Could Mandatory Surveys Help Tackle The Campus Rape Problem?

CREDIT: New York City's National Organization for Women

rape culture

CREDIT: New York City’s National Organization for Women

Over the past year, a growing list of colleges have made headlines for creating a “hostile environment” on campus for victims of sexual assault. Many of those elite universities want to sweep sexual assault under the rug because being associated with rape isn’t exactly good for their reputations — so they end up breaking federal law and under-reporting the number of rapes that occur on campus. And even when university officials do correctly tally up the number of rape cases that happened on college grounds, that number doesn’t account for all of the incidences of sexual assault that go unreported.

How can campuses work to change that dynamic? Some college activists have a solution: Allow students to self-report sexual assaults.

Tucker Reed, a student at the University of Southern California who filed two federal complaints against her university after administrators mishandled her rape case, told the Huffington Post that colleges should conduct annual surveys among seniors. The online surveys would be mandatory for each graduating senior, and failing to complete one could jeopardize a student’s ability to receive his or her diploma.

“Every federally funded college or university should be required to conduct exit surveys of their departing seniors to determine how many were sexually assaulted during their four-year stay, and then these results should be published,” Reed explained. She noted that this type of survey could be written by the U.S. Department of Education, and might also cover other areas of crime outside of sexual violence. It would help universities assess which campus programs they need to strengthen to keep students safe.

There’s some precedent for what Reed is talking about. Some U.S. military service academies are already required to conduct this type of survey. The University of Montana will also now be required to start doing one, as part of the settlement the school reached with the U.S. Department of Justice following a federal investigation into its sexual assault policies. The U.S. government has indicated that it hopes to use the University of Montana’s settlement as a model for dealing with other colleges that are undergoing similar investigations, so the practice may soon be expanded. And some schools have voluntarily conducted their own campus surveys to determine students’ experiences with sexual assault.

Reed pointed out that allowing students to self-report sexual crimes, rather than relying on the data that universities are required to collect for the federal government, would put the control over the issue “directly into the hands of the students.” It could also paint a more accurate picture of the atmosphere on campus, because it would account for all the sexual assaults that weren’t formally reported.

Alexa Schwartz, another one of the students who joined the federal complaint against the University of Southern California, told the Huffington Post that more accurate statistics could force students and administrators to “wake up” to the issues of rape and sexual assault on their campuses. Schwartz explained that many people simply don’t believe sexual violence happens as frequently as it does, and a more comprehensive campus survey could help address that knowledge gap.

Recent surveys have found that the issue of sexual violence is often shrouded in silence and stigma. Even though the majority of Americans know someone who’s been a victim of domestic or sexual abuse, most of them haven’t actually addressed those topics with their friends. Efforts to make survivors feel more comfortable sharing their stories — and ensuring they aren’t simply blamed for the crimes that have been perpetrated against them — could go a long way toward getting the issue out in the open.

In addition to encouraging a more accurate portrayal of sexual violence, campus activists are also engaging in creative efforts to try to prevent rape from occurring in the first place. Sexual assault prevention advocates are attempting to raise awareness about consent and healthy relationships on their campuses — and last week, college students from across the country partnered to raise that conversation to a national level by pulling an elaborate prank on Playboy Magazine that focused on encouraging consensual sexual activity. Across the pond, some universities in the United Kingdom have codified their efforts to prevent rape culture into a formal policy, and recently banned Robin Thicke’s pop hit “Blurred Lines” for violating that policy by making light of nonconsensual sex.