Bachelor of rape: higher learning in victimization

Sexual assaults in and around our nation’s universities are occurring at an alarming rate, and it is often being swept under the rug.

Photo by Wolfram Burner (Flickr).

Andrea (pseudonym) agreed to go on a date with a fellow student.  They were classmates at the University of Pittsburgh.  She knew him to be a church-going man and close to his family.  After dinner at an Italian restaurant, they went to a friend’s house where Andrea’s date handed her a drink.  It was a very strong drink.  She woke up the next morning with no pants on and no recollection of what had happened.  But deep down, she knew something had happened.

The summer before Claire’s (pseudonym) senior year at Queen’s University of Charlotte, a friend invited her to come over to his dorm room and watch a movie.  Claire knew he had a girlfriend, so she did not think anything sexual would occur.  But while watching the movie, he began to kiss her.  This made her uncomfortable.  When he tried to take off her clothes, Claire told him to stop.  He protested, telling her, “No, you’ll like it.”  She told him again to stop.  Before she knew it, he was on top of her.  He was raping her.  In an effort to get him to stop, Claire asked him to put on a condom.  When he got up, she confronted him about what he had just done.  When he denied raping her, she said, “I told you I did not want your penis in my vagina, and that’s what happened.  How is that not rape?!”

Sadly, stories like Andrea and Claire’s are common among our nation’s colleges.  Last November, the documentary “The Hunting Ground” was released.  Featuring several survivors of sexual assault, it was intended to highlight the widespread problems of campus rape, that many universities do not have standards for how to respond to claims of campus rape, and that victims were often discouraged from reporting their assaults.

Many people – including politicians, journalists, and college administrators – insist that the issue of collegiate sexual assault is not a high priority and that claims are being appropriately handled

Although the legal definitions of sexual assault vary by state, sexual assault is a general term to describe any type of sexual activity that occurs without consent.  This can include unwanted kissing or touching, sexual contact with someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs and unable to give informed consent to the activity, or rape/attempted rape.

Many people – including politicians, journalists, and college administrators – insist that the issue of collegiate sexual assault is not a high priority and that claims are being appropriately handled.  Some have even accused victims willing to speak to a journalist of saying whatever the journalist wanted to hear simply to gain fame and notoriety.

Victims may not only face an uphill battle against their universities, but from outside opposition as well.  Victims are often blamed for what has happened to them.  They are told, “[W]ell, you must have led him on,” or are asked what they were wearing.

Earlier in March, Texas Representative, Myra Crownover, faced criticism for what many perceived to be victim blaming.  Her remarks were made during a hearing on sexual assault held by the Texas House Committee on Higher Education.  The purpose of the hearing was to make recommendations towards preventing and eliminating sexual assault on college campuses.  Ms. Crownover stated,

I was listening for mention of drug or alcohol abuse and, you know, I think those two conversations are so intertwined.  I would be curious to see how many times a pure, sober sexual assault happened.  The best defense is being sober.

Consequentially, the backlash was swift.  Ms. Crownover quickly took to Twitter to state that inebriation is not an invitation to be sexually assaulted, nor does it condone the actions of those who do.

However, an alarming number of colleges and universities are under fire for falling short of their required duties under Title IX.

Luckily, most campuses take reports of sexual assaults very seriously.  However, an alarming number of colleges and universities are under fire for falling short of their required duties under Title IX.  Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), requires all educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance from the US Department of Education to properly evaluate, investigate, and resolve reports of sexual harassment.

Under Title IX, sexual harassment is defined as “unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior, which substantially interferes with a student’s access to educational opportunities.”  The Supreme Court of the United States has upheld a school’s obligations to investigate complaints of sexual harassment/assault regardless of whether the assault was perpetrated by peers, teachers, or other school officials.

There are approximately 7,000 postsecondary institutions in the United States which are subject to these requirements of Title IX.  According to online sources, there were nearly 100 universities under investigation for mishandling or failing to report cases of sexual assault or for violations of Title IX provisions in 2014.  That same year, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill conducted a survey of over 300 American universities.  Her study found that over 40 percent of those schools failed to investigate a single report of sexual assault in the last five years.

Early in March 2016, four women filed complaints with the Department of Education against four different universities for violations of Title IX requirements.  The universities involved were American University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Indiana University Bloomington, and Monmouth University.  Among other things, the women accused the universities of violating the 60-day investigation timeframe.

Once these complaints were finally investigated, the offenders received minimal sanctions, which “created a hostile environment for the survivors” and “severely compromised their educational experiences.”  The complaints further accused the universities of failing to enforce no-contact orders between the victims and the offenders, which led to retaliation against the victims.

The study showed that 23 percent of female college students have experienced some sort of sexual assault or sexual misconduct through force, threats of force, or incapacitation. 

The Association of American Universities conducted a study in 2015 of nearly 150,000 students in 27 universities.  This study, which was one of the largest ever conducted, included a wide range of higher education institutions, from state-level to Ivy League.  The results are concerning.

The study showed that 23 percent of female college students have experienced some sort of sexual assault or sexual misconduct through force, threats of force, or incapacitation.  Nearly 11 percent said the contact involved penetration or oral sex.  Rates of reporting to either law enforcement or campus authorities were fairly low; only 5-28% depending on the specific type of behavior.  The most common reason for not reporting incidents of sexual assault or misconduct was a belief that it “was not serious enough.”  Other reasons included embarrassment, shame, or emotional difficulty.  Even though more than 63 percent of students believed that a report of a sexual assault or sexual misconduct would be taken seriously by campus officials, many still believed that nothing would be done about it even if they reported it.

Classifying different levels of sexual assaults is not always clear.  John Foubert is a professor at Oklahoma State University and President of One in Four, an organization dedicated to rape prevention.  He said, “[M]any of the statistics that are widely cited in the public about sexual violence are of ‘rape or attempted rape’ [and] rightfully so.”  He went on to say that including unwanted sexual contact into that same set of statistics risks equating a forced kiss with forcible rape.  He readily admits that both of these acts are obviously bad, but that they are fundamentally different.

Indeed, unwanted kissing and rape are fundamentally different acts although they are no less criminal because of this.  In North Carolina, rape falls under one of two degrees.  Both require vaginal penetration by force or against the victim’s will.  Any other penetration or forcible sexual act falls either under the forcible sexual offenses of North Carolina General Statute § 14-27.4 or § 14-27.5.

These offenses are serious felonies and carry substantial prison sentences.  General unwanted sexual contact, such as unwanted kissing or touching, is usually classified as misdemeanor sexual battery under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.5A.  Because all of these assaults are sexual in nature, they can technically be couched under the same umbrella category.

False reports tend to make people stop and wonder when the next accusation is made.

Most reports of rape are valid, and all should be treated as such until a thorough investigation concludes otherwise.  Unfortunately, not all rape accusations are true.  While research indicates that only 2-8% of rape accusations are false, these few false reports lend credence to the “I told you she was lying!” mentality.

In 2006, Crystal Mangum, a student at North Carolina Central University and part-time exotic dancer, accused three lacrosse players at Duke University of raping her.  After an investigation, the players were indicted and tried for rape.  In light of various inconsistencies in Mangum’s story, as well as exculpatory DNA evidence, the charges against the three players were dismissed.

In November 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published an article written by Sabrina Erdely detailing the vicious rape of a girl identified as “Jackie.”  This rape allegedly happened at the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house.  The story led to an exhaustive four-month investigation by the Charlottesville Police Department.  By the time the dust settled everyone knew what Erdely always had (or should have): the story was not credible.  The accused, as well as Phi Kappa Psi and the University, were ultimately exonerated of any wrongdoing.  But the long-term fallout was just beginning.

The Duke and University of Virginia high-profile incidents involved someone who “cried wolf” about being sexually assaulted.  Sexual assault is often, by nature, a witness-less crime and accusations are usually one side’s word against the other.  False reports tend to make people stop and wonder when the next accusation is made.  But “portraying survivors as just as likely to lie about sexual assault as they are to tell the truth is inaccurate and harmful.”  Further, it gives victims more reason to hesitate to report.

Chris  (pseudonym), a student at the University of the Pacific, articulated his “cry wolf” fear when he described rejecting the advances of a would-be paramour at his fraternity house.  One night, after he came home from work, he briefly spoke to his friends and a woman who was there.  Chris spoke to her as well but he only slightly knew her.  He then went to bed.  After about fifteen minutes, the woman came to his room, clearly intoxicated, and clearly interested in more than sleep.  He told her several times that he was not interested and asked her to leave. When he opened the door to the hall, the woman fell to the floor and began screaming, “Stop it!  Stop it!  I don’t want to have sex with you!”

While the situation went no further than that, it scared Chris.  He said she was trying to stage a scenario where he was the bad guy and that if someone had heard her cries, he is sure they would have believed her story over his.  He said one minute he was turning down what he simply thought was an unwelcome offer, but then he suddenly saw himself in a situation where he might be falsely accused of attempted rape.

The cost of a university turning its back on the survivors of sexual assault is immeasurable. 

The problem is clear: America has a dirty little secret in the world of higher education and it needs to be addressed.  Kamilah Willingham, a survivor featured in “The Hunting Grounds,” warned that the cost of a university turning its back on the survivors of sexual assault is immeasurable.  She stated that while sexual assault is a problem everywhere, schools and closed communities have a specific responsibility to their students to address this epidemic.

Ms. Williagham said, “[When universities] place their reputation or financial gain or even egos over the safety and integrity of their communities, it’s unacceptable.”  This is not a new problem.  Kirby Dick, writer and director of “The Hunting Grounds”, called out schools that are behind the eight ball in addressing this problem on their campuses.  “Schools should have been doing this decades ago.  The problem is schools are so far behind that many of them haven’t figured out a way to address this yet.”

Whatever it takes to end sexual assault on college campuses, it needs to be done and fast.  School is hard enough already without having to worry about being raped after class.

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About Clint Davis, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (17 Articles)
Clint Davis is a 2017 Campbell Law graduate and served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Campbell Law Observer for the 2016-2017 academic year. Before law school, Clint served as a police officer for seven and a half years in Williamston, N.C. He graduated from the University of Mount Olive in the Spring of 2013 with a degree in Criminal Justice and Criminology. During his time at Campbell, Clint studied abroad at the University of Cambridge (UK) with a focus on the law of the European Union and comparative data privacy. He worked for the Honorable Wanda G. Bryant at the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the Honorable Seth Edwards at the Martin County District Attorney's Office, the Honorable Susan Doyle at the Johnston County District Attorney's Office, and the Honorable Lorrin Freeman at the Wake County District Attorney's Office. Clint also competed on Campbell's National Moot Court Team and served as an associate justice for the Campbell Law Honor Court.
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