For years, when I was on the speech circuit at colleges and universities, I would always inquire about how many instances of sexual assault had occurred on campus that year — not how many convictions, but how many instances.
The answers I got were, quite literally, unbelievable. None, I would be told, which was almost as ridiculous of reports of one or two such instances. At no campus I visited were there ever more than four or five.
You don't have to be a scholar in this area (which I happen to be) to know that these numbers were always ridiculous.
I had some of my own students do a survey some years ago, and they came up with roughly the same numbers that everyone comes up with: something on the order of 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 coeds will tell you they have been forced to have sex against their will and without their consent, which is the legal definition of rape.
Most of these cases won't lead to criminal conviction, which doesn't mean the girls are lying or that they weren't raped, but only that proving rape when a lot of drinking is involved, when the boys stand by each other and the girls often don't remember precise details or don't report immediately and certainly don't have witnesses, can make prosecution difficult.
But that hardly excuses the "see no evil, hear no evil" attitude many colleges and universities have adopted.
Yes, I know it can be a difficult problem for the university administrators. On the one hand, you have a young woman raising a serious, potentially life-destroying claim. I always ask my students to put themselves not only in the shoes of the woman who says she was raped, but also in those of the man who is accused.
There never has been any evidence that rapes are dishonestly reported any more often than other crimes (notwithstanding centuries of legal hand-wringing about the dangers of spurned women taking revenge, cases that are both rare and mostly easily spotted), but there certainly are instances of innocent men facing such claims, and they deserve protection.
From a college's point of view, that means you have a boy's family "lawyering up" and threatening to sue the college if their son is treated "unfairly."
I remember one case, years ago, in which the boy's family threatened to sue the girl for libel and slander, a mostly empty threat that nevertheless terrified her. So the easiest thing for many colleges to do is to defer to the criminal justice system, except that system (rightly) imposes far higher standards (the punishment being loss of liberty) than colleges do for other offenses, which could lead to expulsion, suspension or at least (and often this is all the girl needs) some accommodation that would allow her to complete her education without living in the same dorm or taking the same classes as the man who traumatized her.
For years, the Boston-based Victims Rights Law Center, on whose board I have served since its founding, has tried to work with colleges and universities to do a better job in this area — collecting data honestly, educating all students about rape prevention and providing assistance for women who need it to stand up and fight (not the men they accuse of rape, but the universities who refuse to even recognize there is a problem).
This week, the White House offered an assist, with the president proposing that universities conduct anonymous surveys to assess how big of a problem they have (in every case, it will be bigger than they officially thought), to adopt strategies that have worked at other campuses and to at least ensure that young women can report assaults confidentially (assuming they are not seeking to prosecute) and receive the help from the school that they need to complete their studies.
It's hardly a revolutionary approach, but the mere fact that the problem has risen to a level where it has White House attention is a step in the right direction.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.