When “the authorities” fail you, campus rapists go free

By Caitlin Kelly


Colleges look so serious and authoritative. They can fail you in life-altering ways
Colleges look so serious and authoritative. They can fail you in life-altering ways

Powerful story  about one female student’s attempt to get justice at a pair of upstate New York colleges, Hobart and William Smith, after being raped, from the front page of The New York Times:

Later, records show, a sexual-assault nurse offered this preliminary assessment: blunt force trauma within the last 24 hours indicating “intercourse with either multiple partners, multiple times or that the intercourse was very forceful.” The student said she could not recall the pool table encounter, but did remember being raped earlier in a fraternity-house bedroom.

The football player at the pool table had also been at the fraternity house — in both places with his pants down — but denied raping her, saying he was too tired after a football game to get an erection. Two other players, also accused of sexually assaulting the woman, denied the charge as well. Even so, tests later found sperm or semen in her vagina, in her rectum and on her underwear.

It took the college just 12 days to investigate the rape report, hold a hearing and clear the football players. The football team went on to finish undefeated in its conference, while the woman was left, she said, to face the consequences — threats and harassment for accusing members of the most popular sports team on campus.

Things to consider:

– this student’s naievete, about fraternity behavior, getting drunk, trusting her own judgment to get the hell out when she began (as she did) to feel scared

— the boys’ crime, shrugged off by the college and D.A.

— the school’s inept approach to adjudicating serious crime

— larger questions about how much a college is “in loco parentis”, responsible for students’ behavior

— the extremely un-PC point that women should keep their damn wits about them if they’re going to hang out with a bunch of men anywhere in the world they do not know well. Even those they think they do know well. Getting so drunk you cannot remember your actions is pure insanity, as is trusting everyone else around you to take responsibility for your sobriety and sexuality. If you would no sooner stand in the middle of  a six-lane highway and just kinda hope people would — you know — swerve around you, why endanger yourself by drinking to mindless oblivion?

I went to a few fraternity parties when I was a student at the University of Toronto. They were always crowded and noisy, filled with young men I didn’t know in another circumstances. The preppy crowd was really never a great fit for me.

Luckily, I was never assaulted.

But nor did I ever attend them, or while there choose to become, blind drunk.

I never want to be out of control to that degree, anywhere, ever.

Later in my life, I made the disastrous error in judgment of dating a con man, a man who had been convicted of that crime in another state. My interactions with my local police and district attorney were appalling, eye-opening and life-changing.

The authorities, in whom I’d placed my middle-class tax-paying home-owning trust —  simply didn’t give a shit.

I have never looked at “the authorities” with the same naive respect since then, and that was 16 years ago.

This stupid school also later had male students walk around campus in high heels — for fucks’ sake — to show their empathy and solidarity with female vulnerability.

Better they should have borrowed a vagina and gone to a party full of entitled jocks.

And here is just one of 1,700+ (!) comments on the story, from a reader in L.A. (This might be the most comments I’ve ever seen on a NYT story.)

How many more stories of hallowed institutions misusing their authority to protect athlete rapists and either silence and/or denigrate rape victims must we hear about before victims just automatically eschew campus governance entirely and go directly to law enforcement? When will matriculating students and their parents confront head on that basketball and football are not the only long standing team sports woven deep into the cultural fabric of their chosen college? I am so tired of hearing about rape and rapist protection culture built in to religious and academic institutions. I would tell any entering freshman who experiences sexual assault to rush themselves to the hospital for a comprehensive rape examination and then go straight to the police. Only then would I report the incident to the school.

 What — if anything — can or should colleges and universities be doing better to stop campus rape?

What — if anything — should young men and women be taught (or punished for not knowing/acting on) about how to conduct themselves in situations like this one?

20 thoughts on “When “the authorities” fail you, campus rapists go free

  1. I don’t think my suggestions will be enacted anytime soon, because that would require the teamwork and commitment of many different institutions, and I’m very cynical about that sort of change occurring. However, I’d firstly recommend that rape cases, like murder or some robbery cases, be taken out of the hands of campus police and into the hands of city police, particularly units designed to combat sexual assault and rapists, as well as DAs who fight these sort of cases regularly and who are trained not to be motivated by win records but by justice. If that can’t be done, college tribunals should be set up with both law enforcement, lawyers, and college officials participating, based on an actual courtroom with evidence and testimony used.

    Second, I think we need to start teaching in sex ed the idea of consent and what is defined as such and what is defined as rape, as well as advising what to do to avoid rape, what to do should one encounter sexual harassment and assault, and what one should do afterwards. There should also be lessons on the consequences of sexual assault, both for the victims and rapists. Not just legally, but physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and in other ways. This should be taught when teens learn about sex, as they are just forming their opinions on the subject and are more easily influenced at that stage than when they are in college and already have an idea of what sex is, consent or no consent, and for both boys and girls.

    And finally, it should be made part of college orientations to teach about sexual assault and its consequences, going in-depth on the subject. It might do some good.

    Still, there’s a huge logistical problem. Unlike the Catholic Church, colleges are separate institutions from one another. You need to target each campus’s culture of rape as well as its procedures and go about changing them differently. And even then, there’s a lot of work to be done!

    1. Thanks for this. I know that some schools do some of what you suggest — but your point is a very good one…it’s very individual. It’s also been suggested that schools do away entirely with the fraternity system, as such abuses seem to happen within frat houses with some regularity.

      I am appalled that some young men who have the $ and privilege to even attend college have no morals and that some young women are scared to run or throw a well-placed punch when needed.

      You do not (??!) mention the need to explain that if you are shit-faced drunk, you are utterly unable to defend yourself. i.e. do not get shit-faced drunk — and leave yourself open to predators. That seems sadly prevalent as well.

      1. I forgot that one! Thanks for reminding me.

        Also, funnily enough, that photo at the top of the article is University Hall at Ohio State. As much as I hate to admit it, OSU is one of 55 schools being investigated for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases, so the photo is sadly rather appropriate to use.

        Honestly, if schools got it through their heads that they look better dealing actively with the problem of sexual assault rather than acting like they have to cover it up, they and the school would look much better.

      2. I wondered what it was — there was no ID on the image I found. I just knew it was not my alma mater, U of Toronto.

        Some schools are more interested in $$$$ and branding than anything.

  2. this is deplorable and sends a strong message in many directions. to blame the victim is an age-old approach to not dealing with the uncomfortable job of punishing the perpetrator, who is generally someone who holds more ‘power’ in a situation or society.

    1. I agree.

      But I hold young women — and their parents — responsible for not making clear that being so drunk you cannot remember your actions or whereabouts is simply profoundly stupid behavior. If you are sane and sober, you are not (as) vulnerable. Women have responsibility as well, no?

      1. yes, each of us is responsible for making good choices and being aware, that is absolutely true and each of us is also responsible for not taking advantage of situations where someone has done otherwise –

  3. themodernidiot

    Lights and security would help. Giving a fuck would help.

    University of Iowa has a sizeable rape problem, but the city is more worried about policing underage drinking downtown than helping students walk home from the library.

    And fat chance getting a Hawkeye athlete convicted of rape.

  4. I read the New York Times article and felt heavy all day. As women, we can all relate. The humiliation and lack of concern really made me think about Academia in general, the smugness always sickened me.

  5. Reading this brought back disturbing memories from my freshman college year, when, while attending a private women’s college, one of my senior classmates and friends was the victim of a sexual abuse/invasion of privacy ordeal at the nearby ivy league co-ed school–but in this case, it was her (long-term) BOYFRIEND who was responsible. What he had done was hide a camera to record their sexual activity and then widely distributed copies. Yes, with sound. She wasn’t aware for weeks on end that this breach of her privacy had even occurred (by her bf, nonetheless) and was all the while still visiting him at his frat house– and was frequently also socially interacting with his frat mates who had been made privy to her private sexual life through that video. I remember her going through the terrible upset and mind-boggling lack of assistance from his college’s council. They definitely wanted the university to save face and ended up protecting the male student, rather than respond to his actions in a manner that suggested that his actions were deplorable–AND ILLEGAL. She was so mortified and became so terribly depressed. Such betrayal. Luckily she was almost finished with college by then and was able to graduate, in spite of her seriously compromised mental stability during that last semester.
    Later I would find myself at just a couple of that university’s (other) frat parties and wonder still what in the hell any woman would ever find appealing about that environment. It was, to be sure, a place intended to get underage and naive girls drunk on cheap beer and then get them back to their dorms for (I’m sure horrible, if even consensual) sex. I can still see the throngs of girls stumbling through the house with the red plastic cups spilling all over…. Just so damn lame. So yes, I do think that part of the solution lies in educating the female students during orientation. And, of course, at home before they ever go off to college in the first place.

    1. What a nightmare. I wish she had brought charges against him through the police — this notion of campus “judicial systems” is such face-saving bullshit.

      I agree that combining insecurity, ego, alcohol and sexual inexperience/desire is unwise. It’s bad enough on a private date (which apparently younger women no longer even recognize as such!?) but having any risk of such betrayal and exposure is sick shit. I wish women would smarten up about being a lot less eager for male attention — and being willing to flatten any asshole who messes with her, to the full extent of the law.

      But I also remember how heady it was for me at that age, too. 🙂

  6. Campus judicial systems are face saving bullshit. I attended a private college in Ohio, and actively worked to dismantle the system on my campus and subject our fraternities to the same laws that govern everyone else. And failed miserably. In ohio at least, private institutions enjoyed legal protection under ohio law; that so long as the campus had a review process, the campus system could act in place of the local law. In Loco Parentis rules went out with 18 year olds joining legal adulthood with voting rights, but the campus judicial system did not evolve with them, Now, this is why private schools can underreport violence data to say, US News and World Report’s college rankings. In this way colleges have more in common with Catholic institutional under-the-rug sweeping than you think. As for public universities protecting rapist star at athletes (Iowa, Ohio State)’ if only the NCAA would crack down on sex crime as much as they do say, student-athlete’s receiving gifts or endorsements, well maybe we’d see progress. Don’t count on it. Sad post here today.

    1. Thanks for sharing that perspective…And good for you for even trying!

      I attended college in Canada, and — maybe a different era — do not recall instances like this. There is none of the $$$$ adulation of student athletics, the Greek system exists but is not revered and binge drinking (Canadians can legally drink at 18) was not something I saw or was ever aware of. So I am grateful to have been personally spared this shit. I just studied, made friends, had some fun and got my degree; U of T is the Harvard of Canada so if you get in (and it is not expensive, just demanding) you really have little desire to screw up.

      If I were a parent about to shell out $$$$$$$$$ for my child’s education, I would grill the school and be extremely insistent on getting answers. I overheard a young couple this week discussing his college and all he talked about was the quality of the food. I found it bizarre.

  7. A family member of mine was raped in college, not at a fraternity party, not by an athlete, not while she was drunk. It happened in a dorm room and involved several “regular guys” who were friends of her boyfriend, who was in the room when it happened and apparently could do nothing because they were his friends. A male R.A. stopped the assault and took her to student health services which was the last place on campus that acknowledged something had happened to her. There was no support from the college or local law enforcement. We can teach our own children to be careful and be responsible for their actions and not put themselves in situations where this can occur. But we can’t teach someone else’s kid to do the same and to hope that they were raised by the same standards is just as foolhardy as an institution of higher learning pretending that these assaults don’t matter.

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