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The History of Campus Sexual Assault

Agent Illustrateur
Getty Images/Ikon Images

"Male sex aggression on a university campus" was the title of one of the first studies published about a topic now very much in the news. Way back in 1957, sociologist Eugene Kanin posited a model where men used secrecy and stigma to pressure and exploit women.

Today student activists and the federal government are successfully raising awareness about a problem that's been around for a very long time. By most accounts, one in five female college students will be assaulted. Gender relations have changed since the 1950s and so has the law. What's still unclear is the best approach for preventing sexual misconducton campus. For some answers, I called up one of the leading scholars who's been researching the issue for decades.

Inside the Minds of Perpetrators

Mary Koss coined the term "date rape" back in the 1980s. She's a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and over the course of her career, she has collected the stories of thousands, on campuses and around the world.

"I had my list of 'OMG' experiences with this research," she says, particularly when gathering reports from self-described perpetrators. Among the most disturbing, of those 'OMG' findings were these two, from the only national survey of college men on the topic, published in 1987:

* 7.7 percent of male students volunteered anonymously that they had engaged in or attempted forced sex.

*Almost none considered it to be a crime.

"They would say, 'Yes, I held a woman down to have sex with her against her consent but that was definitely not rape,'" Koss says. Part of the reason that few of her respondents considered themselves sexual offenders, she said, is that they faced no negative consequences. No accusation. No shame. No punishment. Compared with when she started doing this research in the 1980s, she says, even more men in current studies, around 11 percent, admit to being perpetrators.

The exact comparable statistic for non-students is hard to find. Which raises the question of why so much of this research concerns college students. Part of it is situational: psychology researchers always find undergraduates a handy population to study. Also, traditional college campuses, Koss points out, have situational risk factors for sexual abuse: a population that is primarily made up of young single people and lots of underage drinking. She says the three "primary drivers" that enable a small minority of men to offend without consequences, are a culture of high alcohol consumption, peer pressure from other men to prove sexual prowess and men's own attitudes favoring impersonal sex.

MIT student activist Larkin Sayre (center) works a booth representing the "It's on Us" campaign in a lobby on campus.
Tovia Smith / NPR
MIT student activist Larkin Sayre (center) works a booth representing the "It's on Us" campaign in a lobby on campus.

The Question of Consequences

Another key factor in understanding campus sexual assault is the response, or lack thereof, by universities. In the case of the University of Virginia and many others now in the news, some of the outrage seems to hinge on the appearance of institutions either discouraging or avoiding reporting sex crimes.

I asked several legal scholars why administrations don't just send victims to the police (assuming the incident is reported in the first place, which most are not.) They explained that universities have a parallel responsibility to investigate and prevent sex crimes as a gender equality issue under Title IX.

Plus, unfortunately, the criminal justice system has major shortcomings as a venue for bringing sex offenders to justice.

However, that leaves many perpetrators facing few consequences. Even when crimes are reported, says Koss, "Schools seem to have about two responses to sexual assault: One is expulsion, and two is write a paper." And expelled students are, of course, free to enroll elsewhere. Such sanctions, Koss and others note, are likely to impact neither the school environment nor the total incidence of crimes.

At the University of Arizona, Koss has implementeda different approach to enforcement, called restorative justice. This concept (which we've covered elsewhere) gives victims a space to confront offenders, who may face consequences like counseling and community service.

New Rules

Nevertheless, Koss and other researchers are, perhaps surprisingly, optimistic about the current upswell of student activism, major media attention, and especially action on the federal level. "What's happened with the president's initiative is all of a sudden it's a massive political issue, and it's getting media coverage and people are feeling free to come out and talk," she says.

What's most important, she says, is to "prioritize victim choice."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.