Friday, December 12, 2014

Moral Panic and Sexual Assault on Campus

Let me start this by saying: you can support victims of sexual assault on campus and advocate for ways to reduce these crimes, while simultaneously recognizing that college campuses are not "havens for rape or sexual assault" or gang rape. I'm not sure why these ideas are seen as mutually exclusive, but they aren't.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report yesterday that reinforces the latter argument: our colleges are not den's of sexual victimization.

A study of sexual assault released by the federal government on Thursday challenges conventional wisdom about the heightened danger on college campuses, finding that women there are less likely than nonstudents to be victims. College women are also less likely, the study found, to report the incidents to the police.

The rate of rape and other sexual assault over the past two decades was 1.2 times higher for nonstudents of college age than for students, according to the study, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It showed an average of 7.6 cases per 1,000 nonstudents, compared with 6.1 per 1,000 college women. For the most recent year, 2013, those rates were almost identical, according to the study, which focuses on women ages 18 to 24.

The incidence of rape and other sexual assault has declined for college students, to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2013 from 9.2 per 1,000 in 1997. The researchers who conducted the study, however, said that the decline was not statistically significant.
I'm not sure why that's considered not statistically's a 50% reduction in rates of victimization on college campuses in the past 15 years. Meaning, our campuses are actually safer today than they were in 1997.
Some researchers say the numbers released this week show that the peril has been exaggerated.

"When a student has been a victim of rape or sexual assault, there are historically problems with the way they’ve been treated, but that doesn’t mean that colleges are these pits of violence," said Callie Marie Rennison, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Colorado at Denver who has studied sexual assault. "I am sad that parents feel afraid to send their children off to college, thinking they’re going to be victimized."
A recent Rolling Stone article, which depicted a "gang rape" in a U-Va fraternity house and an indifferent reaction from administrators, is now under fire for having exaggerated, if not completely fabricated, the extent of the claims. And it's these kinds of stories which fuel the moral panic.
Even as Rolling Stone’s Nov. 19 story “A Rape on Campus” unraveled last week, the magazine claimed that writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely did her due diligence in investigating an alleged gang rape on Sept. 28, 2012, at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia that had victimized a then-freshman by the name of Jackie. “Dozens” of Jackie’s friends, Rolling Stone told this blog, had spoken with Erdely for the story — some off the record, some on the record.
“Dozens,” of course, means 24-plus.

As a second heavily reported story by Washington Post’s local staff has revealed, however, Erdely’s reportorial sweep didn’t net three rather critical friends. “Randall,” “Cindy” and “Andy” were identified in the Rolling Stone piece as three eager helpers who came to Jackie’s aid on the night of Sept. 28, 2012, when she allegedly experienced a traumatic situation. The three told The Post that the story reported by Rolling Stone doesn’t match what Jackie told them that night.
In many ways, this is a separate issue, more about journalism and the lack of journalistic integrity. But the rush to judgment when the article was published, which almost brought down the U-Va president, was astonishing.

I'm a Rolling Stone subscriber and confess when I read the article, my first thought was "this is bullshit." It was so over the top, it read more like the author's pornographic fantasies than it did what happened to a student on the U-Va campus. And then it began to unravel, potentially setting back the victim's rights advocacy movement.

Articles like this then fuel the deniers or "truthers" who claim sexual assault isn't a problem and are nothing more than stories victims make up. It also hardened the extreme advocates into taking absurdist positions, and refusing to back down from their support of the story. It's thus ironic that Rolling Stone's "mission" in publishing the article, to "call attention to the sexual violence on American college campuses," may, in fact, have set the movement back, doing more harm than good.

Regardless, what the statistics show, and what is often portrayed in the media and in our political circus, are not statistically related. The media hypes the "epidemic" of sexual assault on campuses because nothing sells soap quite like fear and good old fashioned moral panic. And the "outrage industry," which consumes most of this media, is a privileged group anyway.

Sadly, we spill a lot of ink and spend an inordinate amount of time discussing victims and perpetrators on college campuses because they are largely white, middle class, virtuous, and privileged (the exact ingredients necessary for a good crime story). Meanwhile, poor women and women of color, who are, statistically, far more likely to be sexually assaulted, raped and victimized, rarely get mentioned because the outrage industry could not care less. "Check your privilege" indeed.

But back to the new BJS study.
The new report sheds light on a variety of aspects of sexual assault involving college-age women. The offender is known to the victim in about 80 percent of rape and sexual-assault cases, it says. Among nonstudent victims, 67 percent of rapes and other sexual assaults are not reported to the police, while among college victims, 80 percent do not go to the police. While some college students report assaults to campus authorities, many do not report such incidents to the police because the criminal-justice system has frequently failed to pursue the complaints.
Which gets us back to another post I wrote last summer, on why these cases need to be adjudicated in the criminal justice system and taken out of the hands of college administrators. Philip Cohen at the Chronicle agrees:
As we endure scandal after scandal concerning sexual assaults on college campuses—scandals that repeatedly show administrators failing to properly investigate, punish, or educate their way out of the problem—I fear that we are drawing the wrong conclusions. Colleges don’t have the ability to investigate sex crimes or the right to properly punish them any more than they can enforce the law regarding robbery or homicide. Those failures compromise colleges’ most important obligation and best hope for solving the problem: educating students to change the culture around sexual violence.

Although not explicit in the rationale for this approach, the lower standard of proof required to bring campus disciplinary action—including expulsion—is surely attractive to antirape activists, as it is for other civil-rights advocates who pursue civil remedies. If getting beyond reasonable doubt is more difficult for sex crimes than for other offenses, relying on campus proceedings may be justified. Doing so is also quicker and less public, and the traditional view of colleges as providing parentlike supervision over their students adds legitimacy to campus authorities.

But this downgrades sexual violence from a real crime to a women’s issue. And there is no evidence that it is working to reduce sexual violence on and around campuses. There are, however, lots of stories of failure, on campuses ranging from small, elite colleges to big public institutions.

Conservatives object to the feminist agenda of ratcheting up consent rules. Civil libertarians mourn the presumption of innocence and due process. And feminists are stuck between demanding more action and protesting the harmful consequences of the actions colleges do take. In too many cases, rather than helping to punish sexual assault and prevent its occurrence, these failures contribute to reluctance in reporting, and—as in the recent case at the University of Virginia—undermine trust in both the authorities and the victims who turn to them for help.
Precisely. Rape and sexual assault are criminal issues, they're not "women's issues." But the more we use Title IX standards (and essentially equate sexual violence with gendered sexual harassment) the more we demean and trivialize the actual crime of rape.
There are two compelling reasons to turn our efforts away from campus authorities and back to the criminal-justice system. First, the state enforcers of criminal law are more susceptible to public pressure and advocacy than are the thousands of disparate colleges and administrators who operate between public and private scrutiny, and whose interests are always divided between doing the right thing and protecting their reputations. For example, laws restricting the introduction of women’s prior sexual conduct at trial, and criminalizing marital rape—once they achieved a foothold—spread through most of the country in a generation (way too slow, and way too late, but sadly still a relative success story).

Second, experience so far painfully demonstrates that colleges are not competent to adjudicate and prevent sexual violence. As institutions, they bring to the task a toxic mix of unqualified investigators, underdeveloped judiciary processes, and conflicts of interest that undermine both their effectiveness and their legitimacy.
Almost word for word what I wrote back in June. If you were sexually assaulted at a mall, you would call the police, not Paul Blart, mall cop. If you were sexually assaulted at a Falcons game, you would call the police, not the Falcons management. If you were sexually assaulted at home, you'd call the police, not your insurance company. Why on earth do we expect victims of assault on campus to call the Dean's office and not the police?

As I wrote: "Colleges and universities must be put out of the sexual assault/rape investigation business. Period.  Rape is not sexual harassment, and no one on a college or university campus is qualified to adjudicate such horrific incidences."

Moral panics are as old as society itself, and almost always driven by agendas and interests not your own. We can't begin to understand the issue of sexual assault on campus until we understand sexual assault everywhere.

And frankly, we're never going to do anything about the problem until we stop focusing solely on victims and start focusing more on the perpetrators.

It's simplistic and almost borderline trite, but: the way to end sexual assault and rape in society is to get men to stop committing sexual assault and rape.

UPDATE: I didn't quite call it "privilege" above, regarding the concentration on college campuses at the expense of poor women, women of color and other victims of sexual assault, but this op-ed in today's NYT (12/22/14) certainly does: "Privilege, Among Rape Victims":
The truth is, young women who don’t go to college are more likely to be raped. Lynn A. Addington at American University and I recently published a study based on the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey data from 1995 to 2011. We found that the estimated rate of sexual assault and rape of female college students, ages 18 to 24, was 6.1 per 1,000 students. This is nothing to be proud of, but it is significantly lower than the rate experienced by women that age who don’t attend college — eight per 1,000. In other words, these women are victims of sexual violence at a rate around 30 percent greater than their more educated counterparts.

The focus on sexual violence against some of our most privileged young people has distracted us from the victimization of those enjoying less social and economic advantage.

We cannot let attention to a particular group, or the suggestion of an epidemic where one does not exist, distract us from the pressing needs of others.

1 comment:

ebohlman said...

"Not statistically significant" here means that the decline wasn't mathematically large enough to conclude that there's a truly downward trend as opposed to the last few years simply representing the low end of random ups and downs around a steady baseline.

IOW, we can't statistically say that if nothing changes, we should expect a continued decline in assaults.