Two years ago, a young woman at University of Virginia (UVA) survived a premeditated gang rape by seven male students at a fraternity house. Some of her perpetrators have since graduated, without being disciplined or prosecuted. That’s according to an article published in Rolling Stone magazine earlier this week.*
As a medical doctor, I work on sexual violence in conflict zones in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For more than a decade, I have worked with survivors of trauma including sexual violence in the United States and abroad. In Kenya and Congo, my colleagues and I teach healthcare, law enforcement, and legal professionals how to collect, document, and assess forensic evidence of sexual violence – all toward securing justice for survivors and ending impunity for sexual violence. Through the Physicians for Human Rights Program on Sexual Violence, we also advocate for governments and other institutions to take responsibility through enhanced investigations and enforcement of existing laws.
Unfortunately the UVA administration’s response to sexual assault hasn’t been very different from that of Columbia University, University of Wisconsin, University of Tennessee, or my alma mater the University of Southern California. And the list goes on…
In other words, we have a national and global epidemic. (Just look at the map.) Today, at least one in five young women are sexually assaulted while in college in the United States. Unfortunately, this is an epidemic that is decades old and we are nowhere near a cure.
I mean, how many stories do we need to tell or hear?
Though sexual violence in conflict zones has been getting much more needed attention over the past few years, few rapes are prosecuted in developing countries like Kenya and Congo, where I work, or even in industrialized nations like the United States – particularly if the rapes are committed on college campuses. Less than five percent of rapes or attempted rapes against college women are reported to law enforcement, although the number of women who report rape on college campuses appears to be increasing.
This has gone on too long. There needs to be much more action – particularly in the form of prosecution, accountability, and prevention.
We can’t leave it up to traumatized survivors to bear the weight of holding perpetrators accountable. We need real leadership from administrators, educators, parents, and the rest of us. We are all responsible for creating a culture in which sexual violence is not tolerated.
If higher education administrators cannot respect the rule of law, they should be penalized. If colleges and universities cannot hold perpetrators accountable and help victims achieve justice, federal and state funds should be withheld.
Since the Rolling Stone article was published, UVA President Teresa Sullivan has suspended activities at all campus fraternal organizations until January 9 and launched a review of the university’s policies and procedures concerning sexual assaults.
The Obama Administration has also taken a good first step. In September of this year, the White House launched “It’s On Us,” a campaign aimed at tackling sexual violence on college campuses. Eighty-six schools are under federal investigation.
Though rape is a local law enforcement issue, the federal government becomes involved when sexual violence occurs on college campuses, in part because of a law referred to as Title IX, which requires colleges and universities to provide equal educational opportunities for men and women – opportunities that can become limited when women are subjected to sexual harassment or assault.
So, what else can be done?
On Thursday, the medical journal Lancet published a series of articles on violence against women and girls. Despite shortcomings in the evidence that is available, it looks like engaging multiple stakeholders, promoting gender equity, and intolerance of violence are key. Interestingly, studies in industrialized countries are limited. Much of the evidence comes from low and middle-income countries, which we could learn a lot from.
We also need to teach our kids at a young age about concepts like consent – what consent is, why it matters, who can give it, and when individuals can’t give consent.
In a commentary included in the Lancet special issue, President Jimmy Carter noted in his article, “Patriarchy and Violence against Women and Girls,” that our expectation and acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems is indeed part of the problem. President Carter cites our desensitization to violence, including the vicious treatment of women in video games and other forms of media. There is a lot of evidence to support Carter’s view. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman and psychologist Gloria DeGaetano make a similar point in their book Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill.
Carter makes the following point:
“Patriarchy is not new. It is a system created and maintained by men of faith and politics who hold the levers of economic, cultural, and political power and who confuse strength and masculinity with domination and brutality. Patriarchy must be replaced by a system in which equal human rights and non-violence are promoted and accepted.”
In some ways, there are reasons to feel encouraged. From the United States to Kenya, girls, boys, women, and men are carrying a message that is intolerant of sexual violence – whether it’s by carrying a mattress around campus or launching a miniskirt march.
Fortunately, many men are supporting these efforts. But we need more women and men to speak up. We also need good role models for boys so they can become real good men – boys and men who know the independent value of girls and women, and who know the power of the word “yes” as much as they know the reality of the word “no.”
After all, that’s a real man.
*After writing this post, the original article in Rolling Stone was widely criticized for journalistic failure, and its potential adverse implications for survivors. Columbia Journalism Review was asked to do an audit of the Rolling Stone article. Their findings can be found here: https://www.cjr.org/investigation/rolling_stone_investigation.php.