Is it time to rethink sexual assaults at college?

Austin Walker
Staff Writer

Photo by Julie Tripp

The Philosophy Department at VCU hosted an event last week with speakers from around the United States to engage in debate about sexual assault on college campuses.

Michael Tooley of the University of Colorado at Boulder raised questions about the validity of victim’s complaints, while Heidi Lockwood of Southern Connecticut State University contended that we’re still not doing enough to protect victims of sexual assault.

The debate was organized and mediated by VCU associate professor Mike Valdman. It began with opening statements made by both parties, followed by presentations and questions from the audience. It concluded with closing statements made by both parties.

The event was held in the Singleton Center and was free and open to the public. Titled simply “Sexual Assault on Campus,” Valdman presented questions relating to current legislation on sexual assault and contemporary views of consent and power differential.

Lockwood made claims that are exploring popular topics within debates revolving around feminism today, arguing things such as the validity of consent, the appropriateness of workplace relations and the role that social status and power has within sexual relations.

A controversial topic within this debate was what actually constitutes consent.

While speaking on the gravity which saying ‘yes’ to sex carries, Lockwood said “There are, in other words, fifty shades of consent. To hang investigations on the hook of consent, in the absence of information, which is typical, either the complainant or the respondent is going to have to be given the benefit of the doubt.”

Other facets of Lockwood’s argument include how situations of power, where for example a faculty member could be engaging in sexual relations with a student, there’s many factors at play that are manipulative of the student’s ability to properly agree to sex.

She said that the influence of that relation could include letters of recommendation, a desire to stay within a positive light in that faculty member’s eyes, and fear of punishment for the decision to not engage in sexual relations.

“Situations in which there is a power differential, consent may be just as difficult to define as in situations where alcohol is involved,” Lockwood said.

She praised the recent decision by Harvard University to entirely ban all intimate relationships between faculty members and students. This has faced controversy, and sometimes there are instances where teacher assistants are the same age of students, and they should have the right to be with whomever they want to.

Tooley’s answers to questions about sexual assault on campus go against many of today’s popular views. He claims that the pushes being made are detrimental to both women and men in society. His argument revolves around the concept that shifting the blame away from women in these instances “infantilizes” them.

Tooley continues that “…many institutions, including the federal government, have been propagating these wildly inaccurate views concerning the frequency of sexual assaults on campus at colleges and universities.”

Tooley provided statistical evidence from the U.S. Department of Justice’s special report titled “Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females” to support this claim.

It showed that not only were the number of women who’d been raped, sexually assaulted, attempted to be raped, or threatened to be raped or sexually assaulted around 3% on college campuses, but that that percentage was higher for college-aged women who weren’t attending a university.

That percentage measures the probability of any of those crimes being reported during a four year period. This is a stark contrast to the statistic that currently is boasted by the Obama administration that 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted during their stay at college.

Lockwood contended that the numbers Tooley presented were only cases where the students or people had actually been able or chose to report the crimes committed against them.

The infrequency of reporting sexual assault has been examined before, and recent pushes by universities and student groups have helped raise these numbers in the past decade. Still, Lockwood said that rapes and assaults often go unreported.

Some of Tooley’s other claims were that the current societal views are assuming that the accused is guilty until proven innocent. This is mirrored by federal law, which does not guarantee legal representation for those accused of sexual assault who are under trial by campus honor committees.

Accused aggressors in sexual assault cases are not guaranteed legal counsel while facing trial by university honor committees. He said there’s no guaranteed right given to them that would allow them to cross-examine witness and accusers.

Despite these claims, Lockwood continued that sexual assault on campus is a present danger, and that further measures must take place in order to protect both women and men from predators.


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