Sulkowicz’s story: universities treat assault with contempt

Demonstration against sexual assault at Columbia University

No justice, no peace.

Emma Sulkowicz was not the first woman to be raped at a university in the United States. She is, unfortunately, far from the last. The epidemic of sexual assault in the college system, like the similar scourge in the military, comes from a fundamental lack of accountability. Internal justice systems in colleges do not incorporate best practices for victims of assault, and police departments around the country are still skeptical of both female and male victims.

A transcript of Emma’s interview at Democracy Now! is available here. The sea change in the past couple years has been driven exclusively by victims- not finding accountability at their own institutions, they began looking beyond to the Office of Civil rights and their powers using Title IX (PDF) to smash apart a conspiracy of silence.

My old credit union had copies of the Stanford Daily, so I have read the paper several times each school year. A recurring motif is the inadequacy of existing courts and boards to handle sexual assault cases. Victims are not given due consideration. They often have to meet their attacker several times as a case works through the system. No-contact orders and other paperwork issued by the university do not address two key issues: the alleged rapist is still on campus with little real separation from the victim, and anyone who has been accused of rape may be a threat to other people.

Orientation for the four-year university I will attend next month included much information on consent and where the sexual assault resource center is. But education is not nearly enough. Rapists will still exist, and the key question is what sanctions and legal action will be taken against those who are accused of a crime. As Columbia blog bwog states:

“In New York State, first-degree rape is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 25 years.  At Columbia, a student found responsible for rape, groping, or harassment could potentially receive the same punishment given to underage students found in possession of alcohol.”

Sexual assault is a violent felony. Keeping suspects on the same small campus as victims is a terrible idea. It is disturbing that elite institutions, that stress their advanced education and community, are just as backwards on this issue as lesser schools. And that a woman must carry a mattress around for weeks to get attention is horrible and degrading. Those that are harmed should get the respect and attention they deserve without resorting to high-profile stunts.

Even in 2014, it is clear that a woman’s body is not given the same legal protection as a man’s. Executive leaderships still can’t believe that what these people say is likely true, and that factors like alcohol and drug use are distractions from the core problem.

The university is losing authority by the week, as complaints now go both to the federal government and the police. Central to this discussion is the dilemma, that perhaps there are many crimes that should not be dealt with by a school. Perhaps one day these places will have a sexual assault policy as enlightened as their academics.

Perhaps not.

It’s disgusting.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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