Get serious about tackling sexual assault on campus

In the wake of horrendous cases of sexual abuse and harassment, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have shone a spotlight on how activism can work in the public arena. Clearly social media have been incredibly helpful to this international agenda of publicly recognising sexual assaults. And yet all that has been accomplished so far has been some public vilification and shaming. As yet there have been few legislative or policy shifts.

Many international feminist activists on campus have been attempting to move this agenda forward for some time and some have been influential in the recent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Take, for example, the case of the rape on Stanford University’s campus in 2015. This became a major cause celebre through social media.

Brock Turner, the assailant convicted on three counts of the felony of sexual assault, was sentenced to only six months in jail. In March 2016, Judge Aaron Persky argued that this was on the grounds that he was a swimmer for Stanford and had a glittering career ahead of him.

He served only three months in jail because of good behaviour, although he has to register as a sexual offender for the rest of his life. Turner is appealing the case, saying that sexual assault is not a crime. He admits assaulting the woman, but says that it was in the open and public.

Whilst many women and feminists supported the rape victim, the Stanford authorities did not intervene on her behalf. She wrote a most powerful and moving letter to her attacker with singularly little effect.

This issue prefigured the #MeToo movement on social media. Judge Persky illustrates the long held socio-cultural view that men’s lives and careers are clearly more important than women’s.

A leading female Stanford law professor led the campaign to ‘recall Persky’ on the grounds of his sexist views and the fact that he gave unduly lenient sentences to campus athletes. She also argued that Californian judges were elected and therefore subject to democratic processes.

She was threatened anonymously with the same offence that had been committed against the original victim – named with the usual pseudonym as ‘Emily Doe’.

The professor was also later threatened with an illegal white substance. The Stanford authorities therefore intervened about this latter issue and some have claimed that there is an ongoing FBI enquiry, but it is not certain.

Unfortunately, there is contestation on campus among law professors as to how to deal with sexist [and racist] judges, with more conservative law professors arguing that the removal of Persky as a judge would do more to harm the prospect of fair trials for black and other minority ethnic groups to appease voters.

Addressing power imbalances

Clearly, these questions of how to deal with campus sexual assaults and how to transform the views and values of very traditional sexist white men in powerful positions in universities are more intractable than it seems at first sight.

Yet another recent example from the United States is the contentious case of the rape of a Columbia University student in New York City. Emma Sulkowicz accused a fellow student, Paul Nungesser, of raping her in her dorm in 2012. However, the Columbia authorities did not uphold her case.

Nevertheless, seeing this as an injustice, as a performing arts student, she carried the mattress, for the next year, with her whenever she was on campus. She even attended her graduation ceremony in May 2015 with her 50-pound mattress and shook the president of Columbia University’s hand with it. This too became a major cause celebre.

A month before Nungesser and Sulkowicz received their degrees, he sued Columbia, accusing it of supporting what he called an “outrageous display of harassment and defamation” by giving Sulkowicz academic credit for her project.

It took Columbia two years to consider the case, but in the event they settled with Nungesser, admitting that he had a difficult time at university after the case was heard. They did not disclose the settlement on the alleged assault.

Columbia promised to review its sexual misconduct procedures, but has yet to do so. There is contestation here about how Columbia handled both students and how they acquiesced in settling with Nungesser.

In the meantime, following on from former US president Barack Obama’s famous initiative to address campus sexual assaults in January 2014, President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos met with victims of sexual assault as well as families of both accused and victims in the summer of 2017.

Given the cutbacks in educational funding, there is a fear that this may lead to cutbacks in student activism and campaigns to end violence against women and ending sexual assaults on campus.

There have been similar campaigns in the United Kingdom and a recent study has suggested the scale of the problem, although the UK government has not addressed sexual violence on campus.

Many universities do run training programmes for freshers on sexual consent. Again, these are subject to contestation, with many arguing that the question of sexual consent and assaults should have been addressed within primary and secondary schools’ sex and relationships education. For example, there are several projects around feminism in schools, which is now having some traction in British secondary schools.

Unfinished business

Feminist activist academics have long raised questions of how to address sexism and sexual assaults, whether on campus or more generally in society.

Where they have succeeded is in having feminist knowledge and women’s studies on the academic agendas of most universities. Where they have yet to succeed is in transforming the procedures and practices of universities in handling sexual assault and harassment cases.

The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements build upon the work of feminist activists and are very welcome developments. But they are yet to make university campuses more inclusive and welcome spaces for all women [regardless of class or creed] as students or academics and black or minority ethnic groups, too. There remains much to be done.

Miriam E David is professor emerita of the sociology of education at University College London’s Institute of Education. This article is based upon a chapter in her book Reclaiming Feminism: Challenging everyday misogyny.