Preventing child sexual abuse can also reduce college assaults, rapes

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 12, 2014 

College campuses are among of the most dangerous places in America for women. According to the 2014 White House Council on Women and Girls, one out of five college women are sexually assaulted and nearly one out of 10 college men are rapists.

This pervasive problem first gained national attention in 1972 with the adoption of Title IX, a civil rights law prohibiting federally funded colleges from gender discrimination, including sexual harassment and rape.

Title IX and the more recent Cleary Act of 1990 have led to widespread prevention strategies and an 85 percent drop in rapes on campus over the past 40 years.

In spite of these improvements, sexual assault remains an epidemic affecting over a quarter of college students and countless others who are friends and family of the victims. Furthermore, 55 U.S. colleges are currently being investigated for their possible mishandling of sex crimes on campus.

Tolerance for sexual assault has a foothold on college campuses across the country. Its prevalence is perpetuated by the fact that students are free from parental oversight for the first time and have easy access to drugs and wild parties. These conditions put them at high risk for sexual assault.

However, students and college administrators who are complacent did not suddenly become so when they set foot on campus. They brought these unhealthy attitudes and behaviors with them. Studies indicate that 33 percent of rapists committed their first offense as juveniles and that one in five girls are raped while in high school. Only half of these attacks are ever reported.

The issue begins at an even earlier age. According to the Department of Justice, 7 percent of fifth-grade girls report being sexually abused, a percentage that is only slightly higher than that reported by middle school students living here in Whatcom County.

In fact, 50 percent of women who are victims of rape were also sexually abused as children. Furthermore, 65 percent of one-time rapists and 85 percent of serial rapists were sexually abused as kids.

What role does the prevalence of child sexual abuse among college women who are raped and college men who are rapists play in the strategies that colleges can take to end sexual violence on campus?

Many students arrive on campus with an incorrect and harmful distinction of right and wrong regarding sexual behaviors and attitudes. Sex-related behavior as a means for exerting power and control is common in high schools where it shows up in incidents of hazing and harassment. In middle school it is prevalent in incidents of bullying and groping. In elementary school it is seen in incidents of teasing and when kids act out in a sexual way that is inappropriate for their age.

This lifetime exposure to undeterred sexual bullying and violence results in tolerance and minimization.

Notably, 60 percent of women do not label incidents of rape as such. Instead, the incidents are frequently dismissed with statements like, "boys will be boys," and "it was as much my fault as it was his."

Rapists make similar comments like, "she wanted it," and "no one ever gets in trouble for it." Of the men who commit rape, 84 percent say that what they did was definitely not rape.

The White House report recommends that colleges address six areas for improvement. Five of these areas focus on enforcement of laws that are already in place. The sixth recommendation is to engage men as advocates for prevention.

In addition to following the report's recommendations, college campuses can do more by addressing issues related to child sexual abuse. The victimization of children at Penn State is an example of how poorly equipped most colleges are in protecting children who visit their campus.

College students interact with children ages 5-18 throughout their collegiate life. At Western Washington Universities for instance, 22 on-campus programs serve thousands of children in kindergarten to grade 12 each year. By adopting training and protocols on adult, child, and youth interactions, colleges can both protect children and protect their faculty and institutions.

Not only would these policies and practices decrease the likelihood of abuse of children on campus, they can be an effective way to empower the student body to address the issues that lead to their own victimization. The skills students learn to protect children from being abused are skills that can generalize into protecting themselves and others as young adults in college.

Western Washington University has already made steps in this direction. Their Children at Western Leadership Group is in its final stages of developing an adult, child and youth safety policy that includes training and reporting requirements. Their commitment to child safety is an important next step in eradicating sexual assault on campus.

For more information on adult, child and youth safety policies and training, contact Brigid Collins Family Support Center.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Byron Manering is executive director of the Brigid Collins Family Support Center in Bellingham. For more information online, go to brigidcollins.org.

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