Slowly at first and then in a rush came stories of women who were raped in college. They were violated by men they knew and forsaken by institutions they counted on: two traumas. It was a plague, an epidemic, an outrage.
The conversation, now several years in, has been punctuated by the refrain "one in five." That's how many women are said to be sexually assaulted in college, a shocking rate. Campuses look like perilous places, bastions of rape culture where men take advantage of their classmates and get away with it.
Victims face "a frustrating search for justice," the Center for Public Integrity detailed in a 2010 report, to great effect. A year later the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights — having pledged stricter enforcement of the gender-equity law Title IX — issued a now notorious "Dear Colleague" letter, exhorting colleges to investigate and resolve students' reports of sexual misconduct and protect them along the way.
Students have taken up Title IX as a weapon. In 2013, some of them filed a federal complaint against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for failing to respond appropriately to rape allegations, creating a hostile climate for victims. Before long, every month brought new complaints, against Dartmouth, Occidental, and Swarthmore Colleges, the Universities of California at Berkeley and Southern California. Citing Title IX or the campus-crime-reporting law known as the Clery Act, students helped one another file, documenting how they were brushed off, discouraged, or subjected to a cruel, ineffective process.
They banded together. "We are here to put a face to our national movement," Annie E. Clark, a recent graduate who had joined the complaint against Chapel Hill, said at a news conference that spring. "We have reached a critical mass where we can no longer be ignored."
Now, four years after the Dear Colleague letter and two years after the crush of complaints, the issue of campus sexual assault has sustained a fever pitch. Longtime leaders can't recall another issue that so consumed colleges. The attention has prompted two White House campaigns, two documentaries, numerous conferences, constant protests, heightened scrutiny, and countless headlines, among them a Time cover with a pennant lettered in collegiate type: RAPE. The number of colleges under federal investigation now tops 100.
The conversation has grown fiercer, but not necessarily more productive. A backlash arose, from men who felt falsely accused. When Rolling Stone dropped a bomb in November about a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia, it fit what people had come to believe about campus life. But as the account fell apart in subsequent weeks, broader questions emerged. More testimonies conveyed not only the anguish of victims, but the agony of students who recalled consensual encounters but were expelled, they said, in a rush to judgment.
The statistics defining the problem became a source of debate. The "one in five" researcher called that finding, from two campuses, not nationally representative, and its definition of "sexual assault" turned out to include offenses some people might not have put in that category, like "forced kissing" and rubbing up against someone over clothes. Reliable evidence was hard to find. "Researchers have been unable to determine the precise incidence of sexual assault on American campuses," a report by the National Institute of Justice had concluded several years earlier, because results depend on "how the questions are worded and the context of the survey." The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found a rate of six in 1,000, although underreporting, widely recognized as a problem, seemed substantial there.
June 23, 1972 President Nixon signs into law Title IX of Education Amendments of 1972, barring discrimination on basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal money.
1975 The groundbreaking book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, by Susan Brownmiller, argues that rape is a crime "of violence and power."
September 22, 1980 A federal appellate court, in Alexander v. Yale U., upholds female students' argument that sexual harassment may be considered discrimination under Title IX.
October 1985 Ms. Magazine publishes "Date Rape: The Story of an Epidemic and Those Who Deny It," with research by the psychologist Mary P. Koss, on female students at 32 colleges.
February 26, 1992 The U.S. Supreme Court, in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, establishes sexual assault as a form of sexual harassment.
1993 The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, by Katie Roiphe, challenges the existence of date-rape epidemic.
March 13, 1997 U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights issues guidance to schools and colleges on how to investigate and resolve students' allegations of sexual harassment.
May 24, 1999 The Supreme Court, in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, makes schools liable for student-on-student sexual harassment if officials know about it and fail to stop it.
January 19, 2001 U.S. Education Department's civil-rights office updates guidelines for how schools and colleges can, under Title IX, effectively respond to harassment of students.
March 26, 2003 In Kelly v. Yale U., a federal court says a university is responsible for responding to allegations of student-on-student sexual assault.
2009 and 2010 The Center for Public Integrity details a "frustrating search for justice" among victims of sexual assault on campus.
April 4, 2011 The Education Department's civil-rights office exhorts colleges to investigate and resolve students' reports of sexual violence promptly and effectively, protecting alleged victims and using "preponderance of the evidence" standard.
Cheryl Senter, AP Images
January 2013 Students, an alumna, and a former administrator file a federal complaint against U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under Title IX, saying it failed to respond appropriately to reports of sexual assault. Two complainants mobilize students elsewhere, and many more federal complaints follow.
May 9, 2013 The Education and Justice Departments settle investigation into reports of sexual assault at U. of Montana at Missoula, denouncing its response and specifying changes that a federal official calls a "blueprint for colleges."
July 15, 2013 Students rally outside Education Department to demand tighter enforcement of Title IX.
September 2013 Mothers of young men who say they were unjustly found responsible for sexual assault form Families Advocating for Campus Equality.
April 28, 2014 The White House issues strict new guidelines for colleges to combat sexual assault and unveils a website, NotAlone.gov; Education Department's civil-rights office publishes Q&A on colleges' legal obligations and announces investigations of 55 institutions.
Summer 2014 Lawmakers propose bills in Senate and House that are later consolidated as Campus Safety and Accountability Act.
Doug Mills, The New York Times
September 19, 2014 President Obama and Vice President Biden announce public-service campaign, "It's on Us," that urges everyone to step in to prevent sexual violence.
September 28, 2014 Gov. Jerry Brown of California signs legislation requiring colleges to define consent in students' sexual encounters in terms of "yes means yes" — or "affirmative consent" — rather than "no means no." Several states consider similar measures.
October 15, 2014 Harvard Law School professors write open letter expressing concerns that new policies jeopardize due process for students accused of sexual assault.
October 20, 2014 The Education Department releases new regulations under reauthorized Violence Against Women Act requiring colleges to train students and employees in preventing sexual violence.
November 19, 2014 Rolling Stone publishes story about gang rape at U. of Virginia, provoking outrage until account falls apart, prompting investigations.
January 2015 The documentary film The Hunting Ground debuts at Sundance Film Festival, depicting "shocking epidemic of violence and institutional cover-ups sweeping college campuses across America."
April 2015 The number of colleges under federal investigation for possible sexual-assault violations of Title IX stands at 105.
Outrage kept building, but law professors warned that it didn't justify any shortcuts. At Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, they raised serious concerns about due-process violations for accused students. Victim advocates, for their part, have cited research showing that false reports are exceedingly rare. It is a counterargument charged with the question, Are you calling these women liars?
As more students have come forward on one side and pushed back on the other, administrators have delved into new cases and reconsidered older ones. Swarthmore, which found one young man responsible for sexual misconduct and expelled him, revoked that decision.
Colleges have acknowledged deficiencies in how they handle reports and made efforts to improve. Just about every campus has a task force. Some presidents say they've spent half their time on the issue — and serious money, limiting their ability to add another mental-health counselor, for example, or hold down a tuition increase. Chancellors can rattle off the percentages of students and faculty members who have completed new training programs.
Talk and action are in high supply, but they're more reflexive than reflective. Professors have claimed they were denied tenure or driven out for supporting victims. Others have been admonished for appearing to defy the movement. Student activists demand "safe spaces" where no one will challenge them.
The conversation about campus sexual assault is dominated by two poles: One declares it a crisis, the other dismisses it as a panic. In fact, it has become both. And as long as candor and nuance remain elusive, so will progress.
Certainly the problem of sexual assault isn't new to campuses, and it may have been worse in the past.
In 1957, two researchers examined the "exploitative advantage" in male-female relationships in a university setting and found that 56 percent of women "reported themselves offended at least once during the academic year at some level of erotic intimacy." Most kept the offenses to themselves because of the stigma. It was the harsh good girl/bad girl era: The good girl wouldn't get in such trouble, the thinking went, and the bad girl probably deserved it.
A few decades later, in the late 80s and early 90s, as culture wars and debates over political correctness raged, students mobilized to break the silence. Take Back the Night marches became a fixture on campuses, as did women's centers, and the movement made "date rape" a household term. Outrage flared then, too, and students scrawled "castration lists" of alleged perpetrators on bathroom walls.
Defiance came from Katie Roiphe, a young Harvard graduate whose 1993 book The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus questioned the validity of the statistics, argued that the definition of rape was ideologically diluted, and dismissed the cause as "a mood." Critics slammed her take as smug and misleading, but people were already focusing on a different problem: sexual harassment. Anita Hill's allegations about Clarence Thomas had prompted employee lawsuits against colleges. And for campus antirape activists, urgency wasn't running as high as it had, says Jennifer Baumgardner, executive director at the City University of New York's Feminist Press, who was a student at the time. "The Clintons got into office," she says. "It felt like we won."
In the years that followed, today's college women were born. They grew up able to take many aspects of gender equality for granted, and they arrived on campus with a sense of empowerment, even entitlement. But out at parties or bars and in private spaces, they didn't feel fully safe. That the movement against sexual assault started at elite colleges probably wasn't a coincidence, says Estelle B. Freedman, a history professor at Stanford University who has studied shifting definitions of rape. "You have some of the women who feel most entitled to have equal education and sexual respect."
Although date rape had been labeled a problem, victims faced persistent stereotypes. If a young woman knew the guy, and they had hooked up before, could it really be so bad? Yes, students insisted, using the newer term "acquaintance rape." Activists identified themselves as "survivors" and quickly built strong networks online, turning their individual experiences into a national force.
While the movement a generation ago was angry, Ms. Baumgardner says, this one is savvy, its sights set on policy. Organizers have access to high-level political appointees, and the promise of enforcement has brought more students forward. In the summer of 2013, they rallied outside the Education Department in college T-shirts — Carleton, George Washington, Maryland, Tufts. Alexandra Brodsky, a recent graduate of Yale, appealed directly to Arne Duncan: "We need you to have our backs." The following year, as the White House prepared its campaign "Not Alone," President Obama answered her: "I've got your back."
The traction was not just political, but public, lining up with general scrutiny of higher education. "People are really asking serious questions about the operation of the institution," says Christopher Loss, associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University. "What is actually going on in the black box?"
That matches a broader social trend. The deference people formerly accorded to government, religion, and the press has fallen away in a grand erosion of public trust.
Doubt has become reflexive, says Jonathan Veitch, president of Occidental College. "The default mode is to be suspicious of those charged with the responsibility of institutions." At best they're incompetent, but probably they're malfeasant. Clearly colleges, including his own, have made mistakes, says Mr. Veitch. But "we have really no incentive but to protect our students and to get it right, because our reputation depends on their success and their health and their well being."
But what does getting it "right" mean? With acquaintance rape, the criminal-justice system pursues a small share of allegations. The process intimidates some victims, who may simply not want to face, in the dorm or in class, the student they've accused. It's up to the college, then, to separate them, determine what happened, and impose sanctions. The assumption that higher education can do that vexes its leaders.
"It's unrealistic to think that where you have only circumstantial evidence, and no witnesses, that colleges are going to be able to say with absolute clarity in every case that they know what took place," says Mr. Veitch. "Those are the kinds of things that I think are hard to reckon with."
If not colleges, what or who will resolve this injustice? Students are turning to their institutions with simultaneously soaring expectations and deep doubts. "That is sort of the dilemma of modern life," says Mr. Loss. People want more but trust less.
But what exactly do students want? If a college's charge is to prevent and respond to sexual assault, how they should do that remains unsettled.
What families expected from colleges used to be clear: to maintain the role of in loco parentis. In the mid-20th century, that meant rules like single-sex dorms and curfews. Women's liberation and legal rulings that students couldn't be punished for participating in civil-rights demonstrations abolished that authority, but administrators have hardly taken a laissez-faire approach. Wrongful-death lawsuits have held colleges responsible for students' drinking, hazing, and mental health.
While there are no more chaperones, expectations for moral guidance and institutional control have emerged in "affirmative consent" standards in students' sexual encounters. The old norm was "no means no," but on a growing number of campuses, it's now "no unless yes." Colleges are interceding in students' private lives to set stricter rules than exist in the wider world, and some students are clamoring for it.
Students are turning to their institutions with simultaneously soaring expectations and deep doubts.
Gloria Steinem and Michael Kimmel, acting as ambassadors for feminism, hailed affirmative consent as liberating, writing in The New York Times that "the enormous gray area between 'yes' and 'no'" was "defined residually as 'yes,'" but no longer. (For good measure, they quoted the final lines of James Joyce's Ulysses to show how erotically lyrical affirmative consent can be.) "It is bound to raise howls of protest from opponents of women's equality," the two wrote, suggesting that those were the only grounds for dissent.
But the standard has drawn wider skepticism. "To exempt women from the responsibility of stating their own sexual wishes without prompting," writes the critic Zoë Heller in The New York Review of Books, "comes dangerously close to infantilizing women."
Sex researchers seem to regard affirmative consent as ideal but unrealistic, out of sync with how people communicate sexually. A couple of preposterous smartphone apps have hardly helped. Good2Go, offering multiple-choice questions about interest in sex and level of intoxication, was quickly off the market. We-Consent, which records and encrypts video statements of consent available only to authorities, has yet to be approved.
The rules of consent regarding alcohol have also been interpreted as paternalistic. In a heterosexual encounter, "if both people are drunk, and they both seem enthusiastic, it's considered the man's responsibility to be sure that she's not too drunk," says Charlene L. Muehlenhard, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas who studies sexual consent. That rests on the problematic assumption, she says, that sex is something men do to women.
The message to look out for oneself or limit drinking can come off as blaming the victim. Don't tell me not to get raped, students say, tell him not to rape. And if he does, don't soft-pedal the violation as "nonconsensual sexual intercourse." Call it what it is, and expel him.
"Rape is rape" is a common sign at campus protests. "The underlying message," says Ms. Muehlenhard, "is it's simple, and you would always easily be able to tell."
When it comes to sex, college women expect both freedom and safety, and why shouldn't they? But tensions arise between erotic agency and vulnerability, Michelle Goldberg writes for The Nation. "The politics of liberation are an uneasy fit with the politics of protection."
That's a subtle balance to strike, or even discuss. And it's hard to negotiate in a tinderbox.
An audit of the policies and climate surrounding sexual misconduct at Occidental found "fear of ostracism and retaliation by either the administration or the activist community." It called for people to rebuild relationships and "find a way to share common goals." They're still working on that, says Mr. Veitch, the president. "Colleges and universities ought to be the places in which one can have difficult discussions," he says. "Instead we've succumbed to the same kind of polarized atmosphere that we see on the national stage."
On some campuses, officials have been too defensive to support a productive discussion. But activists pushing change have also impeded meaningful conversation. In a world where victims of sexual assault were once callously dismissed, some now seem to see nuance as defeat. "If you are wounded, everything you do is brave and beyond reproach," the critic Jessa Crispin writes in the Boston Review. A question can be an affront. How students communicate that is stark: They are made to feel not uncomfortable, but "unsafe."
When activists at Brown University realized that one speaker at a debate there was likely to criticize the concept of "rape culture," they met with administrators and planned an alternative talk, Judith Shulevitz wrote in The New York Times last month. The speaker was a psychiatrist who studies sexual victimization. (Additionally, a "safe space" provided coloring books, Play-Doh, and a video of puppies.) Laura Kipnis, a cultural critic and professor at Northwestern University, recently wrote an essay in The Chronicle Review that questioned the wisdom of banning relationships between students and faculty, challenging "the climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability." Students marched, delivered a petition to administrators, and issued a statement. "We can only hope that the Northwestern community will meet Kipnis's toxic ideas with resounding opprobrium, because they have no place here." Two students have lodged complaints against Ms. Kipnis, in part for alleged inaccuracies in her essay, with the university's Title IX coordinator.
Discussion is strained even in law schools, Jeannie C. Suk, a professor at Harvard, wrote in The New Yorker. Students have expressed such distress — one asked a professor not to use the word "violate" in class (as in "Does this conduct violate the law?") — that some of her colleagues who teach criminal procedure are omitting rape law.
The endgame of such rules for engagement, including trigger warnings, puzzles Ms. Baumgardner, the activist and executive director of the Feminist Press. "Is it to have a bunch of things that we're not able to talk about?" That's what we started with, she says. Instead, the goal should be "to connect and not hurt each other, but have these conversations."
That seems crucial to the project of defining consensual sex. "What are the lines we're going to draw?" asks Ms. Freedman, the Stanford historian. In her book Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, she traces how sexual behavior that was once tolerated is newly seen as unacceptable.
The goal should be "to connect and not hurt each other, but have these conversations."
Sex researchers tend to regard consent as a continuum, ranging from enthusiastic, to not especially excited but willing, to verbally coerced, to threatened and forced. With alcohol, people can be intoxicated, impaired, or incapacitated. The task is to figure out where acts become nonconsensual. "Are we going to call all of them rape, or are we going to call some of them misunderstanding?" Ms. Freedman asks. In the abstract and in individual cases, that is an excruciating question.
The work of answering it has hardly started. Responding to the White House's second campaign against sexual assault, "It's on Us," students have posted videos online. "It's on all of us to promote a culture of respect," says a woman at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "To not give our friends a pass," says a man at Boston College. Such bystander intervention means students are reckoning with questions of responsibility and limits. The goal of those programs is to identify a predator or opportunist hovering around a target and foil him.
But there's much more to sort out. Sexual assault may no longer be considered a women's issue, but the men who speak up are typically gay victims, plaintiffs who say they were falsely accused, or men's-rights advocates. A broader array of male voices, several observers say, could shake up the monolithic groups of victim and perpetrator and help people think this through.
To better understand coercive behavior, Ms. Baumgardner wants to hear from confused, contrite young men: "I did this, and I really did not realize the extent to which I hurt this person, and I've had the opportunity to learn from it," she imagines one might say. "I don't think we as a society provide much space for that at all." Nor is there room for straight male victims, she says. Speaking on campuses, she sometimes hears from men who were coerced into sex by women, with no chance to say no. A student at Stanford recently shared that experience in the campus newspaper. The story is not as simple as men always initiating and automatically consenting to sex.
This cultural moment presents serious challenges. Hard-core pornography is easier to find than an open discussion of sexuality. The local high school likely offers abstinence-only sex education, but the local cinema has probably shown Fifty Shades of Grey.
Stepping in is not higher education's responsibility, but it's an opportunity, says Rebecca Plante, an associate professor of sociology at Ithaca College who studies gender and sexuality. Attention to sexual assault has created an opening for a profound exploration of sexual ethics, she says. "That's something colleges could really lay claim to."
She sees glimmers of it. Peer sex educators are helpful, but they're still largely focused on health, and the programs are small. The community of sex speakers has been getting more calls from colleges, but many of them are compliance- or public-relations-oriented, says Andrew P. Smiler, a psychologist who studies masculinity. Do you have a consent shtick? Good. No, we don't need the contraceptives part.
Bringing together hundreds or thousands of young people who will socialize, drink, and experiment calls for more than a 90-minute skit. Students roam campuses unprepared, insecure, trying to prove themselves. They are essentially crying out for real conversation about sex.
One thing colleges already know how to do is organize conferences, and on sexual assault they have, at Virginia, Dartmouth, and Berkeley. A deep, sustained effort will require more time, and information. Many surveys are underway to gauge the campus sexual climate. More research is vital.
That's if colleges are going to deal with this issue, not just get past it. As understanding of prevention, for example, evolves, colleges have to move with it, says Carol L. Folt, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "With respect to training, it's almost impossible to say you couldn't do more." At Amherst College, another early flash point, the sense of crisis is no longer as strong, says Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, the president. But people there are still devoted to the cause.
In retrospect, this period may look like a late-stage battle for gender equality, or a hypersexualized society catching up with itself. Mr. Veitch, of Occidental, sees it as a paradigm shift. "It will create a more respectful sexual culture," he says. "I'm actually optimistic."
For now the discussion feels like a frenzy. But social issues don't come to a head tidily. Legal, political, and cultural change are painful. Students and colleges still have to sit down for the long, arduous work of defining and promoting sexual respect. They haven't even gotten to the tough part.