Thanks To Student Activists, Pressure To End Rape Culture On College Campuses ‘Is Not Going Away’

Credit: New York City's National Organization for Women

Over the past year, a growing number of prestigious colleges have made national headlines over their administrations’ failure to effectively handle issues of sexual assault on campus. That’s not necessarily because rape culture on college campuses has recently gotten much worse than it used to be. More likely, it’s because a coordinated network of students activists are joining forces to fight for real change, perhaps partially spurred by the national conversation about sexual assault that followed the high-profile Steubenville rape case.

Much of that movement was sparked by one activist in particular: Andrea Pino, who filled a federal complaint against the University of North Carolina after feeling “let down by the people and policies that were supposed to protect her” when she was raped at an off-campus party.

But Pino knew the deeper issues of victim-blaming and rape culture were bigger that her university, and she didn’t want to stop at reforming UNC’s sexual assault policy. After she and some of her classmates took action against UNC, they joined forces with students on other campuses to help them file their own complaints. Pino and her classmate, Annie Clark, became somewhat of informal advisers for other college activists across the country who were interested in pushing back on their own administrations.

The UNC student explained that the real change started occurring once students began to connect the dots between campuses. “It was always an individual case. That’s what kept this from becoming a movement,” Pino told Inside Higher Ed. Before forming a network, it was easy for students to think about every on-campus rape, or every violation of university sexual assault policy, as an isolated incident. And many students didn’t feel comfortable coming forward with their stories because they assumed they wouldn’t have any support from their peers, and they would be accused of lying — one of the most common consequences of universities’ pervasive victim-blaming atmospheres.

But after campus activists joined together, they started gaining strength in numbers. Insider Higher Ed describes the recent momentum around sexual assault policy as “an unprecedented wave of student activism and federal complaints at campuses.”

And that increased activism has paid off. Thanks to the continued pressure that students are putting on their administrators, colleges are beginning to take small steps to reform their sexual assault policies. Some universities are agreeing to incorporate more resources about sexual health, domestic violence prevention, and consent into their campus communities. Others have formed task forces to overhaul their current judicial policies for handling rape cases among students.

Members of the higher education community suspect this is just the beginning, and anticipate another round of formal complaints as even more students get connected with the movement and become aware of their rights under federal law. “I think all of the attention that has been brought to this subject over the last two years has created much more awareness, and perhaps emboldened students who otherwise would have felt more isolated in coming forward,” Ada Meloy, the general counsel of the American Council on Education, explained. “I think there’s no question that this topic is one that is not going away.”