Anyone who pays attention to sexual assault on college campuses has heard the horror stories. Many schools are known for having a culture where heavy drinking is the norm and rape is common. In fact, the national sexual assault rate for women in college is still estimated at 20 to 25 percent, according to a report from the Department of Justice. In spite of a recent Department of Education directive requiring schools to investigate sexual assault under Title IX, many schools would rather cover up a reported rape to maintain the school’s reputation. Some colleges still have sexual assault prevention programs which emphasize the "provocative" clothing women wear.
Three short years ago, I entered Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. as a freshman. During orientation week, all new students were required to attend a training about violence and sexual assault, which focused on bystander intervention, as well as a session discussing the importance of affirmative consent in sexual encounters. Campus administrators made it clear that they took the issue of sexual assault seriously. And while frat parties with heavy drinking certainly occur at Whitman, the culture surrounding our Greek life seemed much less extreme than stories I’d head from larger state schools. In short, Whitman was not a place where I would have anticipated rape to be a problem.
Of course, our idyllic views of college during those first few weeks rarely hold for long. I quickly got involved with the campus newspaper, where I soon began to specialize in investigative projects. Last spring, I took on a piece about rape on campus, after receiving an anonymous tip asking us to look into the issue. I sent an email to the student body asking for people with stories to share, and quickly received four replies from students who had been sexually assaulted at Whitman (on a campus of 1,500 students), plus half a dozen more who had experiences from high school.
As I interviewed the female students who replied, common narratives began to form. While a few had been attacked in the conventional sense of the word (physically resisting while saying “no”), most of the women had less dramatic encounters. Some were drunk, blacked out or on the verge of passing out when a guy started having sex with them. Some were sober, but had simply been so shocked by sexual advances that they stayed silent. “I didn’t know what was happening,” many of them told me. “I wasn’t there with my body.” Rather than physically resisting or saying “no” clearly, most of them stayed silent, figuring it was better to just let it happen.
And over and over, these women told me the same thing: “He didn’t think he did anything wrong.”
After I wrote a two-part series on the subject, Whitman revised its sexual assault reporting practices, to, include, among other things, the automatic contacting of an independent victim’s advocate from the local YWCA whenever a student came forward alleging sexual assault. I spoke with college administrators, who were eager to hear my thoughts on reforming the system for preventing, reporting and punishing rape. Yet even as we discussed improving the college’s curriculum on consent, I felt we were missing a significant part of the puzzle.