Whenever I’m intrigued or baffled by what’s going on in the world around me I look to the literature for answers. After the atrocity in Steubenville OH last year and the recent tragic suicide of Audrie Pott in Saratoga CA I started to educate myself on rape. I learnt about rape culture and, equipped with concepts such as victim blaming and the trivialization of rape, began to view these events through a clearer, more critical lens. And then last week in my hometown of Newport News VA, Christopher Newport University received a lot of bad press because of how they handled three cases of alleged sexual assault on campus. Three cases of sexual assault were reported to the campus police between October 2012 and February 2013 and the campus police chose not to notify the student body. Students just recently learnt about the assaults when they received coverage by local news channels. Many students wondered why they had not been made aware of these reported assaults months earlier and criticized CNU’s failure to respond appropriately to the incidents. Here’s what CNU had to say in defense of their response.
A quick Google search brings up a myriad of studies that all tell us that the victim knows the perpetrator in in 65-75% of cases of sexual violence. These numbers tell us that Christopher Newport University students, and college students across the country (for this problem is not unique to CNU, it is endemic in college campuses) are far more likely to be assaulted or raped by an acquaintance than a stranger. The threat is not a stranger hiding in the bushes or a serial rapist lurking in the parking lot late at night. The numbers say that it 70% more likely that the danger is a fellow student in psychology class, a bio lab partner, or someone living in the same residence hall.
In defending their inaction, CNU cited the fact that in all three cases the victim and the perpetrator knew each other. Because these were cases of acquaintance assault and rape CNU did not believe that students were under any imminent threat. But this gets the facts about sexual violence wrong. The studies show that it is acquaintances–not strangers–that pose a threat to college women. Failure to report these cases is a form of victim blaming, thinly veiled. It rests on the unstated premise that in cases of acquaintance assault and rape the fault does not lie solely with the perpetrator. It implies that the victim was complicit in the assault; that she “asked for it” or let things go to far. Failure to treat these assaults with more seriousness tells the student body, both women and men, that acquaintance assault and rape is acceptable in a way that stranger rape–which we are to assume would have been reported–is not. CNU’s failure to report these cases in part because the victim knew the perpetrator tolerates and excuses acquaintance assault and rape. One might even say CNU’s failure to report condones these assaults, accepting them as a fact of college campus life.
Fifteen years ago when I was a high school student in Newport News my Latin teacher taught us a Latin phrase every week. One I still remember is ‘dum tacent clamant‘ which translates as ‘While they are silent, they shout’. CNU’s apathetic response to these assaults is a form of acceptance; the university’s silence is as sharp as a shout.