Battling a Stifling Culture/The Hoya

Originally published in The Hoya, Georgetown University’s student newspaper of record, on April 8, 2011. 

Battling a Stifling Culture

By Sarah Kaplan
Hoya Staff Writer

There are about 4,095 female undergraduates at Georgetown. Statistically speaking, 819 of them will experience sexual violence before the end of their time on the Hilltop.

Sexual and gender-based violence, though often overlooked, is a pervasive issue on college campuses. Studies estimate that 20 to 25 percent of women and 3 percent of men are victims of forced sex during their time at college. However, few of these crimes get reported and critics accuse colleges of not doing enough to punish perpetrators or engage students in a discussion about the issues.

“It’s so prevalent but so hush-hush,” Danielle LoVallo (SFS ’11) said. LoVallo is co-chair of Take Back the Night, a campus group that organizes advocacy programming for issues of sexual and gender-based violence.

“That trend should cause concern but also a need to challenge it,” she said.

At Georgetown, between five and 10 incidents of forced sex are reported every year. According to Joseph Smith, associate director of the Department of Public Safety, these represent a small fraction of the total assaults that actually occur.

“The vast majority [of assaults on campus] are acquaintance assaults [and] most of those are not reported to DPS,” Smith said. He estimated that roughly one in 12 instances of on-campus sexual assault is reported to DPS.

“It’s particularly difficult for a female to report an assault when it’s from someone they know. There are so many other dynamics to deal with. They may be embarrassed — perhaps they don’t want to get somebody in trouble,” Smith said. “When you have an acquaintance there are these social dynamics that make it more difficult psychologically for someone to report it to the police.”

College Judicial Systems: “Re-Victimizing the Victim”
Despite the prevalence of sexual assault, college campuses have not always dealt with the touchy topic well. A six-part series titled “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” released by the Center for Public Integrity last year, found that sexual violence is not handled appropriately by college administrators.

“Students deemed ‘responsible’ for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequence for their acts. Yet their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down. For them, the trauma of assault can be compounded by a lack of institutional support, and even disciplinary action,” the report said.

These fears are echoed at Georgetown, as students have sometimes questioned the support system in place on campus for victims of sexual assault.

In 2003, Kate Dieringer (NHS ’05) and the nonprofit group Security On Campus Inc. filed a joint complaint against the university after the male student who raped Dieringer her freshman year was suspended for a year, rather than expelled, as The Hoya reported in 2003 (“Disclosure Subject to Federal Scrutiny” A1, April 29, 2003).

Dieringer said that a lack of support from the university made the process of reporting her rape all the more painful.

“I was met with opposition from the beginning from the [Office of Student Conduct]. The director … called me a ‘woman scorned’ and the hearing process was unbelievably in my rapist’s favor,” Dieringer wrote in a testimony on the website of an advocacy group called Campus Justice, which calls for colleges to have more open disclosure policies.

In her complaint, Dieringer protested the university policy that required victims to sign a confidentiality agreement if they wanted to know the sanction imposed on the person found responsible.

“It takes so much strength, support and courage for a victim just to come forward. To silence him/her after they entrust you with their most guarded possession — trust (which has already been broken) — is to re-victimize the victim, abuse them and deter them from healing,” Dieringer wrote.

“[The university’s confidentiality policy] only encouraged me to be silent about my rape and was detrimental to the healing process that I was trying to accomplish in order to regain my life back. The adjudication set me back in moving forward.”

The university’s sexual assault policies were revised in 2004, establishing new definitions for consent, sexual misconduct and sexual assault, as well as modifying Georgetown’s disclosure policy.

“It’s now our policy that complainants are entitled to know the outcome,” said Judy Johnson, director of the Office of Student Conduct.

Victims are still required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, though they are now allowed to share information about the outcome with their parents and their adviser.

Not Tough Enough
Still, critics feel that the college disciplinary process remains too weak.

“On many campuses, abusive students face little more than slaps on the wrist,” the CPI report said.

Because perpetrators are tried within college judicial systems and not criminal courts, punishments are meant to be educational rather than punitive. Consequently, the verdicts reached during on-campus judicial proceedings are often much less harsh than the decisions an outside court would have come to.

“We do not try to simulate the court system. It’s an educational process; it’s an administrative process,” Johnson said of the adjudication protocol.

According to Johnson, cases of sexual misconduct are only brought to the Office of Student Conduct once every few years. A hearing is held at which the complainant and the accused can each call witnesses and make their case, and a board of three students and two faculty determine responsibility and sanctions.

According to Johnson, the board’s primary concerns in determining sanctions are “the impact on the complainant, the ongoing danger to the community and the individual’s ability to understand the harm he or she has done,” she said.

“There is a punitive aspect but of all the objectives that is the least.”

According to the CPI report, 75 to 90 percent of punishments against perpetrators of sexual violence given out by schools that report statistics amount to minor sanctions, and colleges only expel 10 to 25 percent of students who are found guilty of sexual assault.

Many students — as many as 58 percent according to the CPI report — found guilty of assault commit repeat offenses. The report said there was a “troubling plague of repeat offenders” on college campuses.

Deflecting the Blame
Beyond inadequate reporting and punitive mechanisms, critics say that colleges deal with a simple lack of understanding.

“The prevalence of rape myths is really common on college campuses, particularly at Georgetown,” LoVallo said.

Among these myths is the assumption that most rapes are committed by strangers.

“We may have this image of walking through Georgetown late at night and a stranger assaults somebody. That does happen occasionally, but actually more frequently it’s an acquaintance. It could be a date or a friend,” Smith said.

LoVallo said that rape myths often cause people to blame victims.

“I don’t think that our society in general is very friendly to victims. Particularly on college campuses we kind of stereotype them. You know, saying, ‘If she didn’t get drunk or she didn’t wear those clothes, it wouldn’t have happened,'” she said.

Kelly Sawyers (COL ’11) can attest to this. She was harassed by a DPS officer while sitting outside New South on Monday afternoon.

“The DPS officer kept looking at me in this really accusatory way,” said Sawyers, a Hoya staff writer. Eventually, the officer approached Sawyer and told her that he had been looking at her because he felt that she was dressed inappropriately.

“He said that [he] asked himself, ‘Should I keep looking at her? Yes, God is telling me I can keep looking at her because of what she is wearing,'” Sawyers said. “I was flabbergasted by it. … It seemed so unbelievably strange.”

“It was so obvious that he was trying to use this authority he had as a DPS officer to intimidate me [when] he was supposed to be a representative of the university; he was supposed to be there to protect me. … If that’s the way he acts then what does that say about the university?” she added.

A friend told Sawyers to go to the Women’s Center, which she did. She also met with representatives from DPS. Though the meeting went well, Sawyers was upset when she was asked about what she had been wearing.

“By saying that, they were implying that I could have put myself in that situation, when really there’s no situation where that would have made it OK to say what he did,” Sawyers said.

According to Jen Schweer, the university’s full-time sexual assault and relationship violence coordinator, even the university’s best efforts to help students can have negative consequences.

“Many times, when we think of traditional prevention programs, we think of self-defense, rape whistles and ‘what women should and shouldn’t do.’ While all of these risk-reduction programs have their place in the larger conversation, they are not a solution to ending the violence. Rather, these groups and programs focus on the larger picture and culture that contributes to victim-blaming,” Schweer wrote in an email.

“We have to think about how we are holding perpetrators accountable, addressing rape myths and eliminating victim-blaming language. By engaging our community in these conversations, we are creating a climate that supports survivors when they come forward and sends the very strong message that this crime is not one that is accepted at Georgetown,” she added.

Laura Kovach, the director of the Women’s Center, emphasized that sexual violence is not just a woman’s issue.

“Acts of violence affect all of us. Gender violence is a community issue that impacts friends, classmates, neighbors, family members, et cetera. By putting the weight of preventing sexual assault on the shoulders of women, we ignore men as allies and men as survivors and unfortunately take the blame away from where it belongs: on the perpetrators. Perpetrators are responsible and must be held accountable for their crimes,” Kovach wrote in an email.

Facing the Issue in Georgetown’s Backyard
Additionally, some students feel that Georgetown is reluctant to deal with such a tough subject.

“There’s a culture around the university that there’s a stigma around women’s issues,” Sawyers said. “Because of the university’s stance on reproductive rights, they have unnecessarily lumped all gender issues together and pushed them aside. That is making them not stand up for women when they should.”

“Even in the student body there’s this sense that people have stereotyped the student groups that deal with gender issues,” she added.

According to LoVallo, students are also unaware of how serious sexual violence can be on their own campus.

“We have a community that’s very grounded in issues of social activism and community engagement, but I do think that at a more personal level at the campus level we’re pretty ignorant,” she said.

“Georgetown is very good at educating the whole person but that often means for Georgetown students that we’re looking outside of our backyard of our own community. You can be totally educated about the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and rape as a weapon of war but not necessarily so comfortable talking about what goes on our campus, what goes on a Friday or Saturday night.”

Nevertheless, LoVallo and Sawyers praised the resources that the university does provide.

“I can’t talk enough about how amazing [the Women’s Center] was,” Sawyers said. “As soon as I went in there they told me, ‘This is a safe place.'”

In addition to Schweer and the Women’s Center, Georgetown has a sexual assault working group, the LGBTQ Resource Center and sexual abuse specialists at Counseling and Psychiatric Services to help students deal with these issues.

In addition, groups like Take Back the Night and GU Men for Change work on campus to raise awareness about issues of sexual violence. Take Back the Night will be holding a number of events throughout April in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“Just having activism around it [is important],” LoVallo said. “Seeing people really care about these issues and learning about these issues, being invested in it. No one wants this to happen to any of their friends, but unfortunately it does. That’s why we need to be educated to deal with it. In a very serious situation your friends are counting on you.”

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