September means changing weather, falling leaves, new pencils and notebooks, and back to school. As thousands of college students make their way to their campus communities, some for the first time, we are reminded that not all college experiences end with positive memories. This year, nearly 5% of college women will be sexually assault in their campus community. Furthermore, over an entire academic career, approximately 1 in 4 college women will be the victim of some form of sexual assault.
It is important to note that these crimes do not just happen in the dark alleys and unlit streets outside the Quad or between the Library and Dining Hall. The perpetrator is not always a stranger met in an unfamiliar location. In fact, quite the opposite is the reality of campus sexual assault: At least 80% of all sexual assaults in campus communities are committed by an acquaintance of the victim. These crimes happen in dorm rooms with invited guests, at parties with friends in the next room, in seemingly safe and well lit places. Alarmingly, almost 60% of on-campus sexual assaults take place in what should be the safest of all locations: the victim’s living quarters.
These statistics are sobering, and defy many perceptions of carefree, and crime-free, college campuses. Through a “don’t talk to strangers” culture, college women have been taught to be cautious as they walk alone at night in their new neighborhoods. But these staggering statistics show that “stranger danger” does not address this tragedy: college women must be equally cautious in their own homes and their own rooms with people they know.
Unfortunately, these studies have also found that fewer than 5% of completed or attempted rapes are reported to law enforcement officials. That is to say less than 1 in 10 college women will tell law enforcement after they have been raped or after someone has attempted to rape them. Although these crimes are not shared with law enforcement, they are not unspoken. In nearly two-thirds of completed or attempted rape cases, the victim told another person about the incident, usually a friend instead of a campus official or law enforcement officer. Many said the experience was traumatic enough to share with a friend but “not serious enough to report” and that it was “not clear that a crime was committed.” For many college women, underreporting may stem from this lack of definition, both personally and campus-/nation- wide, of what “rape” or “sexual assault” means. When asked “has anyone made you have sexual intercourse by using force or threatening to harm you or someone close to you?,” of the respondents that answered “yes,” 48.8% did not consider what had happened to them rape or attempted rape.
We have a duty as a society to speak more openly and honestly about sexual assault, but this is an especially important mission on college campuses. In the last 5 years, the Office on Violence Against Women have awarded over $47 million to 91 different colleges and universities throughout the United States in order to end sexual assault on college campuses. These campuses are charged with providing sexual assault prevention training to every student, trainings law enforcement and staff on appropriate responses to sexual assault, and engaging the surrounding community and a comprehensive response to sexual assault using various campus communities and off- campus community assets. These campuses are doing their part to end violence against women on their college campuses, but it will take all of us to end the violence against women that occurs on college campuses in every part of the United States. It will take campus staff and faculty that train students on prevention, stopping the violence before it even begins. It will take law enforcement that creates safe environments for reporting. It will take trusted friends knowing when to encourage reporting of seemingly “no-big-deal” incidents. And it will take a campus dialogue about and national demystification of sexual assault. Of this year’s freshman women, nearly 25% of them will be sexually assaulted by graduation. It will take each and every member of our national community, both on- and off- campus, to stop this unacceptable statistic.
With deep respect and gratitude,
Susan B. Carbon
U.S. Department of Justice
Updated: May 2011