Sex assault: a silent epidemic on campus

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Story, video and photos by Courtney Pitts, News Net Nebraska

If the records of the campus police are to be believed, only five sexual assaults have taken place on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus since 2007. But the numbers are impossibly low, crime experts say. In fact, they point to a bigger problem: rampant underreporting.

“Five in three years? There are probably that many assaults on campus every weekend,” said Candice Batton, director of the UNL School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “It’s naïve to think it doesn’t happen more frequently.”

All crimes are underreported. But sexual assault overshadows the rest. Police reports, compared with victim surveys, make the trend clear. Some 90,479 cases of forcible rape were reported to police forces in the U.S. in 2008, according to the FBI. However, the 2008 National Crime and Victimization Survey indicates 248,280 people were raped or sexually assaulted. By contrast, the reporting gap in robbery is minuscule: 443,574 in official police reports and 551,830 in the victimization survey.

What’s more, surveys on campuses nationwide back up the idea that many more, perhaps hundreds, of UNL women are attacked each year. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs in 2000 titled “The Sexual Victimization of College Women” surveyed students at two-year and four-year colleges and found a rate of 35 completed or attempted rapes per 1,000 female students per year. That would suggest that UNL may have as many as 420 per year.

“We know it happens a lot more than is reported,” said Officer Aaron Pembleton, director of prevention and education for the University Police at UNL. “We’ve had some cases here where family members take victims to a hospital and the victim decides she doesn’t want to report. Several times we show up after someone calls and, nope, they don’t want to talk to us.”

Assaults off campus are reported to the Lincoln Police Department, and the figures are far higher. In 2009 in Lincoln, 58 out of 121 rapes were reported by people ages 18 to 24. The reports may include UNL students, but police records don’t break out such data. Nonetheless, Officer Katie Flood, information officer for the LPD, suggested that the off-campus tally in a town of 254,000 residents seems low.

College-aged women are at especially high risk of becoming targets, even outside the hothouse environment of campus. Women ages 16 to 24 in general are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But fewer than 5 percent of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape report it to police, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs in 2000.

Reasons for staying silent vary. The fear of being shamed comes into play. So, too, does the fear of not being believed or worry that nothing will come of the report, according to criminologist Batton. Of the five cases reported on the UNL campus in the last three years, none led to prosecution, police officials said.

“Sexual assault on campus often involves date rape,” Batton said. “Sometimes alcohol is involved. A woman is even more likely to be scrutinized for what she doing, where she was, who she was with and the woman will often scrutinize herself.”

At UNL, women often expect harassment, ranging from groping at parties to unwelcome touching in bars.

A 23-year-old UNL student, who wished to remain anonymous, was inappropriately touched on her way home to campus on a Saturday night, for instance. She didn’t report the assault to police, because she feared they would dismiss it as frivolous.

She and her friends passed by a huddle of men standing on a street corner. They hooted, they hollered and one reached out and slapped her on the butt.

“I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know his number,” she said. “It was just too much effort, and I knew nothing was going to happen. I was afraid the police would say, ‘C’mon, he just slapped your ass.’ I was afraid they would think I was over exaggerating. You just don’t do anything. It’s common and I know it’s not good, but it happens to girls and they accept it and move on.”

Cases far worse than this go unreported. Many women would rather avoid the cumbersome, intrusive and risky process involved in making a sex-crime report, according to Batton. Knowing the perpetrator makes women less likely to come forward. For women, 90 percent of college rapes are acquaintance rape.

Underreporting by men who are sexually assaulted is also a problem, officials say. About one in 33 men will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime, compared to one in six women, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime and Victimization survey.

The experience of a 21-year-old male UNL student, who also wished to remain anonymous, shows how men often feel they must brush off sexual assault as a joke.

Three months ago, the student and his fraternity brothers invited a group of women to their fraternity house on campus to hang out. One of the women grabbed the man as he was headed up a flight of stairs. She pinned him against the wall, tried to kiss him and put her hands in his pants. He pushed her away, told his friends and showed her the way out.

“Was it sexual assault?” he said. “I think it’s a stretch to call it that. If she was able to keep me down, if I was alone, maybe you could say that.”

Calling the police didn’t even cross his mind.

“It’s just another story to tell,” he said. “It happens to friends of mine all the time. For guys it’s just a funny story. Sure if we wanted to cut down on it, it’s probably smart to report it. But I don’t want to be the first.”

He said men are expected to want women to “throw themselves at them.” Reporting would just be embarrassing.

“When this happens to guys it will never be reported, especially in a frat,” he said. “If we did report, we’d be ridiculed. You just deal with it. That’s what you do. You don’t run and cry over it.”

Fearing reprisal from the assailant or the assailant’s friends keep many students from coming forward, said Kacey, the UNL Victim Advocate from Voices of Hope. Kacey’s last name has been withheld at her request for security reasons.

Kacey counsels students on a walk-in basis and by appointment at the UNL Women’s Center. She assists on cases of stalking and sexual assault. About 95 percent of those seeking services are female, she said. The service is free and she stays busy.

“Unfortunately, assault keeps happening,” she said.

The victims she counsels choose not to report for reasons including worries about retaliation or feelings of shame. The process of reporting can also be intrusive. Victims who report rape within 72 hours are encouraged to complete a sexual assault exam, also known as a rape kit, at a hospital. Part of the process includes the plucking of pubic hairs, undergoing a full vaginal examination and the collection of bodily fluids. The victim has an STI screening and must recount the assault to medical professionals and police.

“Evidence is huge in sexual assault cases,” Kacey said. “Without it the victim and the perpetrator are pitted against each other. Some victims feel like nothing’s going to happen.”

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Any victims who seek counseling with Voices of Hope are not required to report unless they are underage. Kacey understands why many victims would rather remain silent than relive their experiences in a medical office or on the stand in a courtroom. The legal process can take months or even years. After victims undergo a sexual assault exam, they wait six to eight months for results. Even then, the county prosecutor could decide there’s not enough evidence to prosecute and drop the case.

Such issues may have played a role in the fate of the cases at UNL since 2007. None led to prosecution, according to Officer Pembleton.

However, people who’ve been sexually assaulted by a student also have the option to bring charges through UNL Judicial Affairs for violating the Student Code of Conduct. The process is independent from the legal process and requires less time and less evidence. The student who committed the assault could face suspension or expulsion.

“We have zero tolerance for any kind of sexual misconduct,” said Matthew Hecker, UNL dean of students.

In the past eight years, two students have been either expelled or suspended for sexual assault of some sort, he said. Students may choose this process even if they do not formally report the crime to the police.

“What we are trying to do with our student judicial process is … return some sense of control to a victim,” Hecker said.

However, Pembleton pointed out that students who don’t know they’ve been assaulted will not report to police or the university. Another reason for the underreporting of sexual assault may be that victims don’t realize they’ve been assaulted. Pembleton said many people do not consider actions that are legally defined as sexual assault as assault.

“Sometimes neither the victim nor the person doing the assaulting know an assault is happening,” he said. “Maybe a guy is repeatedly going to parties and having sex with drunk women. You cannot give consent when you’re drunk. But neither of the people involved know that could be called rape.”

In the eyes of law enforcement officials, reporting and education go hand in hand in curbing sexual assault on and around campus. The University Police try to educate campus groups on the importance of reporting. Reporting increases the likelihood of catching the perpetrator and keeping him or her from possibly harming someone else.

“The more we can get in touch with victims, the more we learn about how we can help them,” he said.

He also educates students about smart drinking choices. Because alcohol is often involved in college rape cases, Pembleton urges students to know their limits and never leave drinks unattended.

When comparing UNL to universities in similar-sized cities, the university seems to have work to do about underreporting. While only five sexual assaults have been reported at UNL with an enrollment of 24,610 since 2007, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police received 22 reports of sexual assault on a campus with 42,099 students, according to their Campus Security Report. The University of Missouri in Columbia logged 14 reported sexual assaults since 2007 on a campus with 32,415 students, and 24 sexual assaults were reported to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor University Police. Michigan has an enrollment of 41, 674 students.

While the police forces in Lincoln and university officials would like to see more people reporting their assaults, Kacey argues the data will not change they way people view sexual assault.

“I understand reporting will help us collect more accurate statistics, but in reality, having those statistics won’t change the way we live our lives,” Kacey said. “Women will continue to check their backseats, carry pepper spray and think they need self defense classes. The real solution is intervention. Don’t be a bystander.”

Kacey said all people can be advocates for their friends and family members who are victims. If someone shares his or her account of an assault, don’t be too uncomfortable talking about it, she said.

“Things won’t change if we don’t change our perspective of how we view victims,” Kacey said. “Women are still blamed for their attacks.”

She cited a case in Australia in May 2010 where a man was acquitted of rape because the victim was wearing skinny jeans. The jury decided that the woman’s jeans were so tight that she would have had to help her attacker take them off. Therefore, she consented to intercourse.

“It’s 2010,” Kacey said. “You’d think this kind of victim-blaming is a thing of the past, but it’s very today. It’s happening now and it’s happening around us. Rape and sexual assault is not something women – and men, too – should just have to ‘put up with.’ Until society realizes this, it will continue to happen and victims will remain silent.”

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