Sexual assault is a crime like no other. The injuries suffered by survivors are both physical and psychological. The consequences are both immediate and chronic.
The deeply personal nature of these crimesÃ¢â‚¬”combined with sometimes damaging attitudes toward survivorsÃ¢â‚¬”lead to feelings of self-blame and shame. And those feelings are only compounded in closed cultural environments, such as college campuses, where survivors can be made to feel that they themselves are under the microscope.
The scope of sexual assaults on our college and university campuses is staggering:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ According to the available statistics, 19 percent of undergraduate women have been the victims of sexual assault. Because many crimes aren't reported, though, that number is probably higher.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ A 2000 Justice Department report estimated that less than 5 percent of survivors of rape attending college report their attack.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ An investigative series from the Center for Public Integrity in 2010 found that in many cases, survivors wishing to report sexual assault faced confusion over how to do so, confusion over acceptable standards of conduct and definitions of sexual assault, and a fear of punishment for activities preceding some assaults, such as underage drinking.
The challenges we face in confronting sex crimes on our campuses are likely as varied as the campuses on which they happen. But it's already clear we have a lot of work ahead to tackle the systemic issues at play.
As a former sex crimes prosecutor, I know that sexual violence is also unique in another wayÃ¢â‚¬”that we virtually always rely on the survivor to report their assault in order to pursue justice. And so as I work with Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Richard Blumenthal to launch an unprecedented fight against rapes on college campuses, my focus is on finding policies that will best protect and empower survivors, hold schools accountable, and bolster prosecutions of sexual predators.
First comes a fact that I want every student to understand, and that I hope readers of Women's Health can help me communicate to our young people: It's just as much a rape to take advantage of a classmate who's incapacitated in a dorm room as it is to assault a stranger at gunpoint.
I fear that too many students at our colleges and universities think there's a differenceÃ¢â‚¬”that if they had too much to drink, or hung out with the wrong people at the wrong place, that somehow it's their fault that they were sexually assaulted. It's not. You don't need to have perfect judgment to be the victim of a sexual assault.
I also want to be sure we have a firm grasp of all policies in place and the reality on the ground as we begin forming policy solutions. Last month, I launched a survey of hundreds of colleges and universities across the country. This survey is the first congressional inquiry of its kind, and I'm asking for detailed answers about how sexual assaults on campuses are reported, how they're investigated, what resources are available to survivors, how students are notified of those services, what kinds of data the schools collect, what security procedures are used, and what relationships the schools have with local law enforcement.
The colleges and universities participating in our survey will represent different types of institutions (public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit) and vary in size. My hope is that it will give us a window into exactly how our colleges and universities today actÃ¢â‚¬”or sometimes, fail to actÃ¢â‚¬”to protect students and bring perpetrators to justice.
Federal law prohibits schools that receive federal funds from discrimination on the basis of sexÃ¢â‚¬”including sexual harassment and violence. These laws already require schools to report certain data on these crimes, but there's near-universal agreement that these data are insufficient to truly understand the scope of the problem, and thatÃ¢â‚¬”as in all jurisdictionsÃ¢â‚¬”the crime of sexual assault is vastly underreported. So I will convene a series of public roundtable discussions throughout the spring with key stakeholders including survivors, law enforcement, higher education, and federal agencies, to explore ways to strengthen the system from top to bottom.
Finally, I am already working with Senators Gillibrand, Blumenthal, and the White HouseÃ¢â‚¬”whose Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault recently released a series of strong recommendationsÃ¢â‚¬”to craft policies to better protect our students on campuses across the country, and hold schools accountable for providing the highest level of responsiveness when these crimes occur. And I'll be sure to give the readers of Women's Health an update on our progress in the coming months.
None of our children should be left on their own after being victimized. As a former prosecutor, and as a mother of college-age daughters, I'm determined to give a voice to those survivors.
Senator Claire McCaskill is a former courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes, and former Jackson County, Mo. Prosecutor, where she established the Kansas City region's first unit devoted to combatting domestic and sexual violence. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006Ã¢â‚¬”the first woman elected from MissouriÃ¢â‚¬”and is currently a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, leading the efforts to fight sexual assault in the military, and Chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection.