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

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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?

70 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? 

ClairessaBrown
ClairessaBrown

@Salem Of course not. But someone walking alone at 2am that's murdered is still a victim regardless of the risk that come with walking alone at 2am. And that victim would still deserve justice and the perpetrator caught.

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 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

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?

Salem
Salem

Exactly.

whatthehay
whatthehay

@Salem originally was fighting to attain the simple goal of civil and legal equality between the sexes, turn into a radical feminist movement that considers all men to be inherently oppressive or even evil?Sure, there are still many feminists who still belong to “old school” feminism, and they are usually very sane people. The best example is perhaps Christina Hoff-Sommers who has written a couple of excellent books about radical feminism and its unfortunate consequences in the US.Let’s have a look at the factors that I believe turned feminism into a mess:There was a lack of clarity from the start of the feminist movement. Was it a movement for gender equality, or was it a movement that promoted women’s rights? This is a huge distinction, and the assumption that these two struggles are always compatible is far from true.This lack of clarity is also apparent in the name chosen for the movement. If it had been called equalism, then the end goal would have been clear. However, the name feminism implies that the end goal is female supremacy or something along those lines.By creating a strong feminist movement, men’s issues are automatically defined as being non-existent or at the very least far smaller than female issues (which is something I dispute in my writings). Originally this was less of a problem, since feminism was focusing on equal rights in society, which was an honorable struggle and a process that needed to happen. However, once equal rights had been implemented, feminism still assumed that women were far worse off than men, and more in need of a strong feminist movement than ever–without stepping back and looking at the wider picture, a picture which included men’s perspectives.Men have been far too silent in the gender debate, a silence which has probably been interpreted as men feeling guilty, or at the very least having no good arguments to counter the increased radicalization of feminist theory. This has allowed radical feminists to get more and more government grants and influence, which in turn has given them more resources to come up with ever more radical theories that make men responsible for every conceivable evil. Gender study departments in universities around the world, can now hide behind the respectable façade of higher education and use tax payers’ money to promote the theories of radical feminism.Radical feminism absolves women from personal responsibility in their lives. It’s all the fault of the patriarchy, a mythical structure which means that men always get the good deal in life… This is a seductive stance for young women, especially if a university teacher that you respect tells you that this is how the world works. This means that equity feminism and other branches of old school feminism, that emphasize women’s personal responsibility in creating better lives for themselves, have a harder time gaining new adherents.

tlivermore
tlivermore like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

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.

morildar
morildar

@tlivermore What, specifically, did you have a problem with?

People love to condemn and hate to comprehend.  Talk to any administrator who handles campus rape cases and they would likely echo the sentiments of this author.  Most campus sexual assault cases would never see the inside of a courtroom.  They typically involve alcohol and differing perceptions of events.  They almost never involve overt force or any clear objection from the complainant.

georaptor116
georaptor116 like.author.displayName 1 Like

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 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

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 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

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.

Christina.M.McCabe
Christina.M.McCabe like.author.displayName 1 Like

@redrollerskate I found the article equally appalling. Also how Amherst College treated the victim! I am a U-Mass student and thankfully, it seems like my college has more supportive outlets for women (and men) who have been harmed. I hate to think even less students will report rape because they expect the administration to ask if it was just a "grey area" or a "bad hook-up." I realize rape is a strong accusation and am not suggesting all alleged rapists wear the scarlet letter, but how about some support for victims?

morildar
morildar

@Christina.M.McCabe @redrollerskate It can be a grey area, though.

Say both people are drunk and the man honestly thought it was consensual because the girl never told him to stop.  The girl feels raped, but the man thinks he did nothing wrong.  How do you deal with such a case?

redrollerskate
redrollerskate like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Salem Do you even have a brain under your custom fedora, you pathetic Men's Rights Activist? If anyone  was falling down drunk then the other person should recognize that it is not okay to have sex with them, regardless of whether they have had a couple drinks as well. If both people are falling down drunk then sex should not be logistically possible, especially in your ridiculous little heteronormative completely ass-backwards worldview.

Salem
Salem

you won't get a response, because you're bringing up uncomfortable truths that women don't like to acknowledge

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 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

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.

morildar
morildar

@Restrepo You have to understand that most "rapes" on campus would not be considered rape under the law.  Getting nagged for sex or having sex to keep a boyfriend happy are both considered rape on campus.

Restrepo
Restrepo like.author.displayName 1 Like

Your putting "rapes" in quotation marks is a part of the problem.

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?

Liz14
Liz14

@Talendria  

What planet do you live on? It sounds like you have a very unhealthy attitude toward sex.

Talendria
Talendria

@Liz14 @Talendria Liz, if I turned that statement around on you, I imagine you'd find it rather insulting.  Think before you type.

Talendria
Talendria

@Liz14 @Talendria Liz, if you'll re-read my comments, you'll find that I discussed ideas and behaviors, not individuals.  I'm very careful not to insult people no matter how richly they deserve it.

Liz14
Liz14

@Talendria @Liz14 

That's an interesting statement coming from someone who has been making wild, sweeping generalizations about how all college women who have sex are irresponsible children who throw their educations away. You do realize you have been making unfounded insults toward thousands of women across the country, right?

pendragon05
pendragon05

@Talendria Bingo, I went to a women's college - guess what - no such thing as date rape and students were absolutely forbidden to take a boyrfriend into the dorm. If they did, they would get expelled. I'll not mention what college I went to but yes it was ultra-strict religious in nature.

IMO if women want to be considered serious students and not shoppers (for husbands) they won't date on campus. There's plenty of time for dating after they graduate. If some women cannot do that, then maybe they have no business being in a co-ed college or university at all, ever.

ClairessaBrown
ClairessaBrown

@pendragon05 @Talendria Part of what college teaches you is how to balance and prioritize different things in your life. If we could all take 1 class and spend endless amounts of time on it in college, we'd all get straight As in every class. However, taking multiple classes at the same time while doing extracurriculars while some of us college MEN and women date is the same exercise in priorites and acting like an adult. There is technically never a good time to date until you're old and retired or incredibly young since most people who go to college are ambitious and not only aim to jumpstart careers but also climb the "corporate ladder" which takes several years of hard work after graduation. Maintaining a relationship during any time therefore requires prioritizing and maturity just like doing well in multiple college classes during the semester.

DBritt
DBritt like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@pendragon05 @Talendria Let's leave the 1950s where they belong; in the past.  College students are adults who have every right to determine their own behavior.  If you don't like sex, don't have it.  But if you're trying to argue that sex somehow jeopardizes the investment in higher education, take note that students are overwhelmingly having sex and their education is still a massively good investment.  Your theory just doesn't add up.  It would be nice if we could solve all of our problems by hitting them with a big, self-righteous hammer of morality, but in the real world that's not very effective.

Not to mention the repulsive distinction pendragon05 makes between women, who had better act right or they might not deserve an education, and men, who evidently get by without a wag of the finger.

pendragon05
pendragon05

@Talendria I'm with you there, I don't want my tax dollars going to pay for these college students' birth control (if they even know what that is, lol) and abortions either.

Talendria
Talendria

@DBritt @pendragon05 @Talendria I'd just like to point out that I graduated from college in 1993, not 1953, and high moral standards never go out of style.  To be perfectly honest, I don't give a **** what Gen Y does with their bodies as long as I don't have to pay for their birth control and abortion.

Talendria
Talendria

@pendragon05 @Talendria I dated in college, but I was very careful never to put myself in a compromising position.  I avoided frat parties and athlete parties.  I didn't go clubbing alone.  I didn't drink from a container that was already open, etc.  When my boyfriend started pressuring me for sex, I suggested he try his luck with someone else.  I wasn't a prude; I was just very focused and ultimately very successful.  These people who think they can have their cake and eat it too are just childish.

ClairessaBrown
ClairessaBrown

@Talendria @pendragon05 I can completely relate to not putting oneself in compromising situations. From the few parties I attended, I was cognizant of all the things you listed. HOWEVER, rape is wrong 100%. I don't care if the woman (or man) was naked with RAPE ME written on their forehead. It is still completely and utterly wrong. Wanting to have sex eventually with someone should not be an invitation that other people are inherently entitled to your body whether you're at a frat or athletic party PERIOD.

Liz14
Liz14 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@pendragon05 @Talendria  

Some of us manage to be serious students and juggle serious boyfriends at the same time. I've been with the same man for three years, and yet I've managed to keep excellent grades that have gotten me interviews with several top-tier medical schools for admission next fall. Just because you don't think you would have the foresight to stick with your goals while also dating doesn't mean we are all incapable of doing so. That's just insulting.

Talendria
Talendria

@Liz14 @Talendria @pendragon05 Actually, Liz, your example merely reinforces my point.  We do restrict alcohol to persons 21 or older because we fear they cannot imbibe responsibly.  In fact, we have a host of regulations concerning the sale and consumption of alcohol.  Additionally, most states regulate biking in terms of determining where you're allowed to ride and requiring riders to wear a helmet.

Liz14
Liz14

@Talendria @Liz14 @pendragon05 

Just like how we should have no prohibition laws because some people who drink alcohol don't become alcoholics. Or how we should have no laws against mountain biking because some people who mountain bike can do it without getting injured. Oh, wait... we don't have those laws, because autonomous adults have the right to do whatever they want with their bodies, as long as they don't infringe on the rights of others!

See, I can make irrelevant analogies too!

Talendria
Talendria

@Liz14 @pendragon05 @Talendria Liz, by your logic we should have no distracted driving laws because I can apply mascara while talking on the phone and eating a breakfast burrito.

jeffrey.sill
jeffrey.sill

@Talendria Sex is punishable by expulsion regardless of whether or not it is voluntary at all service academies.  Interestingly enough, while I'd bet (but don't know) that instances of reported rape are lower per student there than on an average college campus, I wonder exactly how this policy incentivizes student to behave regarding sex.

Oh wait, I don't have to wonder, because I was there.  It actually gives predators another valuable mechanism to control their victims.  Exploiting both the policy and the problems the OP highlights above, rapists can actually use the environment against the victim (assuming the victim wants to stay in the prestigious institution they likely worked their entire high school life to get into).

But I do applaud your focus on the system, rather than the intangible and difficult to predict moralities of students, in order to address this problem.  On that point, I think you and the OP would agree.  I can see how you might think that outlawing sex would make rape go away, given the resounding success of such laws against prostitution and illegal drug use, but you would probably be better served praying for a return to the kinder, gentler 1950's when these things *never* happened...

Talendria
Talendria

@jeffrey.sill @Talendria Your sarcasm has almost entirely obfuscated your point.  In order to reduce the actual (versus reported) incidence of rape, you must differentiate predatory rape from unwanted intercourse.  Predatory rape is perpetrated by sociopaths who intentionally exploit victims.  Unwanted intercourse is the result of miscommunication, usually due to drunkenness.  While there is very little anyone can do to reduce the incidence of predatory rape, you can virtually eliminate unwanted intercourse by educating children in defensive dating techniques and encouraging (or requiring) them to postpone sexual activity until they're mature enough to recognize and avoid dangerous situations.

tlivermore
tlivermore

@Talendria @jeffrey.sill  Let's just start with the basics - unwanted intercourse is, by definition, rape.  All rape is predatory rape. Your woeful lack of understanding of this basic fact contributes to society's ignorance about the crime of rape, low reporting rates, and few prosecutions of rapists. So, thanks for continuing to perpetuate uniformed and harmful myths. 

jeffrey.sill
jeffrey.sill

@Talendria While you may see value in drawing a distinction between predatory rape and unwanted intercourse, I'm not sure the OP (or criminal law) finds the distinction relevant to the topic at hand.

mak4374
mak4374

@Talendria I don't even know where to start with my answer.  Sex is a "counterproductive activity"? Really? What about looking at a sunset? Thinking of, or communicating with a loved one? Having dinner with friends? Listening to music, etc, etc?

I am sorry, I do not mean to come across as sarcastic, but many of us get a diploma to get a better job, while many of us go to school to get an education.  A job is what we do.  An education is what we are.  All of the above is why we are.

Talendria
Talendria

@mak4374 @Talendria Looking at a sunset doesn't get make you pregnant or diseased.  Dinner with friends isn't going to ruin your life.  Sex, on the other hand, can haunt you forever in the form of diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and emotional trauma.  It's selfish and short-sighted to indulge yourself at the risk of jeopardizing your incredibly expensive education.

Talendria
Talendria

@YesterdaysWine It hasn't been proven that this young woman was raped.  In her essay, she admits that she didn't feel as though she'd been raped until three months later.  While I sympathize with her mental anguish, taking her side as she wished the university to do could falsely impugn the male student who may have done nothing wrong.  While sex certainly can be fun, it can also be disastrous primarily for women who by virtue of their anatomy are more easily infected with STDs and who carry the literal burden of pregnancy or the psychological burden of abortion.  With the right person, it's fun; with the wrong person, it's Russian roulette.  Most children and many young adults are simply too immature to make that distinction, and I find it troubling that they nevertheless feel entitled, possibly even compelled, to experiment with sex before they're emotionally ready.  Young people need to understand that waiting is prudent--not prudish.

YesterdaysWine
YesterdaysWine like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Can't that be said about any other time of life? No sex, because you have to work, rake the yard, or clean the attic, or pick up the dry cleaning. Maybe you should never have sex yourself and set a great example for everyone else. A last thought: college should not get in the way of learning.

YesterdaysWine
YesterdaysWine like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Talendria The nuns used to say, MYOB. MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS. Sex is natural, sex is about strong and deep human emotions, sex is about fun, sex is about self-expression, sex is about feeling great. By conflating sex and rape you demean the human side of sex at the same time you equate rape with sex when it is more equatable with every other form of assault except more insidious because of Puritanical viewpoints such as yours. 

Rape is not, never was and never will be about sex. It's about control, violence and ugliness in the rapist's being. Men should speak up. We have mothers, daughters, aunts, nieces, friends, colleagues, friends and fellow human beings subject to this blight.