As the scandal-ridden 2016 election season draws to a close, Americans will be left with a number of indelible impressions. Perhaps the most disturbing of these is the “hot mike” video in which Republican candidate Donald Trump speaks candidly about sexual assault, all the while egged on by then Access Hollywood co-anchor, Billy Bush.
The tape outraged women across the country, serving as a reminder of their own objectification and personal experience with assault. For university presidents and administrators, this moment must have seemed uncannily prescient. For years, institutions of higher education have been scrambling to adopt stricter rules and more effective policies governing the problem of rape culture and sexual assault on campus.
An Endemic Problem
In 2014, a national organization found that 14 percent of female undergraduates reported some form of sexual assault, and another 2.7 percent reported rape. However, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 90 percent of sexual assaults on campus go unreported. That means that up to 1 in 3 women could be victims of sexual assault at some point during their college years.
It’s no wonder that the American Association of State Colleges and Universities ranked sexual assault third on its list of the top ten state policy issues for 2015. Solutions for preventing sexual assault range from getting students to police each other and banning alcohol on campus to conducting state-wide reviews of sexual assault policy and ensuring federal compliance through Title IX.
But What, Exactly, Is the Problem?
Some of these solutions themselves have come under fire. In the wake of athlete Brock Turner’s controversial trial — when Judge Aaron Persky expressed concern about the impact of harsh sentencing on a convicted rapist — women at Stanford have pointed out that blaming alcohol for sexual assault is yet another way of diverting responsibility from the real issue, men who commit assault..
And then there is this story from Brigham Young University. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that women at BYU were being investigated for honor code violations after they reported sexual assaults on campus. After a petition signed by over 115,000 people in protest of these actions, BYU has taken steps to separate its Title IX Offices from the Honor Code Office and to create honor code amnesty for women who report crimes.
Sexual assault will continue to be a problem as long as institutions support a campus climate that blames victims and makes it hard for women to come forward. Universities must try to make fundamental changes to the social ecology of their communities if they really want to have an impact. This includes not only strengthening protection and minimizing risk but also, and more importantly, shifting campus attitudes and engaging bystanders to model behavior that prevents the escalation of situations that lead to rape and assault.
Trump’s vulgar boasts subjected him to harsh criticism, and the Today Show fired Billy Bush’s for his supporting role in the debacle. But to many people, the comments were nothing more than “locker room talk.” Unfortunately, it’s the same on campuses across the United States.
We hope that this election season discussion will continue, and that it will pave the way for positive change.