This is why injustice plagues most sexual assault cases.
For many people, reading the Stanford University sexual assault victim’s powerful letter to her assailant was an entry point into the complicated, unjust realities of reporting and punishing sexual assault. While the attention the case — and similar ones at Baylor and Vanderbilt Universities — received is unusual, the attacks are not. Here are some of the most important things you need to know about the scope of sexual assault on college campuses.
Around 1 in 5 women may experience sexual assault at college.
An average of 21 percent of female undergraduates told researchers they’d been sexually assaulted since starting school in a Bureau of Justice Statistics-funded study of nine unnamed U.S. colleges and universities published earlier this year. At some of the schools, the rate of sexual assault was as high as 1 in 2.
These results echo those of similar research, including studies by Mary Koss in the 1980s, a BJS-funded paper released in 2000, and surveys conducted by The Washington Post, the Association of American Universities and individual schools.
We have a problem with how we define rape.
There isn’t a universal definition of rape.
Ex-Stanford student Brock Turner was found guilty this year of three felony counts of sexual assault. Under California law, Turner is not technically a rapist because he didn’t penetrate his victim with his penis. Instead, prosecutors could only charge him with sexual assault — a lesser charge — because he penetrated her with a foreign object, his finger.
California is one of many states with such a narrow definition of rape, and lawmakers are trying to change that. Following Turner’s sentencing, state Assembly member Cristina Garcia (D) introduced legislation that would make California define rape like the FBI does: “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person” without consent.
“Turner’s actions may not have fit in to the traditional heterosexual definition of ‘intercourse,’” Garcia wrote in Time, “but the emotional and mental harm was still the same.”
The FBI’s definition of rape only included forcible male penile penetration of a female vagina until the Obama administration changed it in 2012. Under the FBI definition, Turner is, in fact, a rapist.
A few states still have outdated requirements that make it legally impossible for some LGBT people to be raped. For example, Alabama limits rape to intercourse between partners of opposite sexes. North Carolina does not consider anal penetration in its rape laws, and New York’s laws didn’t until 2013.
Many victims don’t immediately — and may never — pursue legal action against their attackers. That doesn’t discredit them.
Rape is the most underreported crime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which estimates that 63 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to police.
The numbers are even smaller if you only consider college students. Fewer than 5 percent of completed and attempted rapes of women in college were reported to law enforcement officials, according to a BJS/Department of Justice study released in 2000. That number drops even lower for other forms of sexual assault.
“Given that more than 4 out of 5 rape victims knew their assailant, experts believe social pressures play a large role in why rape goes unreported,” The Huffington Post reported in 2014. “Women in college have also identified fear of not being believed, not being sure whether what they experienced was a sexual assault and not wanting family or other people to know about the incidents as reasons for not reporting.”
And victims know they’re entering an uphill battle that even the most privileged women can’t always win. Look at what happened to singer Kesha, who filed a lawsuit against producer Dr. Luke (the industry name for Lukasz Gottwald). She claimed he had abused her for years, forced her to snort drugs, gave her “sober pills” and raped her. In February, a judge ruled against Kesha’s request to be released from her contract with Sony, which owns Dr. Luke’s production company, forcing her to commit to making six more albums with them.
When survivors do come forward, prosecutor often don’t take on their cases.
It’s hard to get a guilty verdict in sexual assault trials. So prosecutors — typically concerned with their conviction rates and facing limited time and resources — have a “perverse incentive” to pursue only the strongest cases that offer the highest probability of a win, a 2012 study on justice for sexual assault victims found.
How does this play out? In one example, a prosecutor in Los Angeles told college student Tucker Reed that he wasn’t going to take her case, even though she had presented evidence, because he doubted a jury would take her side.
“I’m disgusted that’s how they treat these cases,” Reed told HuffPost. “They don’t even let a jury make up their minds themselves.”
The lack of witnesses and the role of alcohol make it hard to get a conviction.
Rape and sexual assault typically happen behind closed doors, making it very hard to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that there was no consent, which the law requires.
Because a majority of assaults are committed by people the victims know, it’s rare that there are witnesses to these crimes. Alcohol is often involved in these cases as well, which police and prosecutors note make for imperfect memories.
When three juries convicted former Vanderbilt University football players for a rape that took place in 2013, they rejected arguments that the guys had made a drunken mistake. That’s progress, local advocates in Tennessee said.
But the juries also reviewed surveillance footage showing the accused men carrying their victim as she was unconscious, and one of them later coming out to block the security camera. The footage was only stumbled upon when the university was investigating vandalism. The victim in the case didn’t know she’d been gang raped until she saw video of it.
In Turner’s case in California, the victim also didn’t know she’d been assaulted until police told her. And the only reason police were called at all was because two strangers riding bikes intervened when they happened to see Turner on top of an unconscious woman. Witnesses called the cops as the bike riders held down Turner, and people discovered his victim laying passed out by a dumpster.
“I can’t understate how important those two heroes were in this case,” Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Alaleh Kianerci told HuffPost earlier this month, adding that they “made this case a prosecutable one.”
When juries do find the accused guilty, the assailant might still get a very lenient sentence.
Turner faced more than a decade in state prison on three charges of sexual assault but was sentenced to just six months in county jail. With good behavior, he could be released in three months or less.
These sentences often depend on a mix of the case’s facts and what is possible under state statutes. That’s why California lawmakers this week proposed requiring prison time for anyone convicted of sexual assault on an unconscious person.
Colleges handle campus sexual assault cases because of Title IX.
Under the gender equity law Title IX, any school getting federal funding has to investigate reports of sexual assault. Courts have held that schools must address sexual harassment, and assault is the most extreme form of harassment under civil rights laws.
The Obama administration has become more aggressive than any of its predecessors in enforcing Title IX through investigations of K-12 school districts and colleges. These investigations typically result in reforming school policies that pertain to reports of sexual violence.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has 246 ongoing investigations into how 195 colleges and universities handled sexual assault under Title IX, and 90 similar investigations at 82 K-12 schools and school districts.
But with so many cases, the Department of Education sometimes takes four years to investigate allegations of colleges mishandling sexual assault cases. And after some schools’ investigations end, students still come forward to say the universities are mishandling cases.
Even after colleges find students responsible for sexual assault, they usually don’t expel them.
A student found to have likely committed a sexual assault is only expelled from school in fewer than one-third of cases, according to a 2014 HuffPost analysis. Students were suspended in fewer than half of the cases in which they were found responsible for sexual assault.
Most universities, even if they do expel or suspend someone for sexual assault, do not mark that punishment on the student’s transcript.
When colleges handle sexual assault cases, it’s an addition to — not a replacement for — whatever police do.
Title IX allows students to take action against their assailants through their colleges. This can result in the attacker being kicked off campus, or at least removed from classes or dorms they share with the victim.
“This isn’t a replacement for reporting to the police; it’s a parallel option for survivors based in civil rights – rather than criminal – law,” the sexual assault survivor advocacy organization Know Your IX explains, noting that schools can keep the victim at the center of the investigation.
“Schools, unlike criminal courts, are focused on the victim and are required to make sure he or she has everything they need to continue their education,” the organization writes. “Examples include academic accommodations, dorm and class transfers, and mental health support.”
While many schools are doing a poor job of handling these reports, turning college sexual assault cases over to police doesn’t necessarily result in more convictions.
National fraternity groups in 2015 tried to push for legislation that would prevent a college from investigating a sexual assault case until the end of a criminal process, including the trial. But rape victim advocacy groups cried foul, noting that a trial may not conclude until two to four years after an assault — and that would mean the alleged assailant would remain on campus that entire time with the reporting victim.
You should ignore rankings of ‘colleges with the most rape reports.’
Under the Clery Act, colleges must accurately track and disclose the number of crimes reported on campus, including sex offenses. Every now and then, a news outlet publishes a misleading ranking of colleges with the most rape reports, using statistics included in Clery data.
A school ranking high doesn’t mean it has the most assaults or crime on campus. Experts would tell you it’s usually a good sign when the number of reports goes up, because it may signal that victims feel more comfortable coming forward and the school isn’t underreporting.
Advocates, researchers and lawmakers are pushing colleges to do more campus climate surveys to get a more accurate picture of how prevalent sexual assault is on campus. The anonymous surveys can indicate the percentage of students who have experienced sexual violence, which can be compared against Clery statistics to analyze how many incidents went unreported.
Thankfully, a lot of people working on stopping the cycle of sexual violence among young people in the U.S.
There isn’t a college in the country that isn’t aware of the attention on sexual assault these days, and that’s why many are launching bystander intervention programs to teach people how to intervene and stop assaults from happening. More colleges are adopting affirmative consent standards to demonstrate that a person hasn’t necessarily consented to sexual activity just because they haven’t shrieked “no.” And activists show no sign of ending their efforts to call out colleges that mishandle sexual assault cases.
But there’s clearly still room for improvement.
Many experts and activists agree that it’s necessary to implement consent education in high schools in order to actually start reducing the number of sexual assaults among young people. But even then it could be too late, because the Centers for Disease Control says 10.5 percent of girls experience forced intercourse by the time they finish high school.
Bipartisan legislation introduced in Congress last year would reform how colleges deal with cases, prevent athletic coaches from shielding star players accused of assaults, and increase the power of the Education Department to sanction schools that do violate rape victims’ rights. But that bill has yet to come up for a vote, despite senators’ efforts to demand one in 2016.
Lydia O’Connor is a general assignment reporter, based in San Francisco. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter covering higher education and sexual violence, based in New York. You can contact him at email@example.com.