What We Have Learned: Sexual Assault

Of the three behaviors we’ve studied as a committee, sexual assault is undoubtedly the most devastating, the one that leaves the deepest scars on both individual victims and the community in general. Defined as any unwanted or unwelcome touching of a sexual nature that occurs without valid consent, sexual assault is also notoriously difficult to measure and to address. National studies suggest that sexual assault is widespread on college campuses, affecting as many as one in every four or five students. Yet it is also vastly underreported. Because it often occurs in private settings among acquaintances, victims may be reluctant to come forward after an assault or may feel deeply uncomfortable with discussing the details of the experience. Many are survivors of an experience that happened while they were drugged, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated. As a result, identifying, discussing, and determining responsibility for sexual assault can be an elusive and challenging task.

Like its peer institutions, Dartmouth publishes yearly statistics that detail the number of forcible sexual offenses reported to the College or local law enforcement agencies. In comparison to our Ivy League peers, Dartmouth reports higher numbers of sexual assault; in comparison to our NESCAC peers, we report lower numbers. These numbers, as many have noted, may not adequately reflect the reality of sexual assault on any given campus. Higher reporting numbers may signal a better system of accountability and a deeper level of student awareness. Lower reporting numbers may signal a culture of stigma around reporting that pushes the problem underground. As the report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault noted this April, universities and colleges across the nation are all struggling with how to measure and make public sexual assault data.

The scope and complexity of this problem is alarming, yet in our discussions with experts we have been consistently assured that the incidence of sexual assault can be reduced through increased accountability and better education. At the national Summit on Sexual Assault that Dartmouth hosted this July, we listened to a number of experts describe model policies and procedures for increasing accountability and campus safety. These include a four-year reinforcing education program for students; required bystander intervention training for all students; a consent manual that lays out complex scenarios with possible adjudicable outcomes; and new technologies that enable students to seek help, report offenses anonymously, or access resources.

Dartmouth has already taken a huge step toward increasing accountability with its revised sexual assault policy, in place since June of this year, that mandates expulsion in the most egregious cases of sexual misconduct. We have hired a new Title IX coordinator who has already raised the level of discussion around this difficult topic by educating the campus about sexual assault prevention and response. A campus climate survey is planned for the near future. Our committee is excited by these and other initiatives on campus, but we also are mindful of the fact that it will take a strong commitment by all members of the community to change cultural norms around sexual violence.