Friday, March 11, 2016

Campus Sexual Assault, by Lauren J. Germain

Sexual assault on college campuses is not a new problem, but public discussion about it is certainly on the rise.  Unfortunately, this has come at the expense of the reputation of my alma mater.  Due to publicity surrounding rape convictions of a couple of student athletes, and subsequent ESPN coverage of those cases and others on campus, my university has had a spotlight on it, and awareness of sexual assault has skyrocketed.  Even as I was reading this book, a fraternity president was arrested for sexual assault.  Surely the young lady involved would not have come forward were it not for the heightened awareness.

In Campus Sexual Assault: College Women Respond, Lauren J. Germain reports on her extensive interviews with college women who have experience sexual assault while in college.  (I hesitate to use the words victim or survivor, as she and her interview subjects have mixed opinions on those terms.)  She conducted her interviews exclusively with women at a single, unidentified college in the eastern United States, but their experiences are certainly similar to college students' experiences everywhere.

Simply getting these conversations into the open air is important, not just for the victim/survivor, but for the culture as a whole.  As Germain talks with the women about their responses and actions after their experiences of sexual assault, several themes arose.  Most did not take formal action: "Twenty-two of the twenty-six women I met with for this project decided not to press charges through the school or anywhere else."  The feeling is, Why should they?  They believe, with good reason, that the University doesn't punish perpetrators.  The victim has to speak about an unspeakable experience in front of strangers (and in front of the attacker), who grill her about her sex life and body.  All the time, she would know the University is much harsher in cases of cheating (expulsion) than rape (see you in class on Monday).

Further, most of the cases involved friends or acquaintances, or at least people in the same social, academic, or fraternity/sorority circles.  Some victims even felt pressure from peers not to report the crime, in the interest of maintaining good relations among their Greek clubs, for instance.  On a personal level, the victim sometimes thought "if she did press charges, it would ruin his life.  He would never be able to get a job."

I appreciated the honesty which Germain was able to bring more light to this subject through the voices of the victims/survivors.  Even though almost all of them spoke of their reluctance to speak publicly or press charges, surely elevated awareness will help other victims speak up.  More importantly, projects like these can help move our culture away from an environment of acceptance.  "Kids do these things in college. . . . They were both drunk. . . . So some wild oats. . . ."  It's never OK to have sex with someone against their will.  No matter what.  And if it happens, the perpetrator must be held accountable.

The biggest lacking element in Germain's book is actually outside of the scope of the book, but I felt like it should have been addressed to a greater degree.  Writing as a woman interviewing women, she says she did not question the women's stories, and cites one study that concluded that a very small percentage of reported rapes by women are false.  Speaking as a man, I would like to hear the man's side given more weight.  The women in Germain's study are right when they say the physical evidence of rape is usually quite limited, and the case comes down to "he said/she said."  Men and women are both capable of lying, misremembering, or misinterpreting a situation.  Women are given the benefit of the doubt.

Are there not men whose lives have been turned upside down irrevocably due to false accusations of rape?  The Duke lacrosse team?  The Univeristy of Montana quarterback, whose assault of a classmate was the centerpiece of a popular book, was acquitted and received a settlement from the university that has given him the boot.  He's not alone.   Universities are in a catch-22.  Expel an accused rapist, and face a lawsuit if he turns out to be found innocent?  Allow an accused rapist to continue to attend class, and face a lawsuit from the victim if he is convicted?

So I finished Germain's book with mixed feelings.  She tells important stories, but only part of the story.  We must listen to these women.  We must be a part of changing the culture to build greater respect for women and for personal boundaries.  Another thing that she doesn't talk about is the culture of sexual freedom on college campuses now.  Mixed-gender dorms, condoms available everywhere, alcohol-fueled party culture, open talk of sexuality, university-sponsored sex weeks, and other hyper-sexualizing trends in culture aid and abet rapists everywhere.

I am certainly happy to see a guy who preys on women get thrown out of school and put in jail.  Women who are their victims need justice and the support of their communities.  They need to know that when they speak up, they will find support and action, not accusations, suspicion, and marginalization.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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