Amherst Rape Scandal: What We Get Wrong About Sexual Assault on Campus

Most college sexual assault allegations don't meet the standard of criminal prosecution. But that doesn't mean they're any less serious

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ilana Panich-Linsman / The New York Times / Redux

A front-page story featuring reaction to a student's account of rape appears on Amherst College's campus newspaper on Oct. 25, 2012

The recent media swarm around an anguished report of rape at Amherst College, in Massachusetts, is understandable, especially when every day seems to bring another grotesque proclamation from a political figure appearing to minimize, or even justify, rape. But the gravity of sexual assault shouldn’t be an excuse to draw black-and-white conclusions about the problem of rape on college campuses.

(MORE: Christakis: Todd Akin Fallout: Rape, Abortion and the Dark History of Qualifying Violence Against Women)

Most rapes are hard to prosecute, in part because they rarely have witnesses, but college rapes on college campuses are an even bigger challenge because at least 90% of alleged rapes are between people who know each other (often boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, or current friends and acquaintances). College rapes also typically involve less physical evidence (like signs of physical struggle), and one or both parties are more likely to be intoxicated by alcohol, often making it hard for the alleged victim and assailant to recall or report a clear story. College-rape survivors sometimes delay reporting rape, as the Amherst survivor did, until they have concluded that they were in fact raped — an ambiguity that is much less common in the general population.

As an educator and college administrator who has worked firsthand with students involved in sexual-assault cases, I applaud Amherst’s call to respond more sensitively to rape victims. Nonetheless, universities must ensure due process to protect the rights of all students, including those who are accused of rape. Those who fault Amherst administrators for not doing enough in response to Angie Epifano’s allegations are missing a key fact: most college sexual-assault allegations would never meet the standard for criminal prosecution and, indeed, do not wind up in the criminal-justice system. With their judicial boards and other disciplinary infrastructure, universities generally take rape allegations more seriously, not less seriously, than in the world beyond their ivy walls.

(MORE: Erika Christakis and Nicholas A. Christakis: Harvard Cheating Scandal: Is Academic Dishonesty on the Rise?)

Moreover, college students are adults with their own legal and moral agency; college officials are not compelled by law to report assaults to the police, as school administrators are for suspected cases of sexual abuse with minors. Campus sexual assaults are thus adjudicated in an often deeply unsatisfying he-said-she-said administrative process that can’t always establish truth, much less actual justice. As former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis noted in Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, “In rape cases there is often no middle ground … When one student is accused of raping another, the college cannot make everyone happy.”

Here is another problem: the one-note media reaction to the Amherst story paradoxically lets universities off the hook in addressing the social norms that so often enable sexual misconduct. Yes, we should expect that victims will receive appropriate care and that all students (victims and alleged assailants, both) will receive due process, but universities could do even more to tackle the factors that increase the risks by challenging predatory student behavior and the decades-long prominence of all-male clubs and fraternities; improving our understanding of risk factors like the dysfunctional use of alcohol; collecting and communicating campus-health, sexual-assault and drinking statistics more openly; and, equally important, promoting higher standards of personal responsibility for men and women alike.

MORE: Peter Smith: When Will Men Say Something About Rape?

72 comments
JosieLamb
JosieLamb

Why can't college universities, even those as "great" as amherst college just own up to what they've done: invalidate a woman's emotions surrounding a harrowing experience. That girl's counselors should have their licenses torn up; its the least that the Amherst College administration could do after all of this.

Salem
Salem

And incidentally, to all of these posts which claim that alcohol is a date rape drug, unless one person spikes another's drink without their knowledge (I can't imagine anyone not realizing their pepsi suddenly has a few shots of rum in it but okay), then it is pretty flaky logic to call it a "date rape drug".  I'd like to know how someone 'gets you drunk'; you get yourself drunk, and suffer the consequences of stupid behavior.  Would anyone call a girl a "victim" who gets plastered and flips her car driving home? 

Salem
Salem

Society treats women like helpless, incompetent babies. 

swcowan3
swcowan3

And what about consensual sex where one party is an adult, the other a minor under the law?  Does the adult always face charges?  What if a woman is the older party?

Higg's_Bosom
Higg's_Bosom

How exactly are we going to make the process fair for both parties? An accusation is more than enough to finish a student for life, regardless of whether or not he is found to be innocent.

Further, what exactly constitutes a rape when alcohol is involved? If a woman drinks to excess and comes onto a man who has drunk to excess and they sleep together, is it rape? How about if he is only half as drunk? Or completely sober?

tlivermore
tlivermore

Perhaps the article title should have read: Amherst Rape Scandal - What I Get Wrong About Sexual Assault on Campus, since the author got just about everything wrong. It's not at all surprising (just unfortunate) that the author is a college administrator. Given her unfortunately common perceptions, or misconceptions, it's also not surprising that sexual assaults are poorly handled in colleges and universities throughout the country. Clearly, educators need some education on this topic.

georaptor116
georaptor116

There are so many ignorant comments in her article. She thinks rape victims could have avoided the rape by learning more personal responsibility? And the criminals that perpetrate rape just need to be more responsible? Excuse me but that is just downplaying and apologizing for rapists. She brings up the women-should-know-better card numerous times saying we just need educated on the risk factors. Everyone already knows alcohol is often used as a date-rape drug. Clearly she wasn't thinking ahead about getting rid of all-male campus groups, because the alternative would be co-ed fraternities! That isn't going to make things any better. What will help is doing more to catch rapists and supporting the victims of rape... instead of calling it a he-said-she-said and claiming its impossible to make both parties happy. Let me just point out she's a school administrator, in case anyone missed that. Her article should be pulled. She's just as bad as Todd Akin.

ironyman2
ironyman2

We hear a lot about racism and racists, but not nearly enough about sexism and sexists. Where have the media been on this subject? Where were they when U.S. service women were being raped by the thousands in war zones? They had to file a class action suit against Gates and Rumsfeld to get attention. Media are consumed with Kim Kardashian butt-watching but can't manage to report on sex trafficking in the U.S.  The Penn State people are getting what they deserved for their unspeakable crimes - and cover-up of the crimes - against children. But I can't help wondering, what if the victims had been girls? Then what?

redrollerskate
redrollerskate

This article was the most disgusting, condescending, apologist, victim-blaming piece of drivel I have ever read, and the author should take personal responsibility for the exclusionary Stone Age garbage that she has shared with us in her pathetic ignorance.

akpat
akpat

Time for all women to pack heat. The last two serial rapists here were stopped when they chose the wrong woman.

vapor413
vapor413

unless  there were 2 rapes on campuses in the past two weeks, this was umass and not amherst college.  let's stat with getting the right schoo!  and lets bw clear, this was a gang rape by non-students from sprongfield.  now the the facts are straight-it is hi=orrible that in addition to trying to figture out how to pay for college, we parents now have to worry about our worry about our children's safety!!  

tp the person who doed not want to pay for birth control or abortion--how about paying for raise the child-if yoyr worry is cost birth control or abortion is much cheaper than raising a child--evolve!!

Restrepo
Restrepo

So many glaringly ignorant statements in this article...which to choose? Perhaps this one. 

“In rape cases there is often no middle ground … When one student is accused of raping another, the college cannot make everyone happy"

Having known women who have spent 2+ years battling legal systems to penalize their attacker at the hopes of stoping it from happening to someone else; I can assure you that happiness is not the main goal.

Talendria
Talendria

In my opinion, sex on campus should be punishable by expulsion regardless of whether it's voluntary.  Parents, alumni, and taxpayers subsidize children's college tuition so they can earn a diploma and become productive adults.  A year at Amherst costs more than $60,000.  Why should we allow kids to squander such a large investment on counterproductive activities?

morildar
morildar

An important and timely article.  Well done.  It's also important to note that most colleges employ a radically engorged definition of rape vis-a-vis the law.  At my University, we were told that asking for sex more than once or "guilting" your partner for sex amounts to "coercion" and would be considered rape by the University.  Punishable by expulsion.

Rape is a horrendous experience and all proven perps should be harshly punished, but it's important to remember that no every situation is so black and white, and some amount of false accusations do exist.

caitlin.t.c.dougherty
caitlin.t.c.dougherty

How is rape on a college campus any different than rape in the real world?  Most rape in the "real world" is date rape, using alcohol and date rape drugs.  In the "real world" rape isn' of the stranger in the ally, Law and Order SVU variety.  

In the real world, at least 80% of rapes are committed by someone the victims know well.  Most adult women don't report rape either, and aren't believed either.  For a college administrator, you don't seem to understand that rape in the real world.  It's not any different from rape in college.  Most women don't label rape as rape right away after graduation.  It's not like they get a degree and miraculously understand rape.  In fact, if you google rape, it can be used against you in your trial!  

Please educate yourself about rape in the "real world."  It's not any different than rape in college environment and that means we have to take rape in the college environment seriously.  I applaud your efforts to reduce rape on college campus, but this false illusion of life after college is highly problematic.  

pendragon05
pendragon05

Man + woman + alcohol/drugs = increased possibility of rape