College is one of the most dangerous places for women. One in four women is a victim of sexual assault while in college. Yet the Department of Justice estimates that less than five percent of completed and attempted rapes are reported to law enforcement.
College is supposed to be a place where young women go to flourish, not be put in harm’s way. But this past week seven University of Connecticut students reminded us of the underbelly of sexual violence within our colleges.
Kylie Angell, a former UConn student spoke at a news conference about her rape by a classmate. But as sad and shocking as the rape itself was the reaction by the campus police officer she reported the incident to.
“The officer told me, ‘Women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter or rape is going to keep happening until the cows come home.’”
Angell, along with seven other current and former female UConn students, filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights under Title IX. Under the protection of Title IX there cannot be gender-based discrimination in any education program receiving federal funding.
The UConn incident is just the latest in a series of sexual misconduct cases involving universities. Just down the road from UConn, Yale University has been embroiled in its own set of sexual assault and harassment related issues.
In 2011 a group of current and former Yale students filed a Title IX complaint for a “hostile sexual environment on campus.” More specifically, the University was accused of not responding to cases of sexual assault and harassment. As a result of this complaint and an agreement Yale reached with the Department of Education, the University would submit semi-annual sexual misconduct reports.
Yale University has diligently complied with the reporting requirements and recently submitted its fourth report. But the latest report has only served to highlight that the university’s disregard for sexual harassment has not budged. The word rape was not used once in the report. In its place, the euphemistic phrase “non-consensual sex” was used.
Let’s call a spade a spade – non-consensual sex is rape.
The university will point to their enhanced campus resources to deal with sexual assault and discrimination. And this is all well and good.
But it doesn’t matter how many resources are thrown at a problem if there is denial of a problem in the first place.
Herein lies the root of the problem at Yale and at educational institutions across the country – the denial of rape and sexual assault.
There is rhetorical denial, such as in Yale’s case. If we don’t say it, then it doesn’t happen.
Then there is denial by blaming a third party–alcohol. “There was alcohol involved, so surely it was the woman’s fault.” Or, “you can’t blame the perpetrator, it was the alcohol’s fault.”
Finally, there is denial by blaming the victim. She wanted it then she changed her mind. A study by the National Institute of Justice finds that between 80-90 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a known assailant. Moreover, the closer the relationship, the more likely it is that a rape is completed. So the denialist read of these figures would point to the woman simply being fickle and changing her mind after the fact.
But the larger system of rape denial allows potential perpetrators to think it’s OK to violate women, especially one’s friends and classmates. The result is a vicious cycle of rape and denial.
This year half a dozen colleges and universities filed complaints under Title IX and in all twenty-three schools are currently under investigation for discrimination related to sexual assault.
The battle against denial is not an easy one. Denial of sexual assault is not only found on college campuses, but also in our military as well as in our political culture. The fact that the Violence Against Women Act renewal was such a difficult political lift points to denialist strongholds in our larger society.
There are protections in place to help combat the incidence of rape on college campuses, namely Title IX. But a real solution will only come when the problem is recognized. Knocking down the culture of denial is not an easy one because it puts the onus on the victims to make their case.
Brave young women, at UConn, Yale, and across the country are coming forward and calling out the reality of sexual assault on campuses. What we as a nation need to do is listen and accept this reality. Only then can the epidemic of college rape be addressed, when we stop denying and recognize what is happening.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.