In the '90s, a group of students scrawled the names of rapists on the walls of a women's bathroom at Brown University. It was not done to create a witch hunt. It was done as a desperate act to bring accountability to the assailants. We were desperate because Brown University, at that time, failed to construe rape or assault committed by other students on campus as a crime. The administration responded to the assailants as boys acting out, who were, at most, asked to take a semester off. Since then, Brown University has taken significant strides to render sexual assault and rape a crime for which individuals must be held accountable. But very few colleges and universities have done the same.
The result is that, almost two decades later, a culture of impunity thrives on college campuses. And, of course, the incidents of sexual violence have therefore increased. This week, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report on college sexual assault that revealed the following facts:
• One in five students has been assaulted; and
• Assailants are often serial offenders: Seven percent of male students in a study cited by the report admitted to committing or attempting rape-- and nearly two-thirds of them admitted to committing these assaults multiple times -- six on average.
It is incomprehensible to me that college and university campuses remain unsafe places for young women. How is it that in 21st century America, when more and more women are entering institutions of higher learning, we are still so vulnerable to sexual violence? How is it that rape culture is so comfortably a part of our college culture?
But while violence against women continues unabated, something important did happen yesterday. President Obama named the issue of violence against women on college campuses and used the power of his office to denounce these acts as crimes for which the perpetrators must be prosecuted.
I was especially struck by these words from President Obama: "We need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted -- you are not alone. You will never be alone. We've got your back. I've got your back."
I thought back to being 19 at Brown and feeling so small and scared to speak out against the policies that protected those who committed rape and assault. All of us who were part of that movement at the time, victims and allies alike, felt so alone in what we were asking of the university. Nobody in power had our back.
I am now a mother to a little girl who, years from now, will enter one of these institutions of higher learning. My husband and I are working hard to give her the best opportunities so that she may go to a college of her choice. My heart breaks at the thought that she too will enter college without the freedom to be safe from violence. I cannot accept that her story, or the story of any young woman, might be an uninterrupted narrative of victimization, regardless of her educational status and accomplishments.
I am prayerful that the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault will break the inevitability that to be female is to be at risk for violence, especially on a college campus. But, we only get closer to that reality if our colleges and universities adopt the necessary policies to end an entrenched, historic tolerance of rape and assault.