Last week, the White House released a report entitled “Not Alone” in order to address issues of sexual assaults on college campuses. This national effort to raise awareness and offer steps toward a solution to a problem that has gone ignored is long overdue, but commendable nonetheless.
For far too long, the practice in handling sexual assaults and other forms of sexual abuse has been to sweep it under some hypothetical rug or ignore it until the problem goes away.
But it hasn’t gone away. If anything, the casual disregarding of sexual violence has normalized the practice, leaving victims expected to be passive prey as their predators continue to roam free. Perpetrators are taught that there are no consequences and that a victim will largely keep any such incidents to themselves (only 40 percent of rapes get reported to police), for reasons that range from shame to fear of being named as sharing responsibility.
Unfortunately, the fear some sexual assault victims have associated with coming forward is not misplaced. Society is prone to victim blaming, as revealed by a 2010 British survey. Fifty-four percent of female respondents said victims were partially to blame for their rapes, and more disturbingly, 33 percent said that the woman would be at fault if she dressed provocatively. Men felt similarly, although they were a little less harsh than their female counterparts. Overall, though, society does not understand that rape can happen to anyone in any circumstance.
Society’s view of sexual violence has a great toll on not only how victims respond in these cases, but also how those that they report the incident to also react. Sexual assaults are hardly taken seriously in colleges, let alone the real world. For example, one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, but only 3 percent of perpetrators will ever serve time in prison.
Considerations for an institution’s reputation oftentimes seem to trump concern for the victim of a sexual assault. Cases at many colleges are often handled internally, away from the influence of any real law enforcement. This is exemplified by the US Department of Education’s recent releasing of a list of 55 universities with Title IX (a portion of the 1972 Education Amendments that outlaws discrimination based on gender in institutes of higher education) sexual violence investigations. Although Title IX is usually widely cited in cases related to collegeiate sports, victims of sexual assaults have been more and more recently citing this legislation in the context that their alma maters have failed to protect them.
The institutions that made the list vary greatly; some are prestigious universities like Harvard and Princeton, two Big Ten schools and a few small, private colleges. The one Wisconsin school under scrutiny is the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. However, the entire UW system and the University of Wisconsin particularly all recognize the implications that the list and the “Not Alone” campaign could have on its institutions.
This campaign isn’t the first thing to affect UW in recent years. The Clery Act, signed into law in 1990, requires colleges that participate in federal financial aid programs to disclose information regarding crime on or near their campuses. The scope of this legislation was greatly widened last March, when President Barack Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act into law, which reinforced the Clery Act and is directly responsible for the WiscAlerts the student body has been receiving this year.
And now with the Department of Education’s list, it is clear that the federal government is making an attempt to instigate transparency in procedure while making a public stand against these acts of violence. Additionally, the campaign itself is sending a strong signal that the highest executive body is looking to provide a voice for the marginalized, for those scared into silence by the status quo.
All of these are crucial in helping to reverse the unfair stigma sexual violence holds, and they are small steps toward the goal of putting an end to this type of cruelty and subsequent vicim blaming, sending a strong message that sexual violence will no longer be tolerated by society.
Briana Reilly ([email protected]) is a freshman intending to major in journalism and international studies.