Recently, Time magazine ran an op-ed by Caroline Kitchens criticizing what she perceived to be a preoccupation among college students with "rape hysteria." Kitchens is not alone: many argue that the statistics on campus sexual violence that we currently rely on are outdated, poorly calculated or biased from the start.
The best data we have suggests that as many as one out of every four young women will experience rape or attempted rape between the ages of 16 and 24, and that women who attend college are significantly more likely to be raped than women who do not. But these stats are hard to verify, when rape continues to be one of the most underreported crimes in the United States.
Not knowing the exact magnitude of the crisis has inhibited our ability to respond to it properly.
Victims, who in the past have been isolated and impotent, are now comparing notes using social networking platforms including blogs, Facebook posts, Tweets, and even Change.org petitions. The World Wide Web has brought into sharp focus the discrepancies between the numbers disseminated by college administrators and the actual campus climate as experienced by students.
Why not use the Internet in an official capacity to define the problem precisely so that it can at last be addressed effectively in the full light of disclosure? The Department of Education should require an online survey to be anonymously completed by every graduating senior at every college receiving federal funding, so that we will finally know exactly how many young men and women are being subjected to sexual assault (and every other crime) on any single campus.
This idea of "exit surveys" is not without precedent. Under Section 532 of the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act of 2007, the Department of Defense mandates an annual report on the efficacy of the "policies, training, and procedures of each Military Service Academy with respect to sexual harassment and violence." In their short existence, these surveys have already helped our country's military academies enhance their programs in the areas of "prevention, investigation, accountability, victim advocacy and victim assistance." Recently, the state of Maryland has taken steps to implement climate surveys modeled after one developed for the University of Montana, which was found to have failed to comply with federal requirements under Title IX and Title IV.
In the spring of 2013, in connection with the Title IX complaint filed against the University of Southern California, I was invited by a student activist group to add questions concerning sexual assault to a student-initiated campus climate survey. I chose to model my questions on those developed by Ms. magazine for Robin Warshaw's work "I Never Called It Rape" -- open-ended, obliquely-worded questions devoid of legal conclusions. Ultimately, the survey results produced data from approximately 200 respondents, and the information gleaned was sobering, to say the least.
The survey found that nearly 45 percent of respondents had experienced some form of sexual violence while attending the university. When students were asked to evaluate USC's handling of issues related to student-on-student crime -- its campus safety efforts, available counseling services, awareness and prevention programs, and crime response and crisis support services -- using a five-point scale ranged from Very Ineffective to Very Effective, the majority rated every single category as "ineffective" to some degree. In fact, many victims revealed they had chosen not to report their rapes because they anticipated the administrative response would be insufficient. When we filed our complaint against USC in May, we included an appeal to the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that they impose on the university the obligation to implement a similar survey that would be administered to all exiting seniors.
But imagine the advantages offered by annual nationwide surveys.
First and foremost, these would supplement what is already expected of institutions under the Clery Act. Concrete numbers from current students would eliminate potential administrative incentive to conceal assaults, and would thereby eliminate the recent controversy (apparently seen again as recently as last week at Harvard University) of victims whose rights were violated by administrators keen to keep crime statistics low.
Data from every graduating student would provide the opportunity to better monitor programs from year to year, facilitating speedy identification of trends related to problematic staff or ineffective programs while simultaneously highlighting what efforts were effective at bringing assault numbers down.
Most importantly, the results from these surveys would provide the Holy Grail of rape-related data -- some real sense for the percentage of unreported assaults. We would finally have access to the experiences of those raped women and men who are unwilling to come forward due to legitimate fear of dismissal and shaming. And with careful wording, we could identify how many of our young people meet the definition of victimization but are unable or unwilling to categorize themselves as victims. It would revolutionize our ability to combat a thus-far elusive, festering societal infection.
Using the Internet to conduct yearly surveys can and should be the first decisive step toward fixing the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. A computer-based survey would be extremely inexpensive to set up and virtually cost-free to keep running until the sexual assault problem isn't a problem anymore.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.