Campus Sexual Violence Didn't Go Away Just Because We Stopped Talking About It

·13 min read
campus sexual assault
campus sexual assault

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Over the past year, we've been hearing a lot about how the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has affected college campuses, from canceled graduations to super-spreader frat parties. With so many aspects of the college experience revolving around crowds and communal living, there were a lot of questions, understandably so, about how administrations were working to keep students safe from the spread of coronavirus. However, that same urgency and attention haven't been given to the issue of campus sexual violence (a problem that victimizes 26.4% of undergraduate women; 6.9% of undergraduate men; and 23.1% of undergraduate students identifying as transgender, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming, based on a 2019 survey of students across 21 schools). Even though a global pandemic required unprecedented changes and immediate responses from college administrations, the state of campus sexual violence has long been dire-and the issue hasn't gone away just because we stopped talking about it.

In fact, the federally enforced infrastructure for schools' handling of sexual violence cases got much, much worse. While many schools were busy figuring out how to safely transition to virtual learning, former United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was busy finalizing new Title IX regulations that would roll back decades of progress and protections for student survivors, which officially went into effect on August 14th, 2020. The new rule, which DeVos reportedly developed in collaboration with men's rights groups, puts limiting restrictions on the definitions of sexual assault and harassment and lowers the school's responsibility to take action-all of which further hurt student survivors in a year that already brought so many unforeseen challenges.

But while there's no data yet to show how pandemic shutdowns have impacted the rate of new sexual violence cases at universities, advocacy groups have tuned in to how these shutdowns have and continue to affect survivors' access to resources overall. Employees at ACCESS, the Iowa-based care center for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, noticed that their number of requests for survivor care and hospital responses were significantly down early on in the pandemic. Employees knew this wasn't because the violence had stopped, Anna Swartzendruber, the Campus Outreach and Prevention Advocate at ACCESS explains, but because survivors were more afraid to go to the hospital and had less direct access to resources due to campus shutdowns. On college campuses during the pandemic, this may have looked like health clinics being closed, counselors being unavailable for in-person sessions, and social support groups becoming limited to access.


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Swartzendruber also added that pandemic shutdowns cut off her ability to set up informational tables on campuses and inform more students about the services that ACCESS has to offer, which includes a 24/7 crisis line, support and advocacy throughout the reporting process, and anti-violence training. While telehealth and virtual services became much more widely available during the pandemic, Swartzendruber says it doesn't match the trust-building ability that comes with in-person communication.

"It's really hard to talk about what they're going through-which is, for so many people, one of the worst moments of their life-and [talk about] how that continual trauma is impacting them over the phone or over telehealth," she says. "You just lose a lot of that safety and connection." As an advocate who works directly with survivors of sexual violence, Swartzendruber added that her own ability to read body language and offer support has also been impaired by not being able to connect with survivors in person. "If someone has a panic attack, walking them through breathing techniques over a phone is just not the same," she says.

Because of these barriers and the ongoing stress of the pandemic, some survivors may have been less inclined to seek out help altogether.

Swartzendruber says she personally observed how some of the survivors she's worked with compartmentalized their healing in order to deal with other crises or stressors of living during a pandemic. For example, she says, some student survivors were less interested in scheduling a virtual meeting with an advocate after a long day of either virtual classes or work-but that doesn't mean their needs went away. "That trauma is still impacting [survivors], but it's almost like [they're thinking], 'I don't have time to work through this so I'll deal with this later,'" Swartzendruber explains.

School shutdowns and social distancing measures also made it harder for student survivors to access support not only from advocates and organizations but also from their friends. "I was just very isolated and because I wasn't around people, I had no incentive to talk about [the assault]," one survivor, who was assaulted by another student during the pandemic, tells HelloGiggles. "I kind of just like shut myself in my room to deal with it."

At the same time, however, some student survivors have found that remote learning has given them a better sense of safety in ways that their universities failed to do so before pandemic shutdowns. Emma Levine, a student engagement organizer with Know Your IX-a survivor- and youth-led organization that aims to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools-said this was a common sentiment from survivors. "[We've had] so many survivors tell us the only thing keeping them safe and in school right now is being able to learn remotely," she says. "We literally had people tell us, 'Thank God for COVID because schools are refusing to take action,' and, 'At least I don't have to be there in person to deal with it,'" which can include the ongoing trauma of sexual violence, the fear of running into their perpetrator, and a lack of accommodation from the school for their academic and mental health needs.

These are all things that, depending on the school's handling of sexual violence cases and adherence to Title IX, can be made better or worse for survivors if they choose to report. Unfortunately, it's more often the latter.

This disheartening reality is outlined in Know Your IX's recent study "The Cost of Reporting: Perpetrator Retaliation, Institutional Betrayal, and Student Survivor Pushout," which surveyed more than 100 student survivors who formally reported sexual violence acts to their schools to learn more about school's responses (which were collected from September 1st, 2020 through January 9th, 2021). The survey found that 70% of survivors who reported to their schools said they experienced "adverse effects on their safety and privacy" after doing so. This was often due to schools refusing to meet survivors' requests to remove the perpetrators from their classrooms, dorms, or campuses. Per the report, some schools even defied official no-contact orders or court-issued protective orders that would keep perpetrators away from survivors if properly enforced.

One survivor wrote, "the university refused to honor the judge's order for [the perpetrator] to stay out of my classroom buildings and told me I would have to take it upon myself to avoid him."

The report explains that although Title IX requires schools to ensure a student's access to education is not interrupted because of sexual violence, "nearly all survey responses showed that schools dragged their feet or refused to take action to keep survivors in school, or even keep them safe." From the findings of the report, schools often prioritized the needs and wants of the perpetrators above those of survivors. The reasoning? "The survey data suggests that schools often pursued this course of action due to fear of involvement in legal proceedings," the report reads.

Failing to follow these orders and neglecting survivor safety can make survivors vulnerable to further abuse from their perpetrators while on campus. Per the report, one school's decision "to let a survivor's abuser remain on campus led to [the perpetrator] attempting to hit [the survivor] with his car." In response, "the school encouraged [the survivor] to take some time off and wait it out until [the perpetrator] graduated," the report reads.

Siding with the perpetrator is a common way that schools neglect to "fulfill their obligations to Title IX," Levine explains. If Title IX is adhered to as intended per the Obama-era guidance on campus sexual violence, it should grant survivors equal access to education, not make it harder and less safe to continue schooling.

In addition to survivors having to worry about their physical safety, the entire process of reporting or opening an investigation-should they choose to take that route-can be re-traumatizing, invalidating, and exhausting. "We really saw this trend of once survivors were reporting to their school, instead of receiving support, they got blamed for the violence, was told the school would do nothing, faced name-calling by school officials, had their cases drawn out for years, and basically, were punished for their own assaults after seeking help," Levine says about Know Your IX's report findings.


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The report also found that 15% of survivors who reported to their schools stated that they "faced or were threatened with punishment by their schools in connection with coming forward." In one case, this involved the survivor's school being "more concerned with the fake ID they had used that night than the fact that they had been raped."

Unfortunately, the new Title IX regulations favor perpetrators even more and provide more barriers to survivors coming forward. Not only does the new rule narrow the overall definition of sexual misconduct, as compared to the Obama administration's broader definition, but it also created more narrow, location-based specifications for where the conduct took place.

Per The Department of Education's new regulation, colleges aren't legally responsible for sexual assault or harassment that takes place in study abroad programs or in private, off-campus settings.

The new regulations also give more power to perpetrators in hearings, while making the process all the more traumatizing for survivors. Per the new rule, as explained on Know Your IX's website, "colleges must allow live cross-examination by the 'representative' of each party's choosing. This means survivors can be cross-examined by their rapists' parents, friends, fraternity brothers or sorority sisters, [which can] greatly increase the risk of re-traumatization."

With all of these barriers to reporting and receiving support, it's sometimes in the survivor's best interest to opt-out of official processes. This is something that one survivor, who spoke with HelloGiggles, understood years before she was even assaulted-and it's one of the reasons she decided not to report her assault, which happened during prom last year. With her involvement in sexual wellness organizations and education about sexual assault cases, the survivor didn't believe that reporting would give her the justice or healing she needed. "I feel like it never goes the way of the [survivor]," the 18-year-old says. But she also realized her assault wasn't her fault or thought "I'm not really aware of what happened," she says. "I knew."

So, she texted a couple of close friends and told her mom the next day. The survivor says she was "really lucky" to have her mom, who bought her a Plan B pill and offered immediate support. However, by the time the survivor was sorting through all her options, it was too late for her to take a sexual assault forensic exam, or "rape kit." Although the time frames for DNA collection vary state-by-state, a 2013 assessment by the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women states that many jurisdictions have traditionally used 72 hours after the assault as the standard cutoff time for collecting evidence.

Plus, because the survivor and the perpetrator were both drinking the night of the assault, she says she didn't trust her chances in building a case against him. "I essentially knew there was no way that I would win in any case," she says, "as much as I want people to believe me, I mean, he comes from a wealthy family, and they [would have been] ready to have a lawyer." No matter the specific details of her case, the survivor was right that her chances of winning against the perpetrator were (and still are) discouragingly low. Research conducted as recently as 2019 found that less than one-fifth of rapes reported to the police result in a conviction.

Even though the survivor ultimately decided it was in her best interest not to report and go through a potentially retraumatizing process, she can't help but feel unsettled knowing that the perpetrator is walking away scot-free. "I know it was my decision to not press charges, but at the same time, it's going to be a thing that affects me for the rest of my life, and I feel like it should be for him, too," she says.

With these recent setbacks to Title IX-the overwhelming lack of institutional support for survivors, and the past year of sexual violence being largely ignored at colleges and universities-the post-pandemic outlook can be discouraging.

"We're extremely concerned about what's going to happen to survivors when the pandemic begins to dwindle and things begin to open up and students are going to be returning to school without the supportive measures that they need," Levine says.

At ACCESS, Swartzendruber says they're also thinking about all the survivors who put their healing on hold for the past year, posing the question, "What does healing look like if [survivors] aren't connecting with an advocate until a year after [the sexual violence] happened?" Not only can this delay affect a survivor's mental health and recovery, but it can bring even more barriers to those interested in seeking legal action, a process that is already riddled with hurdles. (The amount of time a survivor has to press charges for an assault depends on their state's statute of limitations, ranging from as little as three years to no limitation at all.)

While the conditions of the past year have only made the state of sexual violence at colleges and universities seem more grave, advocates say it's important that we don't give up the fight. "Right now is a key time for pushing for Title IX reform," Levine says. In fact, The Department of Education has already started to respond to some of the organizers' demands for a new Title IX rule. In April, the Biden administration announced its plans to host public listening sessions on the current Title IX rule from June 7th through the 11th, which is part of a larger plan to rewrite the regulations DeVos put in place. These sessions allowed students, survivors, and other stakeholders in the fight against sexual violence to share their recommendations with the Department of Education and potentially influence the creation of a new and improved Title IX rule.

Even with the weight of the past year, Levine says that preparing for these sessions with Know Your IX and other survivor-centered coalitions has made her feel encouraged about the future. "I've felt more hopeful than I've felt in a long time," she says. Working with survivors to craft their stories into public testimonies, Levine says it's been inspiring to see "the potential to have [survivors'] voices be heard and result in meaningful policy change that is going to help folks going forward."

As with any movement pushing for institutional change, there's power in numbers, and Levine encourages everyone to follow along with Know Your IX-and similar organizations like End Rape On Campus, Every Voice Coalition, and It's On Us-to get involved to turn up the pressure. "It's going to be really key for student survivors to show up and for their advocates and their communities to rally around them," she says, "so that the Department really hears their voices and knows that there's a large number of humans who care about this issue."