Politics

College Sexual Assault Reports Are Rising — And That Might Be a Good Thing

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Yesterday, the Education Department released a report on crime and safety within the U.S. school system. Among the 200-plus pages of findings, one in particular stands out: the number of reported sexual assaults on college campuses is soaring. In 2001, there were 2,200 sex offenses on America’s campuses. In 2011, there were 3,330. For those keeping track at home, that’s a 52 percent increase in the number of reported sexual assaults — even as overall crime on campus dropped.

Those numbers are depressing, disturbing, fucked up — it goes without saying that 3,330 sexual assaults (or rapes  — as Emily Bazelon at Slate has written before, let’s call them what they are) is 3,330 too many. But there’s also hope in those numbers. The increase in reported rapes on campus may actually be a good thing. That’s because the key word here is reported. If the number of sex crimes on campus is up more than 50 percent, that doesn’t necessarily mean the actual number of rapes has gone up 50 percent. It could mean that. But it could also mean that more rapes are being reported — that, as Eliza Gray argues at Time, “colleges are getting better at acknowledging the ones that have always taken place.”

Which is not to say — let’s be very clear  — that colleges have exactly been hitting it out of the park on this one. In 2012, Angie Epifano wrote an essay detailing her horrifying treatment by Amherst College after she was raped there her freshman year (“forgive and forget,” they told her. She withdrew from the school. Her rapist graduated with honors.) At Buzzfeed, Katie J.M. Baker chronicled Brown University’s similar refusal to treat rapists as actual criminals. While figuring out the ideal judicial proceedings for handling rape on campus may indeed be complicated, it’s pretty clear Brown’s approach — discourage victim from pressing criminal charges, suspend violent rapist for one year, tell victim that they’re “sorry” she was “disappointed” with that result — isn’t it. Last month, three days after the White House announced new guidelines to “press” colleges to do more to combat sexual assault on campus, the Department of Education released a list of the 55 colleges and universities (my own alma mater included) currently facing a Title IX investigation over their (mis)handling of sexual abuse complaints. Amherst and Brown are just two examples. They’re hardly alone.

It’s also true — also depressingly — that the new number probably still isn’t all-inclusive. As the White House guidelines noted in April, one in five female college students has been sexually assaulted. In 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics counted a record 21.8 million college students, 12.5 million of them female (and women, as we know, aren’t the only victims of rape). If both of those things are true, than 3,330 is way too low. 

Still, it’s progress. Counterintuitive progress, inadequate progress, but it’s progress nonetheless. The campaigns to get rape and rape culture taken seriously on college campuses are having an impact. Back at Time, Gray points out that “while more ‘forcible’ sexual offenses were reported between 2001 to 2011, there was a whopping 90% decline in ‘non forcible’ sexual offenses.” That means that “some of the rise in ‘forcible’ offenses is because colleges stopped classifying so many assaults as ‘non forcible,” Gray writes. Rape, in other words, is finally being recognized as what it is. The rising stats reflect a long-overdue rise in visibility. The new numbers are the best kind of bad news there is.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.