Why It’s Dangerous to Discuss Campus Rape Only at Its Most Extreme
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The gang-rape story that rocked the University of Virginia last month is more shocking and gruesome than any case even longtime observers of campus sexual assault have ever encountered.
But what makes the story so urgent also makes it problematic. Experts disagree on whether public attention for such a violent attack—in this case, through a prominent article in Rolling Stone—helps or harms other assault victims. Does it draw valuable attention to assault on campuses, or does it derail colleges from responding to and helping to prevent more-typical cases of sexual misconduct?
High-profile depictions of brutal rapes—like one detailed last summer in The New York Times, in which a football player allegedly raped a female classmate over a pool table at Hobart and William Smith Colleges—can cause students and their parents to think those cases are the norm. And that can be dangerous.
In the Rolling Stone article, a first-year student named Jackie told of being sexually assaulted by a half-dozen fraternity brothers who punched her in the face, held her down atop shards of broken glass, and repeatedly raped her, one of them using a beer bottle.
Most campus assaults, by contrast, involve two people who know each other—a young woman and a young man who have both been drinking at a campus gathering and decide to leave together. The assault that comes next almost never involves force and typically revolves around the issue of whether the young woman consented to the sexual activity.
“The UVa case has to be the most factually egregious allegation I’ve come across in 17 years, and it’s absolutely unrepresentative of what’s typically alleged in campus cases,” says Brett A. Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a consulting and law firm that advises colleges.
One danger of emphasizing campus rape cases that are so far out of the normal realm, experts say, is that future assault victims might wonder whether what had happened to them really qualifies as rape, particularly if there was no violence and no gang.
College officials and others might be skeptical as well. Highlighting the most violent cases can also cause colleges to take steps to prevent such extreme assaults—steps that may be very different from what someone would do to try to prevent acquaintance rape.
“These stories really capture the public’s imagination and bring much-needed attention to the issue,” says Alexandra Brodsky, founding co-director of Know Your IX, a victims’ rights group. “But there’s clearly a cost to that. When members of a university community start to expect these really gruesome details, it makes the reality of violence in most other cases pale in comparison. And that’s a shame.”
Adds Mr. Sokolow: “It makes it seem like the most-publicized incidents are the norm rather than the exception. That’s bad because then what you do is you focus all of your prevention and response around 2 percent of what happens, rather than the 98 percent.”
Some experts, however, say that doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful to highlight dramatic cases. Attention to them can have a spillover effect, getting people on and off campus to talk about the problem of assault, shining a spotlight on bad behavior and ultimately opening up a broader conversation about sexual misconduct.
Laura Dunn, a victims’ rights advocate who started an organization called SurvJustice, says the brutality of the alleged rape at UVa shows the extent to which colleges and others still fail to take sexual assault seriously.
“When there is so much evidence of a terrible crime—broken glass from a table, multiple perpetrators, even a bottle used to violate her—it’s astounding that people debated whether to take the victim to the hospital,” she says. “That’s how strong the culture of silence can be on campus.”
In recent days, some journalists and others have questioned the veracity of the Rolling Stone story. Some have asked whether such a violent attack could really have occurred; others have wondered why the friends of the alleged rape victim reacted so callously. (Those friends reportedly decided they shouldn’t take her to the hospital because that might ruin their chances of being invited back to fraternity parties.) But while the details may be extreme, some campus-rape experts say they don’t have trouble believing them.
“As someone who lived through this firsthand and has seen people’s reactions on campus—not just to my own rape but to others—I don’t doubt this story even a little,” says Ms. Dunn, who alleged she was raped by male classmates as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “I know this story is insanely shocking. But that is literally what is happening to victims. They are having this experience and expecting people to be shocked and ready to assist, and they’re not.”
Kathleen A. Bogle, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University, agrees. “I think it’s good to bring attention to how violent or gruesome some of the cases are because so many people don’t think this is a real problem,” says Ms. Bogle, who studies sexual assault. “This is showing you that there can be people on your campus that go to class and interact with teachers, but have this dark side and violent tendency, and a total disregard for someone else.”
Robin Wilson writes about campus culture, including sexual assault and sexual harassment. Contact her at email@example.com.