Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, has recently come under fire by its students regarding its “underreporting [of] sexual violence on campus” and its discouragement of victims from reporting their assaults. These disgruntled students not only brought up the issue with the leading bodies of the school, but also publicized it through a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, claiming the school violated the Clery Act and that it attempted to intimidate the students attempting to bring light to this issue.
One of the leaders of this student group, Mia Ferguson, is an old friend of mine from middle school; I heard of her personal experience and her fight with Swarthmore through Facebook. At first, it shocked me that someone I knew was not only a rape-survivor, but was brave enough to confront the issue publicly. While she is not the only person I know who has suffered from sexual assault, she is the first person I know that has taken action against her perpetrator.
Through this course, I have learned more about the atrocities of rape and its overwhelming prevalence in society than I had formerly realized. According to Winerip’s article ‘Stepping Up to Stop Sexual Assault,’ one out of every five women in college has been the victim of sexual assault. Currently, I can think of four friends who have opened up to me about experiencing this form of violence either in college or in high school – while this already seems to be far too many, the implications of such statistics mean far more people I know have been impacted but have kept quiet. For example, my sorority has about 150 members. If this statistic is true, that means that 30 of my sisters have been or will be victims of sexual assault before they graduate. In terms of Emory, we have roughly 5,000 undergraduates, almost 60% of which is female. Of the female population of roughly 3,000, according to these statistics, about 600 will be victims of sexual assault. Considering that, according to Winerip, 3% percent of college men constitute 90-95% of assaults, how many of these girls will have been victimized by the same men?
While many victims of assault remain silent due to shame or fear of social stigma, many of those who do still do not have access to the healthcare and justice outlets they need to support a prosecution against their attackers. If just one of these girls was successful in seeking justice against her perpetrator, odds are she would have removed one of the men accounting for the small percentage of serial rapists that account for the overwhelming majority of campus rapes. The rate of success in persecuting these rapists on college campuses, though, is overwhelming low. Schools do not want to sully their name or be publicized as harboring rapists, and so they tend to try and deal with these issues through student conduct boards, which keeps the issue internal, rather than drawing in the police and other formal justice systems. Unfortunately, many of these student conduct boards are not equipped to deal with these issues, and the situation boils down to a “he said-she said” where there is no way to know enough to punish someone.
Even if, somehow, a victim had the evidence to persecute her rapist, there are many other forms of mistreatment she may go through in a college setting to amplify the damage her rape has caused. Mia Ferguson, the Swarthmore student fighting against her school’s unjust treatment of rape cases, struggled with the administration after bringing her case against the school. In her formerly elected position of Resident Advisor for her sophomore year, she struggled with fair treatment yet again. The administration attempted to pressure her into sharing information about a rape of a third party, which she learned about before she began performing her duties as an RA. The school removed her from the position, stating, “she’s considered by law a responsible employee of the college.” Ferguson, though, viewed her removal as “an issue of retaliation” caused by her legal action against the school. The fact that she even had to consider the possibility of the school wanting to retaliate against her because of her attempts to seek justice and fairness – not only for her but for every student at Swarthmore– is absurd.
This story is just one example of the perpetual injustices that college campuses, and perhaps even society, create regarding sexual assault crimes. It is undeniable that the system must be changed; a victim of assault should not be forced into silence because of additional obstacles in their search for justice against their perpetrator. As Winerip claims, ‘bystander training’ and other actions must be taken by campuses to take a more proactive role in this dilemma. While federal laws are beginning to demand more transparency in reporting these attacks, college campuses must find a way to provide more support to their students victimized by rapists. Instead, though, many victims feel further demeaned and attacked by the treatment they receive through seeking justice because of the menial punishments given (if any) and because of the way the campus and others may perceive them for being strong enough to fight for their rights.