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Sexual Violence on College Campuses

The recent shocking and horrific revelations that have emerged from the atrocious saga at Penn State University involving the schools former assistant coach Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky have sent shockwaves throughout the world of college sports and higher education in general.

Thus far, the saga has claimed the jobs of longtime coach Joe “Pa” Paterno and President Graham Spanier. Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, two high-ranking administrators at the institution have been indicted for perjury charges. Mike McQueary, the person who witnessed the incident involving Sandusky and the then 10-year-old minor in 1998, yet, instead of contacting the police, rather called his father and later reported the incident to coach Paterno is facing potential disciplinary action as well.

This story is one that is tragic and heartbreaking on several levels. Anyone with any reasonable amount of compassion has to feel for these (at the time) young boys, now adults and be outraged at the sexual exploitation and level of callous manipulation they endured at the hands of alleged sexual predator Sandusky. According to prosecutors, there are more revelations in store. It is probably safe to say that there is more distressing allegations to be presented to the public. Sad. Sad. Sad. 

My fellow “” blogger, Pamela Reed has written a fantastic pull-no-punches article about the sordid allegations and reductive behavior of a number of individuals, known or unknown, involved or connected to the scandal. She covers all the important bases in her piece. I cannot add much more to her insightful and precise commentary. That being said, I want to focus on another issue that is an ongoing problem on college campuses — sexual assault.

Sexual violation of women (and, in some cases, men) has been a problematic fact of life on college campuses for decades. A 2007 survey financed by the Justice Department stated that 1 in 5 undergraduate women are the victims of attempted actual sexual assault. For men, the rate was 1 in 16. More recent statistics collected last year (2010) by the New York University Health Center revealed that:

§  One in 4 college-aged women report experiences that meet the legal definitions of rape or attempted rape.

§  One in 5 college women are raped during their college years.

§  Approximately one out of three of these victims are 17-19 (teenagers).

§  11.7 percent of gay or bisexual men and 30.6 percent of lesbian or bisexual women indicated that they had been forced to have sex against their will at some point in their lives.

§  81 percent of women who were stalked by a current of former partner also were physically  assaulted by that same partner.

§  80-90 percent of rapes are perpetrated by individuals known to the survivor.

§  85 percent of rapes are committed by a person the victims knows

Just as alarming were recent rape statistics that were released by the National Institute of Justice stating:

§  35.5  percent of  rape survivors were raped by a fellow classmate.

§  34.2 percent were raped by a “friend”.

§  23.7 percent were raped by boyfriends or ex-boyfriends.

§  2.6 percent were raped by acquaintances.

§  One in 12 college men admitted to committing acts that met the legal definition of rape.

§  20 percent of men reported “becoming so sexually aroused that they could not stop themselves  from having sex” even if the woman did not consent

§  35 percent of men report some likelihood that they would rape if they could be assured they wouldn’t be caught or punished

§  More than 8 out of 10 of off-campus are not reported to the police

§  Fewer than 5 percent of attempted/completed rapes are reported to law enforcement

§  52 percent of reported rapes and sexual assaults occur after midnight

§  37 percent of reported rapes and sexual assaults occur between 6 p.m. and midnight

Needless to say these are very disturbing statistics. Just as troubling is the mindset among a sizable percentage of men who say that they would have no problem sexually violating another human being if they thought they would escape any form of retribution. There are a number of dynamics at work here. Dr. Jean Kilborne, speaker, feminist, activist and author of the groundbreaking documentary “Still Killing Us Softly: Advertising Images of Women” has argued the point that from the time boys are in elementary school, they are constantly being inundated with subtle and overt messages that they are to supposed to be tough, aggressive and in charge at all costs. This belief has been solidified once they reach adulthood.

It is very surprising that this topic has not been given more attention and discussed more openly. While the issue of rape and sexual assault on college campuses has certainly been discussed, it has often been treated in an isolated and impersonal manner. Another fact is that a number of women are reluctant to discuss, let alone report, sexual assault charges (even in 2011) for fear of public ridicule, being dismissed as untruthful, promiscuous, immoral and being put on trial in the arena of public opinion. I remember one vivid example in a course that I took as an undergraduate student in the late 1980s where a fellow classmate informed all of us in attendance that if she was raped that she would have been very reluctant, or in all probability, would not have pressed charges given the fact that the conviction rates “were far too low.” 

It seems that decades later, things have changed very little. In fact, Yale University made national headlines last year when a number of women interviewed publicly decried the amount of sexual abuse of women on campus as being a serious problem at their institution. In response to this growing problem, the Obama administration has decided to target sexual assault on college campuses by providing numerous educational steps an institution can take to target and prevent sexual harassment and violence. These recommendations include specific suggestions for ways that a school can help a victim feel safe and get counseling during an investigation.           


The fact is that sexual assault is a real problem and often a traumatic experience for its victims regardless of age, gender or race. It is not an issue that should be dismissed as merely occasional isolated aberrations or “boys simply being boys.” It must be addressed aggressively and dealt with in a precise manner. The fact is that no human being, (male or female), should live in fear of being sexually violated.     


Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African American Studies, and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several books and articles. His latest work Performing American Masculinities: The 21st Century Man in Popular Culture published by Indiana University Press.


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