When activists at Dartmouth University disrupted an event for prospective students in April, they said they wanted to pressure their university to take racism, sexism, and sexual assault more seriously — and they wanted their administrators to start punishing serial rapists. After the university administration cracked down on the protesters, one of the participants told ThinkProgress, “The fact is that Dartmouth is punishing protesters who are very visible, but won’t punish students who commit assaults.”
Although the campus protesters received some serious backlash from some of their peers — including rape and death threats — for pointing out some of the shortcomings in their university’s sexual assault policy, their statements weren’t hyperbolic. Some of the participants in the protest were survivors of sexual assault, and some of their assailants haven’t faced adequate punishment. According to sexual assault prevention experts, those rapists are very likely to go on to commit crimes against other students on campus.
The U.S. Department of Justice has found that about one in four women experience sexual assault during their time in college. And, according to David Lisak — a former clinical psychologist who now consults the U.S. military and college administrations on issues of sexual assault — those sexual crimes are perpetrated by a relatively small number of men. Lisak says that most college rapists are repeat offenders.
“College presidents don’t like to hear this, but these are sex offenders,” Lisak explained during a recent rape prevention event at Harvard University. “Every report should be viewed and treated as an opportunity to identify a serial rapist.”
That claim is backed up by Lisak’s research. When Lisak surveyed 1,882 college men about their nonconsensual sexual experiences, 120 participants said that they had either sexually assaulted or attempted to sexually assault a fellow student. Those men admitted to 483 assaults in total — which averages out to be about four assaults each.
But colleges across the country still aren’t doing a good job of identifying and punishing those serial rapists. Survivors of sexual assault often have to navigate a complicated judicial system that dissuades them from reporting their assailants, suggests they may be at fault for the crimes perpetrated against them, and sometimes even threatens to punish them for speaking out. An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that even when students are found to be guilty of sexual assault, they tend to face extremely light punishment — like social probation and academic penalties — instead of being suspended or expelled. A recent national survey conducted by the group Students Active For Ending Rape asked college students to grade their school’s sexual assault policies, and half of the respondents gave them a C or lower. A mere 9.8 percent of students gave their university an A for handling rape cases well.
Students at prestigious universities like Swarthmore, Yale, Amherst, and Princeton allege their campuses are creating a “hostile environment” by failing to adequately address sexual assault cases — largely because administrators would rather “keep up appearances” than bring negative attention to their school by making national headlines for arresting rapists. That reality has sparked a national movement to push administrators to do better in this area, as students have filed a wave of federal complaints with the U.S. Department of Education.