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Confronting Campus Rape

A growing wave of grassroots activists is forcing universities to take a stronger stand against sexual abuse - and now the Obama administration is joining the fight

Over 250 Dickinson College students gathered to protest against sexual assault on campus
Christine Baker/The Patriot-News /Landov
June 4, 2014 10:00 AM ET

April 4th, 2004, is a date Laura Dunn has never forgotten. That was the day the Midwestern preacher's daughter who didn't believe in sex before marriage says she lost her virginity to not one but two University of Wisconsin-Madison athletes. Dunn was a freshman member of the crew team, attending a boozy frat bash, and she lost count of her intake after seven raspberry-vodka shots. She remembers two older teammates led her out, guys she knew. She was stumbling drunk, but one of them helped her walk, and they headed, she thought, toward another campus party. Instead, they led her to one of their apartments, where she found herself on a bed with both of them on top of her, as she drifted in and out of consciousness. When she started to get sick, one of them led her to the bathroom, where he penetrated her from behind while she was throwing up.

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 The next morning, she went back to her apartment, tossed her bloody underwear in the hamper and took a shower. "It was awful. I was trying to get it off my skin."

In the afternoon, one of the teammates called. "He said, 'I felt bad for you, are you OK?'" recalls the petite brunette, a recently graduated law student. "I was like, 'Why did I find blood in my underwear?' He was like, 'Do you want to talk about it?'"

They agreed to meet later, off campus. Both young men showed up. "I said, 'What did you do?' And then one said, 'I raped you.' But the other teammate was like, 'No, it was a threesome. It was great.'"

It took Dunn more than a year to come to terms with the truth of the first assessment. Ten years on, she's still looking for justice.

In the past few years, the issue of campus rape has exploded, with dozens of schools, including Harvard Law, under investigation. Activists are protesting on campus and in Washington. The president of the United States is talking about it, and his vice president and White House staff formed a task force to combat sexual violence on campus.

"Sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals," Obama said, announcing the task force at the White House in January. "It threatens our families; it threatens our communities. Ultimately, it threatens the entire country. It tears apart the fabric of our communities. And that's why we're here today – because we have the power to do something about it as a government, as a nation."

Activists and victims proclaimed he was the first American president to utter the phrase "sexual violence." Four months later – lightning-fast by government task-force standards – the group made a series of recommendations to colleges about dealing with sexual-assault charges.

"It is incredible that the president of the United States of America told survivors he has their back," says Caroline Heldman, chair of the department of political science at Occidental, who has counseled victims on her campus and is writing a book on the issue. "We have never seen anything like this in the 100-plus years women have been fighting sexual violence."

Feminists hailed Obama's involvement in the rape issue as historic, a watershed moment for women's politics. A wave of student activism preceded the presidential announcement, with thousands of Laura Dunns coming out, putting their names and faces behind charges of grotesque sexual abuse. Their stories are more common than they thought. A 2007 Department of Justice-funded Campus Sexual Assault survey, conducted at two large Midwestern universities, found one in five college women said they had experienced some type of sexual assault. And another DOJ study found that a whopping 75 percent of college rapes occurred when the victims or the assailants had been drinking.

More college women have become willing to speak publicly about their ordeals thanks to social media, where they first formed networks and traded similar tales of drunken violations, and of campus investigations that led nowhere. They started sharing information about their rights under federal law, and about how to tell their stories, and how to collectively file federal complaints against their colleges and universities.

Rape is a local law enforcement issue, but when it happens on a college campus, it also becomes a federal issue, because of several statutes addressing women's rights at educational institutions. The Clery Act was passed in 1990, named after Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was asleep in her room when a 19-year-old fellow student forced his way in and raped, tortured and strangled her. The law named after her requires campuses to report incidents of violence on campus.

The second major law that applies to campus rape is Title IX, passed generations ago, in 1972, which broadly required colleges and universities to provide equal educational opportunities for men and women. In 1977, legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon first developed the legal theory that sexual assault and harassment limit women's educational opportunities. A few court cases in the Nineties established that the law also covers sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus.

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