Back – To – School Special: Campus Sexual Assault

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Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University, decided to enter her second to last semester with a very personal performance art project. Sulkowicz designed the project, entitled Mattress Performance, after the student who sexually assaulted her in her dorm room was allowed to continue attending Columbia. As Sulkowicz explains,

I will be carrying this dorm room mattress with me everywhere I go, for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist.

Though her performance piece is certainly unique, her experience is not. In 2006, Margaux J. was allegedly assaulted in her dorm room at Indiana University. After reporting the incident to her university, her assailant was found guilty and suspended – for one semester in the summer. Speaking later about the decision, Margaux said,

In my opinion … IU not only harbors rapists, but also completely disregards, ignores, and fails women.

As the Center for Public Integrity writes, there is a significant and unacceptable “lack of consequences” for sexual assaults that occur on college campuses. Because of this, CPI found:

    …students deemed “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequence for their acts. Yet their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down. For them, the trauma of assault can be compounded by a lack of institutional support, and even disciplinary action. Many times, victims drop out of school, while their alleged attackers graduate.

While at college, one in five women will be the target of an attempted sexual assault, and the risk of sexual assault increases four times for women while they are attending school. This is a national issue, but it is also one that is increasingly hard for Texas campuses to ignore.

Two central Texas schools, St. Edward’s University and the University of Texas at Austin, have recently been home to reports of sexual assault. When covering the sexual assault case at UT, the Austin American Statesman found that a sexual assault occurring on campus greatly reduces the likelihood that law enforcement will be involved. The Statesman reports:

Officers have responded to reports of just 19 sexual assaults on six Central Texas campuses — which have a total of more than 101,000 students — since 2010.

Even more alarming, the Statesman found, only four of those 19 cases resulted in arrests. From 2010 to 2012, police were brought in on less than one fourth of the sexual assault cases reported to the college. Combined with the fact that sexual assault is one of the most chronically underreported crimes (a trend reflected on college campuses), the climate on our campuses seems frighteningly dire.

Colleges in Central Texas and across the country have developed programs to try to address these issues. At UT, Voices Against Violence seeks to educate the student population about consent and sexual assault. Now a presence at orientation, VAV attempts to address the problem of sexual assault at UT head on. They also offer trainings, counseling, advocacy, and educational events for students on campus. Their BeVocal Campaign encourages students to intervene should they find themselves bystanders “to prevent harm as well as create a culture of caring for each other’s well-being.”

Sulkowicz’ performance piece has also ignited a conversation around campus sexual assault, first on her own campus at Columbia, and now around the world. Federal laws have attempted to address the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, most recently through the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act of 2013, or the Campus SAVE Act. This amended the Clery act of 1990 to mandate that “most higher education institutions—including community colleges and vocational schools—must educate students, faculty, and staff on the prevention of rape, acquaintance rape, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.” Through continued support of legislation such as this, one day colleges could be safe spaces for all.

The first deadline for reporting under the Campus SAVE Act is on October 1st.

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About Author

Genevieve Cato

Genevieve Cato is a feminist activist and a native Texan. While not writing for the Burnt Orange Report, she can be found working for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, serving as a community member of the Communications Committee for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, and drinking copious amounts of pretentious local craft beers.

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