Sexual Assault on College Campuses: The Powers that Promote Silence

by Sofia Vittoria

Alert. Panic. Click. Click. Click. Read. Screams. The routine of checking college admission decisions is an experience of over 20 million students in the United States every year. The disappointment and feeling of rejection are sentiments no one wishes to feel, yet the chance of excitement that accompanies an acceptance validates the whole painstaking process. This feeling of elation could not be more accurate in describing Lizzy Seeberg’s acceptance to Saint Mary’s College, an all-female affiliate school to the University of Notre Dame. Following sixteen family members who preceded her attendance, Lizzy’s father explained she “felt affirmed that [Saint Mary’s] was the right choice and she was really, really happy to be there” (The Hunting Ground). Lizzy left for college with the pride of continuing her family’s legacy (her dad wore his Notre Dame ring with great pride and honor every day) while embarking on her own journey towards independence. The elated feeling ended shortly. In the first week of her attendance, she went back to a room with three others: her friend and two football players. Upon being deserted by her friend and one of the players, she was left alone with a large, popular football player, who, later that night, took advantage of his physical dominance over Lizzy and raped her. The feeling of joy she associated with the start of her college experience was ripped away, and she was overwhelmed by a feeling of powerlessness and depression. The football player continued to play in front of Notre Dame’s 80,000-person stadium without being brought in for questioning, and when he was finally interviewed, the case was dismissed. Lizzy was left targeted by his teammates and isolated by her friends. She took her life a week later.

Cases like Lizzy’s are devastatingly common at colleges and universities, and little is done to bring justice. The issue lies in the power structures that run and motivate institutions to protect certain people while dismissing others. Students enter their first year of college in anticipation of the excitement new independence could bring. The accepted sexism and powerful institutions that shield abusers foster a culture of silence surrounding sexual assault that is specifically influential on college campuses. The administrations of these institutions are responsible for taking greater actions toward punishing these injustices.

The highest rates of sexual violence occur at the beginning of the school year as 50% of college assaults occur within the months of August to November. In fact, a study with 102 female students at Middlebury College signified that subjects were at an increased risk during the first few months of their first and second semesters in college. The cycle continues as freshman females are more at risk than sophomores while sophomore females are more at risk than juniors and so on (Kimble, 2008). The concept of seniority puts older male and female students in a position of power, making underclassmen feel the pressure of knowing their place. The hierarchy established, paired with language and actions embedded with sexism furthers the culture that promotes dominance over females in various forms, sexual assault being one of them. College students are quick to label young men as “studs” as fast as they label young women as “sluts”. The idea of sexual conquest acts as a source of these labels. The belief men must “work harder to make a conquest,” while women having an “easier” time is wrongly used to justify forceful actions by men towards women (Hodge, 2009).

One cause of the increase in sexual assault cases is the party rape culture supported by the extreme alcohol consumption witnessed in most college communities. In college, students are highly invested in the party scene, which fosters such an environment in which most sexual encounters noted by participants are seen as being fun and consensual. This behavior makes it more difficult to see the harm some of their peers undergo. The party rape culture can be defined as intoxicating women intentionally at an off-campus house. While, in general, 7 out of 10 rapes committed are by someone known to the victim (known as acquaintance rapes), party rape is typically committed by a stranger to the woman, though it too is classified as a form of acquaintance rape (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). When alcohol is mixed into these party situations, it can have an effect on the way students conduct themselves. The unstructured time, easy access to alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and independence gained when living away from parental figures, can increase the chances for students to intensify their consumption of alcohol. Because of the intensity of alcohol use, about 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism). In no way is alcohol an excuse for perpetrators to use in defending their actions. However, alcohol complicates the situation by decreasing judgment skills and the ability for people to provide consent to participate in any form of sexual activity, automatically increasing the number of sexual assault cases. A male student at Dartmouth College explained, “The idea would be to get everybody so incredibly intoxicated that it would increase the chances that people would be getting laid. There was certainly something predatory about it…fraternity brothers would take great pride in the predator/prey situation” (The Hunting Ground).

The issue of drinking reaches its height in the case of Greek life. Attorney Doug Fierbergdescribes fraternities as “unregulated bars where the people serving alcohol are themselves legally incapable of consuming it” (The Hunting Ground). Alcohol consumption is not the only problem these houses face as they increasingly fall prey to several allegations of sexism, racism, and sexual assault in the recent past. Some people, typically members within the Greek life community, defend that the community offers a place to encourage both brotherhood and sisterhood. Others believe the concept of these communities works to further encourage a culture of sexism and enforce typical gender roles on its members. Fraternities have been criticized for fostering damaging discussions and beliefs about women and sexuality. The second most common type of insurance claim against the fraternity industry is sexual assault. In several cases, women who are assaulted at fraternity houses are silenced by fellow brothers and told they “should have expected” something like that to happen when she came to the house. In fact, the popular fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, has been recognized as a house where regular incidents of sexual assault occur. College students nationwide recognize this chapter by its unofficial title. When asked, “Is there any parties or places that you have been warned not to go?” a group of girls interviewed at the University of Southern California responded with fervent nodding and no hesitation, “Yes, SAE. Sexual Assault Expected.” A former member of Dartmouth’s chapter of SAE, Andrew Lohse explained that every Wednesday night, the entire fraternity would gather in the house’s basement to engage in a “highly structured ritual” of sharing stories concerning their various sexual conquests of the past week. Other fraternities have also accumulated daunting titles such as DKE, known as the roofie frat (The Hunting Ground). The behavior of fraternity brothers being sexually aggressive with women repeatedly gets rewarded by fellow brothers, further perpetuating this accepted culture of sexual assault.

Fraternity houses are not alone in their efforts to protect their members, as athletic teams have also consistently protected athletes who have committed sexual assaults. On the most basic level, men’s athletics foster rape culture as they are segregated by sex. Furthermore, the nature of the sports they play directs them to be dominant, gaining a high level of prestige for doing so and being seen as superstars. A female student at Duke University explained, “When one of those basketball players walked into a restaurant or bar, it was like seeing a celebrity…the girls would go crazy” (C. Kaplan, personal communication, November 24, 2017). Because of their popularity, students, administration, and the school community at large are quick to defend these players. Alumni and current students enjoy the success of their sports teams and do not want to see their beloved players come under fire, hurting both the team and institution’s reputation. In NCAA Division I schools, male athletes are reported to the student judicial boards for sexual assault more than any other students, yet are rarely punished (The Hunting Ground).

Brock Turner, a swimmer at Stanford University sexually assaulted an unconscious 22-year-old woman. After an attempt to cover up the case by Stanford administration, Turner was convicted of the three charges of felony sexual assault. Despite the fact that the convictions carried a potential sentence of 14 years in prison, the Santa Clara County Judge, Aaron Persky, sentenced Turner to a mere six months confinement in the Santa Clara County jail and three years of probation (Lombardo, 2016). The ruling further opened a lens for people to see the power of being an affluent, white male. Meanwhile, in the Marissa Alexander case, Marissa Alexander was convicted for murder after firing a warning shot to protect herself from her abusive husband, showcasing how society is quick to let off male college students and attribute their actions to “young recklessness” or a “lapse of judgment” and yet so fast to convict older women  when their actions are out of self-defense (Hauser, 2017).

In another case, the power of a devoted fan base protected now professional NFL football player, Jameis Winston, when he was the quarterback at Florida State University (FSU) after drugging and raping a young woman. Even though the DNA from the rape kit administered for Erica Kinsman matched the DNA of Winston, the athletics department, the administration, and the Tallahassee police delayed and eventually closed the case sixty-six days after the rape. Despite the clear evidence, Winston was acquitted of all charges. To make matters worse, Erica Kinsman was driven out of FSU by a spirited fan base who supported Winston due to the team’s winning record (Dick, 2016). The disregard for the female victim is just another case that results in the power of money and reputation trumping all other facts of the case.

The culture of silence over sexual assault and the power of the administration work toward protecting athletes and fraternity brothers from punishment as it would “tarnish the reputation” of the institution. Because the universities have a lot to gain from fraternity houses and athletic teams, they will go to great lengths to protect these students. Journalist Caitlin Flanagan shares, “For every rape at a fraternity house, there’s someone at the university, certainly the person who’s in the Office of Greek Residential Life, who is paid for by the university… {who} knew that that chapter was likely to have a rape sometime. But they will not tell the young women or else there is hell to pay for these college presidents.” One out of every eight college students attending a school with Greek life lives in off-campus housing. The off-campus houses that house these members are a huge help to colleges as they do not have to pay nor supervise these properties. Furthermore, alumni are tied even more tightly to colleges and are more inclined to donate money based on their membership to a fraternity (The Hunting Ground). The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that in 2013, nearly 60 percent of donations of more than 100 million dollars made to universities came from fraternity alumni (Will, 2015). Therefore, as Flanagan says, “People are very loath to come up against the fraternity system in any way” (The Hunting Ground). These institutions are complicit in sexual assault because of the entanglement with donors and the power that this money plays in protecting these endowed members of the community.

It is important to recognize that sexual assault is not restricted to college campuses; however, continuous research has proven there is a higher rate of sexual assault vulnerability for college females than any other age and gender group. According to the National Sexual Violence Center, one in five women will be raped in their lifetime. Every two minutes in the United States someone is raped, and the chance of the victim being a college female student is four times greater than any other age group. Furthermore, for women not in college, five robberies occur for every four sexual assaults whereas, for women in college, two sexual assaults occur for every one robbery. This drastic increase for college females suggests a culture exists in these communities that does not look down as forcefully at actions of sexual violence as others. Being a college student not only increases the risk for females but 18 to 24-year-old male students are 78% more likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual assault (Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network). This clear increase in the occurrence of sexual assault toward college students proves the culture that is fostered in the college community allows these incidents to occur more frequently without proper punishment.

Additionally, this culture ingrained throughout the critical and formative years of 18-24-year-old students has continuous effects when these students move to the workplace. As seen in the media, sexual assault does indeed continue in the workplace. People in power, such as Harvey Weinstein, who has recently been confirmed as a sexual aggressor, use their power and control to make women feel as though they owe them something in return for helping their career. Actress Lupita Nyong’o explained the isolation she felt and blame she inflicted on herself after receiving offers from Weinstein that were accompanied by hidden, and sometimes unhidden, threats that firmly established his place of power and her obligation to comply if she wished to advance her career. As a young college student, Nyong’o was intimidated by the power Weinstein held over her, and when she rejected him and asked him if their relationship was fine, he threatened her with the message, “I don’t know about your career, but you’ll be fine” (Nyong’o, 2017). Women more recently have begun to speak out about their personal experiences with assault through media campaigns such as the hashtag movement, #MeToo. Efforts like this can help to start a conversation about the problem of assault and break the culture of silence that currently conceals many cases. Fewer than 5% of sexual offenders are reported to law enforcement according to a national survey of college women (National Sexual Violence Resource Center). If there are low rates of reporting, the rape culture will continue to be perpetuated as not punishing perpetrators creates a tolerance toward rape, making each case seem non-significant.

In order to mitigate the culture of sexism and sexual assault in the workplace, it is important to first look at the flaws of the system of punishment on college campuses. It is undoubtedly the responsibility of school administrations to more astutely address cases of sexual assault instead of covering up cases to protect the institution out of the interest of money or reputation. The fact that there is such a low rate of reporting and punishing of sexual assault marks the existing rape culture on campuses and further spreads a sense of toleration toward these acts. From the years 1998-2013, there were zero expulsions for sexual assault at the University of Virginia, Harvard University had 135 sexual assaults reported and ten suspensions, and 155 cases reported at Dartmouth College resulted in three expulsions. The list of these injustices goes on, spreading across the country from huge state schools to small private institutions (The Hunting Ground). Immediate attention must be placed on this issue to hold administrations accountable for fostering a safe environment for their students that allows them to accomplish what they came to college for, personal growth, development, and improvement. The role of different forms of power perpetuates a culture of sexual assault that has been accepted on college campuses. It is a danger to students and society in general. Although cases of sexual assault are heightened in college, it continues into the workplace and beyond. In order to decrease the risk college women and men are at, it is necessary for institutional changes to be made to take the power of money away from protecting criminals as well as making it easier for people to report crimes. Students are unable to fully embrace the college experience during these important years if they are in constant fear that their institution will not protect them from possible harm by their peers.

Note: This essay’s examination of sexual assault on college campuses does not explore the extent to which LGBTQ students are also at risk. 21% of LGBTQ students have been sexually assaulted, making them the most “at-risk” group.

Works Cited

“Alcohol and Sexual Assault.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. N.d.Accessed November 24, 2017.

Dick, Kirby, director. The Hunting Ground. 2015. Accessed November 24, 2017.

Hauser, Christine. “Florida Woman Whose ‘Stand Your Ground’ Defense Was Rejected Is Released.” New York Times. February 7, 2017. Accessed November 24, 2017.

Hodge, Jarrah. “Slut vs. Stud– The Double Standard.” Gender Focus. November 22, 2009. Accessed November 24, 2017.

Kimble, Matthew. “Risk of Unwanted Sex.” Journal of American College Health Vol. 57 No. 3.2008. Accessed November 24, 2017.

Lombardo, Kayla. “How a rape case involving a Stanford swimmer became national news.” Sports Illustrated. June 9, 2016. Accessed November 24, 2017.

Nyong’o, Lupita. “Speaking Out About Harvey Weinstein.” New York Times. October 19, 2017. Accessed November 24, 2017.

“Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics.” RAINN. Accessed November 24, 2017.