Opinion: Focus on preventing, not debating, college sexual assaults

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A much-needed conversation about how to prevent sexual assault on college campuses is being hijacked. Social media are being manipulated into debating about whether the numbers in recent studies are right. Whether the studies are accurate. Whether this is really about a liberal agenda.
For crying out loud—stop it.

Whether it’s 1 in 4, 1 in 5 or 1 in 100, it’s too many sexual assaults. That is one too many times that a woman—a young and usually inexperienced woman—has been kissed, touched, fondled or raped.

It is one too many times that a man, also most often young and inexperienced, has perceived a woman as willing, available and able to satisfy his sexual urges. It is one too many times that a man took advantage of a woman no matter the message she was giving him.
Knock it off. It’s about misused power. It’s about a crime.

This is part of the same thinking, or lack thereof, that accompanies men telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies, their health care, their ambition and their dreams. Denying women full pay (78 cents for every $1 a man makes), family and early child care benefits and adequate maternity leave, makes it tough to crawl out of the sub-basement of despair that goes along with being a second-class citizen.

Feminists have fought this battle for centuries. Some historians credit Plato with being the first feminist, pointing to his arguments around 394 B.C. for political, social, sexual and educational equality for women. Plato was one of the first to say gender differences could not be explained by biology and that a system of child care would free women to participate in society.

Twenty-four centuries later, these issues are still roiling our nation.

The latest study that is being picked apart was released Monday by the Association of American Universities. The AAU commissioned the largest survey of its kind, with responses last spring from 150,000 students at 27 colleges and universities.

The survey’s findings, similar to those from previous studies, showed that more than 1 in 4 women experience sexual assault during four years of college. The responses showed that over the span of their college careers, 27.2 percent of women had been the victims of unwanted sexual contact, anything from touching to rape.

The assaults usually occurred by force, or when the women were incapacitated, either from alcohol or drugs. Nearly half the women reported they had experienced penetration, attempted penetration or oral sex.

This is about the point where victim blaming comes in. The women shouldn’t have passed out. They should have known better than to go to a frat party (or any party, bar, place where men and women congregate), and gotten drunk or stoned. They should not have worn short skirts or skimpy tops. They should not have been provocative, flirtatious, friendly.

Are men told they shouldn’t do this, that or the other? Of course not. They are told (one hopes) not to sexually assault women. But when they do, the consequences are all-too-often not severe enough to prevent them from doing it again, or to serve as a warning to other men.

Women are reluctant to report episodes of sexual assault, the studies have found. They fear they will not be taken seriously, are ashamed of what happened, or are not certain the episodes were serious enough to warrant reporting. These women have internalized the blame-the-victim message and worry that they caused the assault or will be shunned by their tight-knit college communities if they get the boys in trouble.

Colleges are taking steps to change their cultures. Many have counselors in place to help women understand what happened, what their rights are and to encourage them to report assaults. More needs to be done. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., are among a bipartisan group that is pushing Congress to force colleges to improve the way they handle sexual assaults, including hitting schools that don’t follow federal laws with large fines.

Let’s stop debating the surveys and the numbers, stop questioning the agenda for protecting women from unwanted sexual contact. It’s simple: Any unwanted contact is an assault.