A few months ago, Lesley and Emily put me on what should be a relatively simple assignment: a list of the top (or bottom, depending on how you look at things) ten worst college campuses for rape victims. My research led me down a rabbit hole that I'm still trying to fight my way out of, and, quite simply, I can't give you such a list.
But high school students are in the final stages of making decisions about where they want to go, while college students are considering transfers and where they want to do their graduate work. So it's time to talk both about sexual assault on campus, and about why it's so difficult to identify the worst campuses for rape victims.
One in five college women is sexually assaulted during her time at school. How her case is handled varies considerably: from students utterly failed by their college administrations to women being told their rapes didn't happen because the guy didn't come. And, sometimes, women who are raped on campus or in college-owned facilities are treated with dignity and respect, referred to counseling and provided with resources in a process that eventually leads to justice.
The vast disparity in the treatment of college rape victims allows a rape culture to thrive on many campuses, including, as Jaclyn Friedman points out, some pretty big names. High school students thinking about where they want to go often don't consider crime statistics, especially when it comes to a college with a seductive name like UC Berkeley or Dartmouth. For those who do decide to check on crime statistics, Friedman notes, many colleges aren't supplying data, even though they're supposed to.
When I started trying to figure out how to assemble a list of the worst colleges for rape victims, my first thought was, naturally, rape statistics on college campuses. However, colleges actively suppress rape statistics by any means possible, because they don't want to be exposed as hostile environments for women. Paradoxically, schools with a seemingly higher reported number of rapes could even be safer for women, as the high number might be an indicator that colleges take rape reports seriously, work with victims through every step of the reporting process, and work hard to aggressively pursue cases of rape on their campuses.
Low levels of rape statistics don't mean rape's not happening: all they mean is that it's not being reported. A hidden rape epidemic is impossible to gauge by its very nature, which makes it very hard to align in a neat list format.
I also thought of pursuing cases where rape victims have filed both internal and external complaints against their campus administrations, but this would have been a monstrously time-consuming process that could have taken months or years. It would have required painstakingly combing through records for every individual college and university as well as the Department of Education and law enforcement organizations.
And the process would have been further hindered by the fact that settlements are often suppressed, and students are informed that their cases will only be handled if they agree to remain silent.
Once again, I would have faced the problem of being unable to create an accurate list because much of the data would have been notable in its absence, not its presence. How do you describe something that cannot be tangibly measured?
This list would have come with a tremendous responsibility -- obviously, in one sense it would have been designed to spark a conversation about campus rape and draw attention to some of the worst offenders. But it might also have become an important decisionmaking tool for people considering where they want to college, and a list with inaccuracies would have had horrific results for young women across the United States, which is a heavy burden to live with.
I mulled the list over while I was in New Zealand, and tried to think of various ways I could compile data in a functional and useful way, and I ultimately concluded that without research support and pretty substantial funding, I wouldn't be able to do it justice, which is what I told Emily and Lesley. In essence, such a list would be a critical piece of investigative journalism and an important piece of the conversation on campus rape, which is why it needs to be done properly, rather than prepared under time and funding constraints that result in incomplete data.
Campus rape, and rape in general, are subjects I feel passionately about, and with the growing awareness of the extent of campus rape, important conversations are happening. I'd argue that we still critically need a list of the worst offenders, that we should be publicly shaming college campuses that treat their women so poorly that they're driven out of school, forced to hide themselves, or simply so thoroughly dispirited that they don't even bother reporting rapes because they already know what the outcome will be. We should be dragging darkness into the light, and talking about why colleges hide the rot at their core under esteemed names.
Every week, I feel like I'm reading about the abuse of a rape victim by campus administration, campus law enforcement, campus advisors, and other personnel. The conspiracy of suppression around college rape -- I am reminded of the informal tradition at many colleges of refusing to declare students DOA if they are found dead on campus, but rather calling time of death on the ambulance outside the campus gates -- harms women, and it also harms college populations in general.
The Obama Administration tells us that college rape victims are "Not Alone," with a shiny new program of the same name that purports to fight campus rape, after years of pressure for government action on the issue. Four years ago, NPR did an excellent feature series on college rape, and I'm driven to wonder why young women are having to wait so long for basic justice.
It's not rape victims who should be living in shame: it's their rapists, and the campus administrators who enable them.
But on a practical level, if you're preparing for college and you want to know which campuses to avoid, how can you find out if your potential colleges are safe(r) places? You can start by looking up crime statistics for your campus and also for the area in general (police departments maintain these), as long as you're aware that they won't provide a complete picture. It's also worth Googling "[college name] rape" and "[college name] rape scandal." Be sure to check out the "news" tab for recent results, which will give you an idea of whether the college has a rape problem and if it's working on it.
Ask current students, too. Lots of forums provide ways for prospective and current students to connect, and you can find out more about the situation on the ground and stories that may have been suppressed or not widely reported. One of your best resources may be the college's women's or feminist clubs and organizations, which obviously monitor rapes and sexual assaults with a particularly close eye.
If a campus rape problem is an important factor or the deciding factor in your decision to turn down an offer, tell the college administration. Make it clear that their poor record on handling rapes cost them a potential admit, and challenge them to do better, for the good of current and future students.