If we want to do something about sexual assault on college campuses, first we have to deal with the excuse makers.
These are the people who belittle sexual assault as youthful hanky-panky taken a little too far, who dismiss statistics or personal accounts as exaggerated or shrill. The worst are those who suggest the problem is victims who "ask" to be sexually violated by wearing certain clothes or drinking alcohol.
Take it from one who's been there. Sexual assault is a real threat to college students, particularly young women who have just arrived on campus.
When I went to college, it was my first foray away from home alone, and I was not used to drinking hard liquor. I had no idea how quickly it can turn a 5-foot-2-inch girl into a wobbly, incoherent plaything.
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Times haven't changed that much since I frequented fraternity parties and, yes, at times stayed too late and consumed more booze than was healthy or wise.
One incident is seared in my memory, and the details are sick enough that I feel queasy thinking about them all these years later. It wasn't full vaginal sex, but, regardless, I didn't consent to what happened, despite the fact that the man involved had been my blind date for a sorority event earlier in the evening. He was older and knew exactly what he was doing, and he pushed well beyond the limits of what I had ever done with my long-term high school boyfriend. I was mortified when I woke from a rum-addled stupor and was able to get the hell out of his reach.
Did I ever report the incident? No way. I never even told girlfriends. I felt terrified, guilty and disgusted.
Things haven't changed with time. Not much, not yet. How many times every school year is the same traumatic experience repeated? Thousands? Tens of thousands? One problem is we don't really know. A frequently cited statistic, from a 2007 study under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, is that one out of every five coeds will experience an attempted or completed sexual assault as an undergraduate. Another, from a 2000 report by the Justice Department, is that fewer than 5 percent of rape victims attending college report their attack to law enforcement.
Under the Clery Act, passed in 1990, colleges and universities participating in federal financial aid programs are required to report on the incidence of various categories of crime on campus. One of these is sex offenses. However, many colleges have used loopholes and ambiguous definitions to underreport rape and other types of sexual assault. According to the National Institute of Justice, only about one-third of institutions fully comply with federal reporting laws.
Legislation has been introduced to force universities to take sexual assault seriously. The Campus Safety and Accountability Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of eight senators, would require universities receiving federal funds (which is nearly all of them) to conduct "climate surveys" that would permit better estimates of incidence and gauge student knowledge of available help. Progress would be tracked with yearly updates, published online.
The bill stipulates strict protocols for investigating allegations. All too often, institutional interests such as university athletic departments are permitted to conduct or meddle with sexual assault investigations, with predictable results for favored athletes.
Other features of the bill: Confidential advisers would be put in place to help guide and encourage reporting. Students who report incidents will not be punished for under-age drinking. Campuses that fail to comply with the law would face stiff financial penalties -- up to 1 percent of their operating budgets.
By their own admission, higher education officials have failed to address the problem. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a cosponsor of the Senate bill, surveyed colleges and universities and found that more than 40 percent admitted that they have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years. And more than 20 percent of the nation's largest private institutions admitted conducting fewer investigations than the number of incidents they reported to the Department of Education, with some reporting as many as seven times more incidents than investigations.
The bill could go a long way toward breaking down the belief, and too often the reality, that young women have more to risk by admitting that they have been assaulted than they have to gain.
Sadly, one of the greatest challenges for young women eager to earn a college degree isn't academic. It's graduating with their dignity intact.
Mary Sanchez, an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star, can be emailed at email@example.com.