Can a modern-era president, a father of two daughters, cut the horrifying statistic that 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted during her college years?
Can he change the fact that only about 12 percent of attacks are even reported?
Call me guardedly optimistic. Societal attitudes and behavior don’t shift easily.
An increase in young people’s binge drinking in recent decades is linked to the alarming numbers. One often-cited study found that 72 percent of campus rape victims admitted having been drunk when attacked.
Did your mind leap toward warning young women about the risks of shooting shots, guzzling the concoctions at fraternity parties and entering chugging contests?
Yes, young people should be warned of alcohol’s ability to lower their decision-making skills. But for too long, this message primarily has been preached to women. It’s a blame game, and one that too often protects a male attacker (who often also is drunk) by shaming the female victim.
In late January, the Obama White House announced a renewed push in a different direction, to press universities on their responsibilities. The approach is simple, so basic to human dignity that it is insulting that past administrations haven’t applied it in full measure.
Women have a right, a federally enforceable right, to be safe on college and university campuses so they can pursue their education. The wedge of equality is Title IX, a 1972 law preventing sex discrimination in education at institutions that receive federal funding. Investigations of colleges and universities are already rising in number.
The administration will work with campuses where complaints have been lodged under Title IX to improve their response to allegations, enhance education programs and address the mental health needs of victims so they can continue to pursue their educations.
Higher expectations are also being placed on men. Men have to change, through their behavior as perpetrators and as silent bystanders.
Both approaches are in stark contrast to how rape and sexual assault prevention have long been framed. The standard response has been “what women can do to protect themselves from men.” It’s almost as if the criminal behavior of sexual assault is to be expected, or is even considered inherent, in what constitutes men as a gender.
That attitude is insulting to young men. It’s also factually inaccurate.
Most men are not sexually violent toward women. But studies do suggest that most men are too complacent. So the Obama administration is pointing out that many men overestimate other men’s acceptance of abusive behavior toward women. It’s the locker room effect, misjudged.
“I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women,” Barack Obama was quoted saying.
Attitudes are changing. More men, especially younger ones, do see themselves as allies of women and able to influence the behavior of male peers.
More people stop before proclaiming that a female victim of sexual assault somehow deserved what happened. We’ve at least come that far. But the kneejerk reaction to focus on a woman’s behavior first and foremost continues to twist the conversation and, therefore, preventive measures. Investigations stall or are never pursued when a blaming attitude is displayed by police and campus security.
Studies cited by The White House Council on Women and Girls indicate that college attacks are often by serial offenders who use alcohol as a weapon to incapacitate their female victims. A 2002 study found that 7 percent of college men admitted to committing rape or attempted rape and 63 percent of these men admitted to committing multiple offenses, averaging six rapes each.
The study raises the question of whether predatory young men are emboldened by the fact that so many cases aren’t reported.
College years ought to be a time of incredible personal growth for young people, and be free of sexual violence. Campuses are where they gain the skills, hone the confidence and earn the degrees that will allow them to excel in life.
It’s only fair for universities to safeguard this crucial period of self-discovery for all students regardless of gender.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO. 64108-1413, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Photo: President Barack Obama signs an Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls in the East Room of the White House (Chuck Kennedy via Wikimedia Commons)