As Campuses Reopen, So Does Debate on Campus Sexual Assault

As Campuses Reopen, So Does Debate on Campus Sexual Assault
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on July 29, 2021

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Reviewed by Angelique Geehan



Students are slated to return to college campuses in droves this fall, eager to once again take part in campus life. The revival of campus life has a dark side — the return of high rates of sexual assault.

Campus life was held in check last year by colleges' strict COVID-19 rules, which threatened students who gathered in groups with suspension or even expulsion. The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention entirely lifts requirements for social distancing and masks from "fully vaccinated campuses." This fall, full-scale frat parties may be back on the calendar.

First- and second-year college students face the highest risk of sexual assault during the first few months of school (August to November).

After more than a year without socializing, the potential for high-risk situations may go up. A surplus of alcohol mixed with lack of real-world experience are big factors in sexual misconduct on campus. First- and second-year college students face the highest risk of sexual assault during the first few months of school (August to November).

With colleges shuttered, the Title IX rules that govern how colleges deal with sexual assault have been debated by policymakers more than put into practice. The rules are up for their third rewrite in 10 years. The mass return to in-person learning brings fresh relevance to the persistent debate.

Sexual Assault Rules Reassessed

Under Presidents Obama, Trump, and now Biden, the Department of Education has undertaken dramatic overhauls to the guidance on how schools receiving federal money must respond to student allegations of sexual assault.

The Obama administration transformed colleges' treatment of sexual assault claims in 2011. An unofficial letter urged schools to bring timely justice to victims, establishing a 60-day investigation window. The guidance also lowered the standard of proof from "clear and convincing evidence" to a "preponderance of evidence," meaning a 50.1% chance that the assault occurred. The guidelines also disallowed mediation between the involved parties.

The Obama-era directives on campus sexual assault opened a floodgate of claims. Activists celebrated the softer rules, saying the shift empowered victims. However, a string of successful lawsuits brought by accused students against their colleges suggested to courts that Title IX was failing to safeguard all students' access to education.

The Trump administration rolled back the unofficial guidance, replacing the lower standard of proof with criminal court standards that carry the force of law.

The Trump administration rolled back the unofficial guidance, replacing the lower standard of proof with criminal court standards that carry the force of law. According to current rules, colleges must take all the time needed for due process. Where mediation was once prohibited, claimants and defendants must appear for live cross-examination.

Victims' rights activists warn that greater demands placed on vulnerable students — to file an official Title IX claim, encounter the accused face-to-face, and meet the higher bar for proof — effectively ensures their silence.

Biden swore to reverse the Trump-era rules if elected. After taking office, he ordered the Department of Education to evaluate the rules with an eye to revise. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona kicked off a period of public comment, asking educators, activists, and students to weigh in on the law.

Some commentators say that despite popular pushback, a complete reversal of standing Title IX sexaul assault rules, which took three years to pass into law, is unlikely.

Punishment Falls Heavily on Black Male Students

Black Americans are underrepresented on college campuses, but may be overrepresented among students suspended or expelled due to accusations of sexual assault. In the 2013-2014 school year, just over 4% of students at Colgate University were Black. Black male students were accused in 50% of the school's sexual assault claims that year.

Colleges do not typically include demographics in their sexual assault data reporting, but anecdotal cases point to a pervasive trend. Harvard law professor Janet Halley notes "case after Harvard case" of sexual assault involving Black male students — a sexually stigmatized minority group on campus.

Harvard law professor Janet Halley notes “case after Harvard case” of sexual assault involving Black male students — a sexually stigmatized minority group on campus.

The push to believe victims, argues Halley, "entails a decision to impose a serious moral stigma and life-altering penalties on men who may well be innocent." The same federal rules that seek to protect students' right to education, free of the impediments of sexual harassment, must also protect accused students, whose right to education may be jeopardized by false allegations.

On the other hand, Black undergraduate women may "face unique pressures to remain silent in the aftermath of sexual assault" when their attackers are Black men. According to a female victim who was attacked while a student at a historically Black college, "We can’t come forward because we want to protect Black men or protect our Black brothers because they’re already fighting against a system that further criminalizes them."

Campuses' Effect on Sexual Assault Risk

Sexual assault is a persistent issue on college campuses, but campuses are not inherently more dangerous for young women. All women ages 18-24 face elevated risk of sexual assault. But while young women enrolled in college are three times more likely than women on average to experience sexual assault, young women not in college are four times more likely. Compared to the world at large, campuses actually provide female students a marginally safer haven.

As a group, young women face the highest risk of sexual violence, accounting for nine out of every 10 victims of rape. Women are much more likely than men to experience sexual assault, yet being on campus slightly reduces women's risk of rape. Meanwhile, going to college vastly increases men's risk of rape.

Males ages 18-24 who are colleges students are approximately five times more likely than men of the same age not in college to be a victim of rape or sexual assault. For transgender students, going to college may also increase their risk. A 2011 study suggested that transgender individuals experience most sexual assault in school settings.

A survey by the Association of American Universities found that 19% of TGQN students (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming, questioning, or something not listed) had been victims of sexual assault or misconduct in the previous year, compared with 17% of female and 4.4% of male students.


Reviewed by: Angelique Geehan

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have to themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender-binary, nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.


Feature Image: Andy Sacks / The Image Bank / Getty Images

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