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What Can We Do About Rape on College Campuses?

This fall my husband and I will be sending our daughter off to college. It’s been a long process filled with lots of excitement, stress, tears and the type of hand-wringing — oh, lots of hand-wringing — that comes with making a big decision. A few weeks ago, we sent off our first tuition check and, while slightly poorer, patted ourselves on the backs for helping her to choose wisely.

But now the worrying starts. Will she like the school? Will she do well? And what is increasingly becoming one of our biggest concerns: Will she be safe on her college campus?

According to a recent report put out by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, an alarming one in five women is the victim of sexual assault in college. One in five, so 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted in a place of higher learning. This is a sobering and disturbing statistic to wrap our minds around. It’s starting to feel less like we’re sending our lovely daughter off to college and more like straight into the lion’s den.

Equally unsettling is how the victims in these cases are treated. Many are blamed for their attacks and retaliated against by their peers while the perpetrators go unscathed — and while administrators look the other way. In May the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released a list of colleges under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. In May there were over fifty schools in the hot seat and sadly the list continues to grow. Mom.me obtained the most updated list and as of July 16 it stands at 68.

Last weekend the New York Times featured a story of a Hobart and William Smith College student named Anna, an 18-year-old freshman who had been on campus for only two weeks before she was raped after a party.

Around midnight, the missing girl texted a friend, saying she was frightened by a student she had met that evening. “Idk what to do,” she wrote. “I’m scared.” When she did not answer a call, the friend began searching for her.

In the early-morning hours on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York, the friend said, he found her — bent over a pool table as a football player appeared to be sexually assaulting her from behind in a darkened dance hall with six or seven people watching and laughing. Some had their cell phones out, apparently taking pictures, he said.

Anna’s case would be decided by a disciplinary board assembled by the university that ultimately saw her attackers — three football players on the school’s winning team — being acquitted.

It’s a mind-boggling story filled with shoddy investigative work, misrepresented evidence and shady affiliations (up until last year Hobart and William Smith's chief fund-raiser also helped oversee the school's handling of sexual assaults). The article is infuriating and should be read in its entirety, but a warning to parents of college students — afterwards you’ll have a less-than-rosy view of college administrations and might be tempted to drive straight to your kid’s school and try to convince them to drop out.

Predictably, Hobart and William Smith defended their case in a letter to the editor of the Times, saying while they “regret the pain [Anna] has suffered,” they stand by the results of their investigation. Even more predictably, another letter in that same issue calls Anna “foolish” for putting herself in a situation where she became a victim and that we need to teach our daughters not to drink so much and choose the wrong men. To this writer I say, how about we teach our sons not to rape?

Anna’s story is titled "Reporting Rape and Wishing She Hadn’t," but the small sliver of good news is that her bravery in coming forward is having the opposite effect; it’s shining the light on the issue of campus rape and the victim-blaming that frequently accompanies these crimes and sees the attackers get preferential treatment.

And, encouragingly, even more light-shining going on: The White House recently launched a website, NotAlone.gov, as an information portal for students to find resources on how to respond to sexual assault in schools, find crisis services, and how to file a complaint. And there are more investigations into schools bungling cases and just generally behaving badly.

In the end, we all know a website or any amount of investigative reporting isn’t going to stop the violence against women that seems to be pervasive on college campuses. But it will force schools to be more transparent in how many of these attacks are occurring in their midst and their handling of these cases. In a perfect world, this would lead to harsher punishment for the perpetrators of these crimes and send a message that says — loudly and clearly — that these crimes against our daughters will not be tolerated.

There are a few short months before our own daughter sets off for her first day of college. We’ll arm her with an arsenal of advice on how to stay safe and a healthy dose of parental paranoia. And we’ll hope that we never get the phone call in the middle of the night that Anna’s parents did. Let the hand-wringing continue.

How would you feel about a #rapeshaming campaign to call out college fraternities who are complicit in rape culture? Would this be an effective way to start shifting the blame from victim to perpetrator?

More:

Is It Time to Rape Shame?

List of Colleges Under Investigation for Mishandling Rape Cases

Impressive New Gadget Identifies Date Rape Drug in Drinks

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