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How Campus Rape Became a National Scandal

Despite the recent outcry, experts believe rape has been commonplace at American universities for decades. So why are we just talking about it now?
Zoe Ridolfi-Starr at Columbia University. Photo by the author

It's not even noon, and already Zoe Ridolfi-Starr looks worn. The self-identified sexual assault survivor and lead complainant in a federal case against New York's Columbia University for its alleged mishandling of sexual violence hurries to join a small clutch of fellow activists in the school's central quad for a protest—part of April's national Carry That Weight Together event—that never quite forms.


News cameras circle the women, and because I am young and female and proximal, they sniff my skirt, too. To the men surrounding us, I'm as much a part of this as Zoe or any of the other survivors whose names have become shorthand for the social crisis of the year.

Simply standing here implies I was raped in my dorm room.

Statistically, the implication is, on the surface at least, sound. As the owner of both a baccalaureate degree and a vagina, the odds I was sexually assaulted on campus are roughly one in five, according to a widely cited—if oft-disputed—study by the US Department of Justice published back in 2007. Like Columbia and at least 100 other other post-secondary schools around the country, my alma mater, UC Berkeley, is currently under investigation by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights over its alleged mishandling of dozens of such assaults. Like Columbia and the other schools on the list, its federal funding hangs in the balance.

You know, in theory.

Despite the recent national outcry, experts believe rape has been commonplace at American universities for decades. So why have the feds just taken notice now? And will all the attention amount to anything?

"[The feds] have never given a punitive financial sanction to schools, which they have the power to do," another Columbia University anti-sexual-assault activist, Allie Rickard, told me. "It's not a high enough incentive to encourage schools to proactively change their policies."


What is terrifying is to imagine rape as what it has so often been throughout human history: collective punishment.

Instead, the unprecedented inquiry into byzantine and often foundering campus adjudication processes has inadvertently transformed rape from a violent crime into a civil rights issue, swelling its perceived impact from the actual percentage of women who survive sexual assault to the roughly 57 percent of college students who are female and whose equal access to education may be threatened by it.

"There is a civil rights obligation on the part of the school as well as potentially a criminal responsibility," for rapes committed on campus, explained Lara Kaufmann, a senior counselor at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, DC and an expert on campus sexual assault. "Students who are raped by other students—that kind of trauma can really impair your ability to learn and your ability to function in the school environment, so schools have to take steps to address that."

When those steps fail—as survivors say they often do—the fallback is a tangle of case law evolved from a 37-word amendment to an educational statute from 1972 called Title IX.

The trouble is that the actual punishments for so-called Title IX violators, like for rapists "found responsible" for sexual assault on campus, are usually gentle and infrequently meted out, activists and academics say. Expulsions are rare, and to date no school has ever been stripped of funds in response to its handling of sexual assault.


"Not a single person we know of has been expelled for rape," said 19-year-old Barnard freshman Julia Crain, whose school, which is affiliated with Columbia, is also under federal investigation. "We've heard of one-semester suspensions, we've heard of reflective essays, but not really much more than suspensions."

Yet anxiety over wrongful convictions, universities unfairly branded as "rape schools," and extrajudicial punishment of the accused loom at least as large as the hotly contested one-in-five figure in our national conversation. Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia senior who schleps her blue dorm bed across campus to protest the university's handling of her rape complaint, is a saint among activists and a bête noire for those who see the women scrawling their rapists' names on public toilet stalls as misandrist lynch mobs.

Meanwhile, sexual assault is one of the hottest controversies in the country, grabbing headlines in every national publication and eliciting pronouncements from no less than President Barack Obama.

The burst of national attention "certainly has created a groundswell," Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw mused to me over the phone.

A casual observer could easily come away with the impression that we are in the throes of a rape epidemic. This is especially true in New York, where both the municipal and state governments have drafted anti-assault legislation and more colleges are under investigation for "gender-based misconduct" than in any other state in the country.


In fact, as a criminal phenomenon, campus sexual assault is neither new nor geographically specific: When you take thousands of relative sexual novices in extremely close, continuous proximity and mix in large quantities of consciousness-altering chemicals, anyone who wants to commit a crime can find a victim.

"The media's focus often creates a public impression that there's an epidemic—I don't think there's any real evidence that that's the case," said Dr. Cory Yung, a researcher at the Kentucky University School of Law, whose recent American Psychological Association (APA) study showed that universities chronically undercount rape, reporting 44 percent more sexual assaults while under investigation by the federal government than either before or after those investigations occur. "I don't think there's any reason to believe that now is a more dangerous time than ten years ago, 20 years ago."

Put another way, rape on campus has probably been at least as prevalent since the advent of America Online. It's just that no one was talking about it—at least in a steady, consciousness-altering way—until the age of Twitter.

"There've been many survivors who came out very publicly about their experiences, and that's been incredibly empowering to other survivors," Rickard argued. "Part of those survivors coming out publicly has been calling attention to the structural and systematic ways that colleges are failing," as opposed to the classic he-said-she-said of individual prosecutions.


This shift in understanding of campus rape from an individual to a collective trauma lies at the heart of the current wave of activism, in part because it arms the only legal weapon students have against sexual assault on campus: Title IX, which began as one of the Education Amendments of 1972.

All Title IX cases hinge on the same theory: that by failing to adequately prosecute and punish sexual assaults, colleges are effectively denying survivors equal access to higher education on the basis of gender. (Title IX may also apply to men, who may also be victims of rape and sexual assault, but in both cases women are the default.)

"It's only within the last ten years that there was a move or an attempt to use Title IX to litigate or investigate rape or sexual assaults," Dr. Yung explained. "It took a while for it to ramp up. It's only really the last three years that there's this flood of investigation."

Universities, too, have begun to frame sexual assault in these terms: Columbia, Berkeley, and many schools like them have undertaken significant policy overhauls in the past 18 months, with the former saying it is "committed to providing a national model of the best policies and practices to help ensure that members of our University community feel safe and respected."

The problem is that rape cases are rarely clear-cut, experts say, which is part of what makes their already elevated threshold for prosecution an almost impossible hurdle for victims to clear.


"There've been far greater burdens that a prosecutor has to overcome in rape cases than in any other criminal offense," Dr. Yung explained. "[Adjudicators] fear false accusations—they've come to fear that women are prone to lie about it," a perception entirely abetted by the fetish for "perfect" victims like Jackie who turn out not to be.

What's more, discredited reports—like Rolling Stone's disastrous University of Virginia cover story—get wildly disproportionate play in the news and across social media.

One underlying problem is that our culture expects rape to be thrilling. It is not.

"You have to imagine the burden faced by somebody coming forward with [a rape accusation]: it's not easy to do, it's not lucrative, it can be very humiliating, and it can be very difficult—there's not a huge incentive for someone to falsely accuse someone else of campus sexual assault," Ms. Kaufmann of the National Women's Law Center explained. "Unfortunately, those instances get a lot of attention in the media, and that can fuel a suspicion that it's more common than it really is."

Epidemics are exotic by definition. An endemic, by contrast, is determinately ordinary, which is what makes it so uncomfortable to contemplate in the context of assault. It's comforting to think of rape as a discrete criminal act, a horror visited on one individual by another, whether abetted by psychopathology or intoxication, carelessness or culture, or a cruel twist of fate. It's tempting to think of villains-in-waiting driven to the apex of evil by power and privilege, of criminal conspiracies driving the most vile among us—frat boys, for instance—to satisfy yet viler urges.


What is terrifying is to imagine rape as what it has so often been throughout human history: collective punishment. It's terrifying to think of rape as an institutional fact awaiting as many as a fifth of women who seek higher education at a time when they already make up the majority at top tier public schools— UC Berkeley, UNC, UVA, and UT Austin, to name a handful—and lag less than two percentage points behind men across the Ivies.

Naturally, our collective imagination—not to mention our criminal justice system—still abjures the idea that rape is anything less than an aberration, a one-in-a-million fluke.

To wit: In my decade-long career as a crime reporter, I've written about dozens of sexual assaults but covered just two convictions: a New York City police officer whom multiple witnesses watched rape a school teacher at gunpoint, and who was still "placing his genitals back into his pants," when police arrived; and an unlicensed Hasidic counselor who forced a young patient to perform sex acts on him from when she was 12 years old until she was 15.

Those cases share an almost incomprehensible level of horror—a stubborn prerequisite for our understanding of rape—and yet the defense in the former insists the victim "experienced something in her mind that didn't completely conform with what actually happened," and the latter maintains the victim made the whole thing up for revenge.


"It's always been a phenomenon that's relatively unique to rape and sexual assault," Dr. Yung said of such denial. "The simple fact is we have this perspective that overly identifies with the accused and seems to be entirely unsympathetic to the victim."

The doubt cast on survivors and the handwringing over due process for alleged assailants is even more pronounced in the ivory tower, where the social relationships between accused and accuser can be tangled and the attacks are rarely so straight-to- SVU. Sulkowicz's story alone has launched a thousand think pieces—many of them as anxious over the fates of theoretical young men as those of actual young women—and will undoubtedly continue to do so as her alleged rapist's new lawsuit against Columbia wends its way through court, dragging lurid details of her personal history along with it.

Such a protracted public battle is exactly the threat that deters most survivors from reporting their assaults, activists argue, especially if their relationship to their attacker is ambiguous. That Sulkowicz both reported and then publicized an account that sounds so little like the rape in Rolling Stone and so much like what we know rape to be in real life is what makes her such a singular figure in the current debate.

Sulkowicz maintains that her alleged attacker suddenly and violently forced her to have anal sex during a previously consensual encounter in her dorm room during her sophomore year at Columbia. But according to the lawsuit, "while they were still freshmen and before any physical relationship had begun, Emma broached the topic of anal sex with Paul by private Facebook messenger." It goes on to quote the exchange, in part:


fuck me in the butt
eehm maybe not?
I miss your face tho.

Sulkowicz insists her comment was taken totally out of context.

"Back in freshman year, I used to say the phrase 'Fuck me in the butt' to mean 'OMG, that's sooo annoying,'" Sulkowicz explained to me over email, sharing a longer version of the Facebook exchange in which the comment clearly follows a note about having to wake up early. "We all said stupid shit freshman year. Over time, I worked that kink out of my lexicon, but now and then I still say stupid things. We all say stupid things!"

The word rape itself is often deployed in this manner, Sulkowicz pointed out.

"I hear people say things like, 'That test raped me' or 'I raped that test,' when they don't actually mean that a rape occurred," Sulkowicz wrote. "When I'm stressed, I might say, 'OMG kill me!'; or when something's awesome, I might say, 'Wow, that slayed me.' In neither of these situations would anyone think that I'm asking to be murdered or that I'd been slayed."

Sulkowicz's alleged assailant was found "not responsible" by the school's adjudication process, as well as in two separate cases involving other students. He remains at Columbia University and will almost certainly graduate with his bachelor's in a few weeks. Yet the widely published anxiety that he and innumerable young men like him are having their lives torn apart by coddled young women who cry rape remains acute, despite all evidence to the contrary.

"I'm not as worried that people are being railroaded or that the system's overly biased against the accused, because we just don't see that," Dr. Yung said. "This fear of false accusations combined with a historical set of rules [that makes rape harder to prosecute] have made people overly concerned in this area with bad prosecutions…[but] we see very few people ever prosecuted. On the campuses, we see very few people expelled."

One underlying problem is that our culture expects rape to be thrilling. It is not. Yet the cameras still show up sniffing for blood, hoping to catch Sulkowicz dragging her mattress across the quad or Crain rehashing the tear-soaked details of her assault. The truth is, violence is sexy, and bureaucracy a bore. Ridolfi-Starr can talk systemic failure to the camera until her face is as blue as Sulkowicz's mattress, but as far as the media's concerned, rape still needs pretty victims to sell.

I am still sitting among the activists on the quad watching the television reporter walk toward the camera leaning into Ridolfi-Starr when I realize a magazine photographer has trained his camera on me. I glance up just in time to see him tighten the frame.


Follow Sonja Sharp on Twitter.