Dear Presidents, Deans, Provosts, and other officials at our nation’s colleges and universities:
You know very well that sexual assault on your campuses is a big problem and of serious concern to students and their families.
Stories about sexual assault have been examined in the news a great deal in the past year. As the mother of two daughters in their early teens, the aunt to two teenage nieces, and the former teacher of a few hundred high school students now in college, this topic concerns me greatly.
“Rape culture” has been discussed, analyzed, even mocked by some. Different sets of statistics on campus assault have been offered: some look quite alarming, others look milder. It is getting quite confusing for parents and guardians of college-age women.
We know that Rolling Stone magazine reported a horrifying case of gang rape at the University of Virginia, and now key aspects have been thrown into question. Does that mean there is no longer a problem of such assaults on campus? No.
We read George Will’s Washington Post column in June, that scoffed at typical student assault accusations and knocked collegiate “progressivism” as muddling school officials’ reactions. Does that mean the problem is being overblown and we shouldn’t worry at all about sexual assault? No.
We have seen stories about a Columbia University student carrying around her mattress this year, who hopes to bring attention to the anguish of acquaintance rape. This dramatic act has been examined from various angles, pro and con. Does this young woman’s actions, her willingness to put a name and face to sexual assault, mean that most young women who are assaulted are also able to go public? No. Countless numbers keep their hurt, fear, and injuries to themselves.
There are many people out there who shrug their shoulders about campus sexual assault, taking it in stride or blaming the students themselves for the crimes, and I think this is almost as horrifying as the heinous acts themselves. There are young women, and yes, young men as well, who are sexually assaulted and who are too scared to come forward, or who feel they won’t be treated with respect and care. They think the crimes committed against them will be ignored, mocked, or cared for coldly. This is terrible, and not something that should be part of their educations.
When our young people go to college, they hope to learn, grow and have positive experiences. They do not want to be assaulted, sexually injured, humiliated. I do not want this to happen someday to my daughters, nor to my nieces, nor to any other young woman or man. We want them to sweat out exams and research papers, struggle with educational concepts and cut their teeth on internships. We don’t want them gang raped, sodomized, battered. We don’t want them to be treated like fools because they reported unwanted sexual contact. We don’t want them to contract diseases or have unwanted pregnancies due to being violated or touched in other unwanted ways. In addition, we don’t want our youngsters preyed upon by professors who want to have sexual contact with their students.
I was not sexually assaulted while I was a student. But that does not mean I don’t think it is a serious problem. It is not the kind of thing most women are willing to discuss, but I do have one friend who confided to me, years after the fact, that when she was in college she was assaulted. When she told me this, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I told her I was sorry it had happened. I tried to be as caring as possible. For her sake, and every other young person’s sake, I want colleges to work hard in preventing student assault, and dealing in a caring, professional manner with those who do suffer this indignity.
We send our young people to you, college presidents, deans, and provosts. We entrust their care with you. We need you to develop proper and helpful responses. 2015 is upon us: resolve for the new year to help decrease sexual assault on campus and properly care for those who are victims.
Ellen Levitt is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013). (And hopefully a book about NJ one day, if her publisher gives the green light.)