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Evaluating Rice’s sexual assault response

By Elana Margosis     1/26/16 8:58pm

Along with the rest of the Rice community, I received a crime alert Saturday morning that a female student had been sexually assaulted at a party at Sid Richardson College the night before. The university and student body reactions that followed have been mixed, with the administration responding better relative to than the students.  

The good

That the student reported the assault at all is noteworthy. Sexual assault frequently goes unreported for a variety of reasons and few assailants are ever prosecuted. According to the Rape, Incest, Abuse National Network, nearly 70 percent of sexual assaults are never reported, and 98 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail. This pattern holds true at Rice. While the Survey of Unwanted Sexual Experiences reports that nearly one in four female undergraduate students will experience some form of unwanted sexual contact at Rice, I had never received a crime report about a sexual assault until Saturday. It is significant that the student felt comfortable enough reporting her assault to RUPD in the first place.

RUPD reacted appropriately and treated the sexual assault as a crime like any other. The emails sent by RUPD matched the tone and content of previous crime alerts and updates. RUPD’s follow-up email alerting the Rice community that they identified the suspected assailant and took “proactive steps” to ensure campus safety reaffirmed that the administration would take the case seriously instead of simply looking the other way. 

RUPD’s treatment of the suspect as an active, ongoing threat to campus security is fitting, considering the fact that most assailants are repeat offenders. A 2002 study by David Lisak and Paul Miller, researchers from the University of Massachusetts and the Brown University School of Medicine found that nearly 65 percent of rapists have committed multiple acts of assault. So, while the number of actual assailants is very low, each repeat offender is likely to commit an average of about seven assaults. For RUPD to remain inactive during this time would have been irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

The bad

Student response to the report has been mixed. In person, the vast majority of people who have said anything about the assault have been respectful and many expressed support for RUPD’s swift response and transparency. That said, the people I discuss sexual assault with may not be representative of the student body.

The response on anonymous message board app Yik Yak has been decidedly less positive. Messages and comments have been posted calling the student’s report into question and doubting the veracity of the report. This creates a toxic environment that discourages reporting. Indeed, one user wrote, “The response to this makes me really grateful I didn’t report my sexual assaults.” Another user responded that “all victims should be encouraged” to report their assaults, but keeping in mind the threat of further harassment survivors face, how realistic is this goal? If we are serious about increasing reporting rates, holding an anonymous kangaroo court on the Internet is just about the last thing we should do. 

Sexual assault seems to be the one crime whose victims get this sort of undue harassment in comparison to the victims of other crimes, but the data shows that false reports of sexual assault occurs at the same rate as false reports of other crimes, at roughly 2 to 8 percent, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. So why are reports of sexual assault routinely called into question when reports of other crimes don’t cause any controversy at all? It is likely that the individuals concerned about the veracity of the report were well intentioned, but misinformed. 

Going forward

Rice’s track record on sexual assault is hardly exceptional. The results of the Survey of Unwanted Sexual Experiences show that Rice’s rates of unwanted sexual experiences fall squarely into the national averages. The kinds of posts that cropped up on Yik Yak are nothing unique to Rice either. Evidently, Rice students aren’t immune to contributing to a hostile environment towards survivors of assault. 

It is clear that Rice students are firmly against sexual assault in the abstract sense. But when individual cases come to light, Rice students must also extend their convictions to these cases.

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