December 3, 2010
On the night of May 7, 2006, 19-year-old Dominican college freshman Megan Wright was raped by three men. The next morning, a friend took her to the hospital, where the nurse on duty said that she had rarely seen a victim as physically traumatized as Megan. Megan went to her Dean to report the assault, but was brushed aside. She dropped out of school to avoid seeing her assailants. Six months later, Megan Wright suffocated herself with a plastic bag.
Megan’s story is the kind of tragedy you’d hope would wake people up about universities’ inadequate responses to sexual assaults on their campuses; you’d hope it would be the kind of tragedy that would never happen again. But nothing changed, and it did happen again—this year, when Elizabeth Seeberg, a freshman at Notre Dame, was allegedly assaulted by a football player. She reported the attack the next day, and submitted to a physical exam and counseling. Yet nine days later, she was dead. Notre Dame, for their part, failed to hand over their file on the case to the police investigating Seeberg’s death until this week—months after the alleged assault occurred—and the accused player has remained on the team for every game this season.
While these tragic deaths have received plenty of media attention, they haven’t inspired an outpouring of admissions from celebrities that they, too, went through this, a la the “It Gets Better” campaign that followed the recent spate of suicides among gay teenagers. There are no heartfelt YouTube videos inspired by these deaths because no one really wants to talk about the reason these girls felt they had no choice but to end it all. There’s no “It Gets Better” for this, because it doesn’t. The pain a rape survivor feels may fade with time, but it doesn’t get better, and it doesn’t go away. The culture of silence and shame surrounding such violence is so impenetrable that it can seem to victims that there is no escape. As was the case for these two young women, even the institutions charged with their protection failed to do enough to allow them to speak out, to get better, preferring to keep silent and save their schools’ reputations. No one talks about rape on campus, and no, it doesn’t get any better.
I’m not minimizing the tragedy of LGBTQ youth who feel driven to suicide by the ignorance and bullying of their peers. And I’m certainly not trying to play a game of Who’s-the-Most-Oppressed (note: I would totally lose!) But. I can’t help but think that, while people may see Megan and Elizabeth’s predicament as tragic, they wouldn’t have the same unqualified disdain for their attackers that has been shown for the tormenters of Tyler Clementi. They won’t because in so many ways rape and sexual assault on college campuses is not taken seriously. And all too often its perpetrators are given a pass because they are prominent men, often sports stars, who bring revenue and coverage to the universities who were supposed to keep victims like Megan and Elizabeth safe.
Even when the results aren’t as tragic as those girls’ cases, this is far from an isolated problem. Laura Dunn, a student at the University of Wisconsin, was raped by two of her crew teammates in 2004. The university took nine months to investigate, only to fail to file charges. A cheerleader in Texas was cut from the team this year after she refused to cheer for her rapist. At the University of Iowa in 2007, a female student, who had been assaulted by two football players, saw her case go ignored by university officials even after her attackers continued to harass and threaten her; one even moved in three doors down from her house. When the players were finally suspended, their coach refused to release the reason behind the punishment, citing privacy concerns.
Unfortunately, citing such privacy concerns is one of the tactics universities most often use to ignore and silence rape victims. The fact is that our laws make it all too easy for colleges to hide the true prevalence of rape on their campuses. Despite the fact that the Cleary Act of 1989 mandates that colleges disclose information about assaults that occur on or near their campuses, proper reporting procedures are rarely followed for rape and sexual assault. A 2009 study by the Center for Public Integrity found that 49 out of 58 university crisis-services programs (which are required to disclose reports of sexual assault) recorded higher reports of sexual offenses than the figures submitted by their schools. Colleges can avoid reporting the correct number of assaults in a number of ways. Some exploit loopholes in the Cleary act (like its special exemptions from reporting for licensed therapists and church counselors) to minimize the number of assaults reported; other schools selectively collect data by reporting only referrals from law-enforcement officials or by misclassifying assaults as “non-forced” (a term which, under Cleary, covers only incest and statutory rape). Many college administrators complain that Cleary conflicts with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prevents universities from disclosing students’ records. The seeming contradiction between the two statutes leads, at best, to honest confusion among administrators on how and what to report; at worst, such uncertainty can serve as a cover for those who wish to sweep sexual assault—and its victims—under the rug.
I’ve heard the counter-arguments to strengthening reporting procedures, the resistance to protecting victims instead of their rapists. “Remember Duke Lacrosse!” people cry. “What about his rights as a citizen?” I’m as big a fan of civil rights as the next girl. —especially civil rights like, hey, the ability to feel safe in your school or to be treated with respect as a crime victim! Just saying. And I’m not advocating that people accused of rape should have their names dragged through the mud before charges are filed, or be thrown in jail without due process. I acknowledge that false rape accusations do happen (at a rate of about 3%—the same as most other violent crimes). That’s why I’m not suggesting that we change the way rape cases are handled by law enforcement officials, nor am I a proponent of universities ignoring the very real privacy concerns that a person accused of rape may have.
That said! Playing football—whatever people from my hometown might tell you—is not a civil right. It is a privilege granted to students, and we put restrictions on it all the time. To play in the NCAA, you have to pass drug tests, you have to get good grades, and you have to abide by a whole host of other rules and restrictions just to earn the right to take the field. And I can’t for the life of me imagine why one of those restrictions shouldn’t cover accusations of criminal misconduct. The idea that having clean piss and a C- average are somehow more important qualifications to be part of an organization that represents an academic institution than, say, NOT BEING A RAPIST is so far past repugnant I can’t believe it needs explaining. I was an athlete in high school (okay, a cheerleader, whatever), and at my school merely having a picture of you with a red Solo cup crop up on Facebook was enough to get you suspended for a few games at least. A serious accusation of sexual assault, backed up by the accuser’s willingness to submit to DNA testing and counseling, should carry as least as much weight as a failed math quiz.
And despite what the universities involved would have you believe, this problem is too important for us to allow it stay “an internal matter.” The idea that women who have been violently abused by predatory men on their campuses are forced to sit in class and at parties with their rapists makes me ill. The idea that such criminals deserve to have their anonymity preserved over and above the psychological well-being—and, all too often, the life—of their victims makes me livid. And the thought that the adults in these situations, the officials called in to help these victims, would cover up for a perpetrator just because he’s also learned to channel his aggression into throwing a perfect spiral as well as into assaulting women—sorry, give me a second, I just broke my computer in half.
The fact is that sexual assault is shameful. But it should be shameful for the truly responsible parties—the golden boys who have decided that women’s bodies are their property, the administration officials who care more about gross ticket sales on Sunday than the lives of young women, and those who propagate the culture of secrecy, degradation, and complicity that allows such attacks not only to happen but to go unpunished.
There’s no “It Gets Better” for this, because it won’t. Until we make it that the person who ignores a rape, not the one who suffers it, is an embarrassment; until we refuse to live in a society that overlooks violence when it’s convenient; until we say something, and say it so loud that we can drown out the entire fucking Notre Dame drumline—until we do that, it won’t get better. And Lizzy Seeburg won’t be the last girl to die because of our silence.
Katherine Orazem is a junior in Yale College. She is a contributor to Broad Recognition.