Time for a sexual-climate change



As more sexual-violence incidents at colleges across the country come to light, the need to understand campus sexual cultures becomes increasingly important. The University of Virginia is now under scrutiny for its handling of sexual-violence cases, revealed in an investigative report in Rolling Stone magazine. Administrators at UVa and elsewhere might lean heavily on the White House’s “Not Alone” recommendations for responding to and preventing sexual assault, but those recommendations do not go nearly far enough. A fully comprehensive approach is necessary to truly understand campus sexual cultures and thus begin to change them. At UVa, in Charlottesville, Va., for example, a host of issues need detailed consideration, starting with the Sexual Misconduct Board:

Confidentiality. The head of the misconduct board, an associate dean of students, Nicole Eramo, was not obligated to maintain the confidentiality of students who came forward with rape and assault allegations. Eramo and other administrators were concerned that pressuring students into pursuing formal charges would dissuade them from filing rape and assault reports. But consider the great impact of that failure to create a fully safe, confidential space for those students.

Conflict of Interest. As the head of the board, Eramo would hear about cases of rape and sexual assault, while as associate dean of students, she was expected to balance the competing demands of ensuring students’ well-being with the demands of ensuring that the university’s risks were minimized. What’s more, investigations of allegations involve two “impartial investigators in the Office of the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Office,” who assess whether enough evidence exists to hold a full hearing. The investigators, of course, may also have competing interests. How can this possibly be in the interests of the students—or the university?

Training. According to Eramo, new board members receive two days of training (one day for returning members), from a lawyer specializing in risk management. In 2013-14 only four cases were heard by the board. With such infrequent opportunities to employ their training, members’ skills may grow rusty. Is that good training? Has it ever been assessed? And why have only lawyers and risk managers trained faculty members, staff members, and students? People hearing sexuality-related cases also need specific training on some of the complexities of sexualities in American culture.

Jurisdiction and Procedures. Although apparently the president’s office was aware of allegations of sexual felonies, including gang rapes, it also appears that the Charlottesville police were not asked to investigate until recently. Why are colleges and universities investigating allegations of felony sex-related crimes without having to involve local law enforcement? Given the paucity of the training, is it reasonable to expect board members and university staff members to investigate and adjudicate such serious criminal allegations? Board members are also expected to base their findings on a preponderance of evidence (for example, a 51-percent likelihood that a crime was committed). That standard may dissuade board members from finding the accused guilty.

No one has ever been expelled from UVa for “sexual misconduct.” According to Eramo, a potential sanction of a “two-year suspension with requirements to return is quite a stiff penalty.” (The “requirements” may include something like reducing or eliminating contact with the complainant.) Yet although university administrators apparently knew about the gang rape that was the focus of the Rolling Stone article and who perpetrated it, there were no sanctions. Complainants who elect an “informal resolution” approach appear to be choosing a route with no sanctions, even if the accused admits guilt in a resolution meeting.

We need to examine broader aspects of campus sexual culture and climate, and not just at the University of Virginia. It is unclear what statistics, if any, are kept about the frequency or location of assaults, but the Rolling Stone article revealed that multiple women had been sexually assaulted and/or raped at the same fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. Scholars and commentators have documented the power of campus fraternities to structure everything from social life to hook-up mores to alcohol consumption. It is time to reconsider how those “brotherhoods” can use their power and traditions to positively influence members. Systematic and focused education about gender and sexualities inequalities may be one answer, along with the bystander-intervention training recently recommended by the federal government, in a program known as “It’s On Us.” But that’s still not enough.

The social construction of gender is clearly at work in the peer pressure the Rolling Stone article revealed. Fraternity men goaded one another into the gang rape that is the focus of the article. Men and women overtly pressured the survivor of that rape (and the others reported) to keep quiet and to make social status and relationships a priority above all else. Where, and when, do we talk with students about the far-reaching implications of that? It’s clearly time that we do.

Author Bios: Rebecca F. Plante is an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Ithaca College and the author of Sexualities in Context: A Social Perspective, forthcoming in 2015 from Routledge. Andrew P. Smiler is the author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male (Jossey-Bass, 2012).