creative team". But we're not treated to a weekly award-winning cinematography where vultures hover over starving children, or genocidal slaughter. The fact that sexual violence is such a large part of our times suggests more, not less, consideration as to how it is portrayed: whether it is glorified and excessively graphic; handled thoughtfully with the traumatic aftermath of the crime included; or, perhaps wisely and most often, simply left out.

Fortunately, all this ignores one big and heartening reality. Sexual contact is inherently sexy: no violence needed. Remember "Out of Sight" with George Clooney and a young Jennifer Lopez? Or "The Big Easy" with Ellen Barkin? Sexual contact can be awkward, fun, entertaining " and simply steamy.

The Media

The media appears to have awakened to the epidemic of college gender based violence. Yet it is tough not to take the scarcity of past attention as a slight. The 3 million full-time students assaulted represent those lost on 12,500 Malaysian Airlines Flight 370s. Alternatively, imagine the media focus resulting from one in five laptops being stolen.

Even coverage of recent developments has varied dramatically across news organizations.

  • The New York Times recently highlighted sexual assault and violence with three page A1 articles: one on the college fight against sexual assault that included a page of photos of a victim on another front page section, one on the violence in the "Game of Thrones", and one on White House recommendations for university sexual assault policies. Another article (on pages A12 and A18) described coordination between lawmakers and the White House with sexual assault victims.
  • Democracy Now! featured lengthy interviews with a "Know Your IX" organizer and a college sexual assault victim.
  • Yet the Washington Post disappointed . A strong, if not front-page story on A2, described White House recommendations. Another on page A4 described how college sexual violence is being cast as a civil rights issue. But the only front-page story featured a former Navy football player (with a half page of his photos inside) charged with sexual assault along with two teammates. The victim, who was subject to intrusive questioning and dropped some charges, was barely mentioned until paragraph 26. Page D1 contained the bolded quote "It Still Hurts Us" referring to the accuser, not the victim.
  • The Wall Street Journal offered scant, low placed coverage with a story on the government listing the 55 schools on the bottom of page A4, and only three paragraphs on White House recommendations (of their future executives) on page A6.
The Post coverage of the Navy incident is somewhat reminiscent of CNN's widely decried coverage of the guilty verdict for two Steubenville High School football players found guilty of rape of a 16-year-old girl. "These two young men who had such promising futures -- star football players, very good students -- literally watched as they believed their life fell apart," said reporter Poppy Harlow. Too often the media gives highly visible, sympathetic portrayals to athletes and privileged college students who commit violent crimes against women; empathy that often eludes mentally ill, poor nonviolent offenders.

Finally, although it is strange to blame women, some typically law-and-order conservatives have extended their anti-woman agenda to blame violence on women's promiscuity and alcohol use.

There is much we can do as college graduates, prospective parents, and involved citizens to protect our girls. As alumni, we must push for an environment of sexual safety to include considering withholding donations to make it so. We must ask about Title IX compliance, student training, university policies, and crime reporting. As citizens, we can boycott advertisers of violent shows and the television stations that air them. As parents, we can monitor our childrens' computers, phones, and television time; and teach our children to get involved to prevent violence and help victims.

We have a sacred trust to protect our children. It includes supporting activist survivors who have been profiles of courage and commitment, girls who have dropped out of college (or worse), and relatives who one day will walk these campuses.

How can we abandon that paramount obligation?
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Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.
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