Sexual Assault: An Unspoken Barrier to Higher Ed

Actress Kerry Washington and basketball player Kevin Love from the “It’s on Us” video

You can watch the “It’s on Us” video at

August 13, 2015


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine.

Trigger warning for descriptions of campus sexual assault and its aftermath.

In September 2013, a freshman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges reported that she was raped at a fraternity party just two weeks after she arrived on campus. The university held a disciplinary hearing before her rape kit results were available and cleared her alleged attackers, three football players, of all charges. The young woman left school after facing threats and harassment.

After a Northeastern University student reported that she was raped, she faced a slow hearing process that made her feel like a victim all over again. Although the school found the assailant responsible for the rape, he was never punished. He transferred to another college and later graduated. The survivor, meanwhile, dropped out.

A man admitted to assaulting a Columbia University sophomore during her first semester at the school. He was forced to leave the university — but just for a semester. The survivor moved off campus to avoid seeing her attacker every day.

The Heartbreaking Numbers

Fewer than 5 percent of college rape survivors report their attacks to law enforcement. Many remain silent, but others choose instead to report incidents to their schools, believing that administrators will offer more support than the police. (Schools, by law, have to provide resources and accommodations for survivors, who can also still file a police report.)

But those who do report to their school rarely find justice and are discovering that their attack ultimately ends up hurting their education. Survivors have their cases presented to disciplinary panels — sometimes made up of fellow students — who have had little or no formal training on how to handle sexual assault claims. During disciplinary hearings, survivors themselves are often put on trial, their dating and past sexual behavior called into question. Some are asked irrelevant questions about what they were wearing, whether they were flirting, and whether they screamed. And, shockingly, more than 20 percent of schools give the athletic department oversight on cases involving student athletes.

And those are just the cases that are adjudicated. It’s not uncommon for campuses to fail to investigate at all. According to a 2014 Senate survey led by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), 41 percent of schools had not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years.

Even when schools investigate and attackers are found responsible, they often face few or no consequences. Sanctions typically range from a semester-long suspension to social probation, alcohol treatment, and classes on sexual consent. A Center for Public Integrity investigation found that colleges rarely expel culpable students.

A group of students with umbrellas, one of whom holds a handmade sign that reads “End the Culture of Silence”

A rally at Amherst University in 2012. Image by Vanessa, Flickr Creative Commons

Why Are Schools Even Involved in Investigations?

Stories keep surfacing from campuses across the country, highlighting how mishandled hearings and lenient sanctions lead to increased anxiety and fear among survivors — ultimately hindering or halting altogether their opportunity to earn a college degree.

Federal law requires schools to prohibit sexual discrimination, including sexual violence. Schools must take steps to prevent and investigate violence and help survivors stay in school. “Schools have an obligation and a role here,” says AAUW Government Relations Manager Anne Hedgepeth. “They need to step up and fix the errors in their campus processes.”

The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education is currently investigating more than 70 institutions for possible violations of the federal laws that govern the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. Students have accused schools of mishandling reports, not disciplining attackers, and not reporting assault data at all.

Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights and leader of these investigations, explained to college officials in 2014 that sexual assaults should be approached as a matter of civil rights. Women have the right to pursue an education free from discrimination and harassment, including sexual violence.

“Do not wait until the next assault to make a change; do not wait until a student files a complaint,” Lhamon said, urging schools to change the message that rape survivors are getting from schools that fail to punish rapists or support survivors: that survivors are worth less than their attackers. “Act now.”

Students Take Action

Students at Ohio State University are pressing administrators and students to do just that. Members of the school’s AAUW student organization planned a Take Back Our Campus event, funded by an AAUW Campus Outreach Grant, in October 2014.

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“A lot of people don’t recognize the different degrees of sexual assault and violence. It’s about personal boundaries and someone crossing those boundaries without permission,” explains Taylor Price, an environmental engineering student and president of the AAUW student organization on campus. “We hope this event provides support to survivors and shows them there are various support channels available.”

The event included tables hosted by campus organizations, a demonstration by the self-defense club, moments of silence, a keynote speaker, and a large banner signed by participants to show solidarity against sexual assault. The student organization aims to raise awareness about the importance of respecting sexual boundaries and point people to free counseling on campus and women’s sexual health resources.

“We hope our event helped people recognize sexual assault and violence,” Price said, adding that many college students equate sexual assault involving alcohol with a “drunken mistake.” When alcohol is involved, survivors tend to be blamed even more brazenly for assaults, and underage drinking complicates reporting and disciplinary action.

“We want women — and men — to know that just because they may have been intoxicated doesn’t make an assault their fault or something they have to deal with alone,” said Price.

The message is being heard locally and nationally. The White House in January launched, a site full of resources for students and schools. The White House also recently announced a campaign, It’s on Us, to help alleviate the culture of victim-blaming and encourage bystander intervention in preventing sexual assault. “It’s on us to stop sexual assault,” says actor Jon Hamm to open a video on the campaign’s website. “It’s on us to look out for each other, to not look the other way,” a chorus of celebrities adds, encouraging people to sign a pledge to, among other things, “create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.” AAUW has signed onto the effort, along with several other women’s organizations and partners, from BET to the NCAA.

As Price said, “We are all in this together, and we don’t have to stand for it anymore.”

Author Beth Pearsall is a freelance writer in San Diego. You can reach her at



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AAUWguest By:   |   August 13, 2015

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  1. […] Feminist Read: Sexual Assault: An Unspoken Barrier to Highed Ed (trigger warning: descriptions of campus sexual assault and […]

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