A fairly common refrain when discussing the utter, devastating ineptitude of colleges in handling sexual assault cases is, "Why do we even trust colleges to handle this?" Often, people will wonder why victims don't just report to the police. The short answer to this is as wholly depressing as you'd expect: simply put, it's because the police don't give a shit about rape, either.
In a particularly horrifying example of this, Emma Sulkowicz — one of the sexual assault victims at Columbia whose rapist was found "not responsible" after an incompetent and re-victimizing hearing process — recently reported that rape to the police (her rapist, who has been accused of assaulting at least two other women, appeared on the "rapist list" being circulated on campus). Her experience with the police was awful: they treated her dismissively and openly doubted her account.
At Al Jazeera, Claire Gordon takes an in-depth look at the NYPD's bristling indifference. On Tuesday, Sulkowicz called the police; within 10 minutes, four officers arrived at the door of her dorm room and displayed open skepticism almost immediately. "You didn't call the police? Most women would have called the police," one officer said, later adding, "You invited him into your room. That's not the legal definition of rape." Sulkowicz alleges that her assailant hit her across the face, choked her, pinned her down and anally raped her. But because she invited him into her room, the NYPD seems to think, she was totally asking for it.
From there, things got worse: Sulkowicz was taken to a precinct on the Upper West Side. However, it didn't have a Special Victims Unit (a unit specializing in sex crimes), so she was taken across town in a squad car. At the next station, while she was being questioned in private, two friends who had accompanied her told an officer that they'd found the police's questioning to be uncomfortable. His reply was remarkably insensitive:
"Well, it's supposed to be uncomfortable," the officer responded. "…If it goes to trial, this is what's going to happen… you think that was bad? Nah."
"For every single rape I've had, I've had 20 that are total bullshit," he added. "…It's also my type of job to get to the truth. If that means being harsh about it, that's what I do."
A little later, he went on to remark that Sulkowicz couldn't even tell him the eye color of the man she was accusing.
"He made it very clear that he didn't believe it, and that she had handled the whole case improperly," Sulkowicz's boyfriend Erik Ramberg told Al Jazeera. "…He was illustrating exactly why girls feel uncomfortable going to the police. The worst fears of a stereotype confirmed."
Yep, pretty much. This is exactly why women don't go to the police. As Gordon points out, a 2000 DOJ study found that less than 5 percent of college rape victims reported their attack to law enforcement; of the 95 percent who didn't report, a quarter said they were afraid of being treated with hostility. Twenty-seven percent thought the police wouldn't think their case was serious enough. And anecdotal examples of law enforcement officials engaging in victim-blaming and/or abusing rape survivors abound. As Wagatwe Wanjuki wrote at Feministing, "the system is ill-equipped and sometimes straight-up hostile to survivors of gender-based violence." She notes some particularly egregious examples that have occurred in the past year:
Two of these stories [of the downfalls of the criminal justice system] included a judge who overturned a conviction because he deemed that the survivor didn't "act like a victim" enough and a Detroit police officer recently charged with sexual assault while responding to a domestic violence call. And let's not forget about the backlog of sexual assault evidence collection kits, which has been notorious enough to get its own story arc in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
You really can't blame sexual assault survivors for not having faith in the system.
Furthermore, criminal prosecutors are often reluctant to take on sexual assault cases because the evidentiary standard is so high ("beyond a reasonable doubt"); in cases where it's one student's word against another, that standard would be incredibly difficult to meet. A majority of colleges require a lower standard of proof ("more-likely-than-not") because the punishment is far less severe — i.e., expulsion at the worst, as compared to a criminal conviction. Victims are therefore far likelier to see some sort of justice utilizing the latter system.
In an op-ed for USA Today, Nancy Chi Cantalupo puts it thusly: "Schools cannot rely on criminal prosecutions of sexual violence against students because they cannot compel criminal system officials to act. When police inadequately investigate or prosecutors refuse to file charges, a school's hands could be tied. And prosecutions rarely obtain convictions." If universities were to lack their own separate hearing processes, when criminal prosecutions refused to act, administrations wouldn't be able to do anything to rectify that. Rape victims would then be either forced to drop out or to attend school with their attackers.
This is why Title IX matters. This is why we need to reform campus sexual assault policies. It simply isn't sufficient to outsource the hearing process to a system that's equally — if not more — unsympathetic to survivors.
Image via Getty.