Pastries Won't Solve Campus Sexual Assault

What Women Really Think
Dec. 2 2009 6:19 PM

Pastries Won't Solve Campus Sexual Assault

A handful of deans and professors, myself, another student, and a physician sat around the board table enjoying Au Bon Pain pastries, compliments of the Yale Dean’s Office. It was 8 a.m. at the biweekly meeting of the Yale Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, which hears informal complaints of sexual harassment and assault from the undergraduate community. "Informal" means we have no disciplinary power. We mainly counsel and negotiate such awkward logistical issues as room changes, if your rapist happens to live upstairs. We also direct victims toward more formal means of recourse, like reporting the incident to the police or, more likely, Yale’s Executive Committee. By more likely, I mean neither of these options is likely at all.

Two months into the semester and those informal complaints totaled an impressive zero. Impressive, that is, from the standpoint of the school administration, which has to publish annual assault statistics in accordance with the Clery Act. It’s tragic, however, from the perspective of the one in five undergraduates who experience rape or attempted rape by the time they graduate.

My experience on the Grievance Board was echoed by the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation into campus sexual assault , which found that only 5 percent of victims report their experience. I agree with Emily that the results are disturbingly archaic. Epidemic under-reporting and university indifference should have been kinks ironed out in the first few turbulent years of coeducation and Title IX’s triumphant enactment. But the culture of silence that surrounds sexual assault is an enduring college tradition.

When students finally land on campus as newly minted adults on unfamiliar turf, they are unsurprisingly hesitant to report a sexual assault, most likely experienced as a freshman and, for 70 percent of victims, perpetrated by someone they know. Muddle in a few drinks and the double standard embedded in college hook-up culture and guilt and self-blame are the predictable results. Even in the most unambiguous case, reporting, let alone pressing charges, would be academically and socially disruptive, even devastating. "Victim" is an uncomfortable label for a teen carving out her first semi-independent home.

Even students who want to report may find themselves excluded from their university's internal tally. The Clery Act requires that universities report sexual assaults that occur on and near campus. This is dangerously muddy wording, given that the most fertile ground for sexual violence at Yale, and at many other universities, lies outside its gates. Off-campus houses, especially fraternities, host the biggest college ragers, advertised often with titillating posters and titles like "Champagne and Schoolgirls," "CEOs and Corporate Hoes" and "Playboy Mansion," which all encourage titillating attire for the female attendees. As the hosts of these parties often are upperclassmen men and the guests mainly freshman girls (for whom the brothers kindly serve grain punch as a less-caloric keg alternative), there is often a predatory power dynamic that make these particularly likely sites for sexual transgressions, both casual and criminal. Yale, however, does not include fraternity houses, or any other off-campus residence, in their statistics. Those rapes slip through the holes of Yale’s institutional memory.

The year I served on the Grievance Board-2008-the campus sexual assault line recorded 24 incidents on campus, while the school’s official crime statistics recorded only eight ( the actual figure is around 175, according to statistics kept by the Department of Justice). The fragmentation of the system is partly to blame for this discrepancy. Students may make their complaints to the Grievance Board, deans, peer counselors, health services, the police, the Executive Committee or our three-year-old sexual-assault crisis center. While victims deserve a lot of reporting options, they also deserve an apparatus of aggregation that delivers accurate statistics to the student body. The Executive Committee also keeps no record of their deliberations and all but the victim are sworn to silence. Even if you chew through all the bureaucratic layers of the sexual assault reporting infrastructure, the disciplinary system at its center is completely opaque.

Two months into the school year and the head of the Grievance Board told us, again, that there were no assault complaints to discuss. So we channeled our bleary-eyed energy instead into editing a description of the Grievance Board to be published online. It was a manifesto of self-definition and self-justification that had tellingly taken almost all semester to craft. On that morning, a glimpse inside the murky world of college sexual assault reporting would reveal eight people, sleepily brainstorming synonyms, and a platter of cheese danishes.

That’s the problem.