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.
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.
Under Title IX, rape victims can file complaints with the Department of Education, which is charged with investigating colleges that may have mishandled the issue. But the cases that have trickled up to the DOE over the years were never publicized and, apparently, the schools hardly punished. A 2009 study by the Center for Public Integrity found that between 1998 and 2008, the DOE ruled against just five universities out of 24 resolved complaints. Title IX allows the DOE to punish institutions by cutting federal funding. That punishment has never been meted out. More commonly, the cases end with institutional promises to do better.
The president's task force, headed by Vice President Joe Biden and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, worked fast, taking 90 days to listen to victims, advocates and other "stakeholders," Jarrett says. "It's an act of extraordinary bravery for these women to come forward. Everyone was deeply moved by the stories we heard."
The task force's first recommendation is that all colleges survey their students to gauge the number of campus assaults. In the wake of the White House's report, the DOE released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for their possible botching of sexual-assault complaints; historically, these investigations have not been transparent. Activists have argued that naming and shaming will get recalcitrant administrators to start taking them seriously, and that parents and prospective students have a right to know how safe campuses are for young women.
The task force also urged schools to institute standard protocol for handling sex-assault cases and initiate bystander training for young men, teaching them to intervene instead of act as idle spectators when buddies take incapacitated young women into dark rooms.
The task force did not recommend removing what may be the most controversial element of the current system: leaving colleges to adjudicate sexual-assault claims. Under the criminal-justice system, rape is a felony. But the vast majority of campus assaults are never reported to police, let alone the perpetrators arrested or tried in criminal courts.
Sexual-assault cases began entering what is essentially an extrajudicial civil-law system when sexual harassment was ruled by the courts to be covered by Title IX. And many activists have not objected to this, partly because the standard of proof for finding guilt is lower under college systems than it would be in a court of law, and because local law enforcement responses are often vastly inadequate.
When students make sexual-assault accusations, perpetrators are punished or not depending on the idiosyncrasies of campus tribunals – whose proceedings often involve numerous delays, multiple hearings and appeals, and problematic or insufficient conclusions. Colleges usually delegate committees – most comprising individuals without any legal training – to hear both sides of a rape story, and then sort it out.
In their ambiguity, ineffectiveness, opacity and controversy, campus-rape tribunals resemble the military's system of adjudicating sexual-assault claims. These separate legal realms, say some activists, are a large part of the problem. "Both are target-rich, closed environments with separate justice systems," says Heldman.
Colleges also have other motives that make them less than ideal for adjudicating rape: They often put their brand and reputation above the rights of the victims. There have been egregious examples of this over the years. In 2006, Eastern Michigan University covered up the murder of a female student, Laura Dickinson, letting her parents believe for 10 weeks that she died in her bed of natural causes. Activists shared horror stories about ongoing harassment of victims and their advocates at many colleges.
The task force suggested campuses could streamline their systems by dispensing with committees and assigning a single investigator to deal with sexual assault. But the investigator-judge model strikes civil rights lawyers as dangerously Inquisitional. "It's difficult to see how this medieval model would be more likely to produce just results," wrote Robert Shibley, a First Amendment attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
In criminal courts, where rape is punishable by prison, the prosecution has a high burden of proof for conviction. But college tribunals can make a rape finding based on "a preponderance of the evidence." And the punishment institutions can mete out is commensurately less draconian than that of the criminal system. There is no jail time. At worst, perpetrators can be expelled; more often administrators suspend them for a semester or two, or for the duration of the time that the accuser is on campus.
Laura Dunn's four-year saga is all too common. She didn't report her rape until more than a year after the fact. A professor told her pre-law class that raped girls on campus had the option of reporting incidents to the dean. Dunn walked out of that class and straight to the dean, initiating a process that took two years. She also reported the incident to local police.
By the time the university finished its investigation, one of the perpetrators had graduated, and the one still on campus was never punished because it found that since everyone involved had been drinking, consent could not be determined. The police never brought charges.
Dunn filed a Title IX complaint against the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After two more years passed, the DOE ruled against her. Dunn has recently started her own advocacy organization, SurvJustice. Since Dunn's case was closed, things have changed, slightly. In 2011, the Department of Education sent a so-called "Dear Colleague" letter to colleges and universities, reminding them that Title IX required them to ensure their campuses are safe for women.
The DOE sent the letter, but activists credit Obama's adviser on Violence Against Women, Lynn Rosenthal, for pushing the DOE to craft a wake-up call that changed the game. A White House official says the colleges were stunned. "The 'Dear Colleague' letter built on court cases the DOE was looking at, but it seemed to really catch schools off guard," says the White House official. "It was almost as if they hadn't really thought about their responsibilities in this area."
The letter turned out to be just what activists had been waiting for.
On a sultry, bright July afternoon in the nation's capital last summer, several dozen college women and a few men stood outside the office of the Department of Education, holding pieces of cardboard box scrawled with "Rape Is Rape" and "Rape Happens Here." Some of the protesters had come from as far away as Berkeley and L.A., others had cruised down the Northeast corridor, and most had never met in person before. But they knew intimate details about one another's lives from social-media networks where they had shared their stories.
Annie Clark, a co-founder of End Rape on Campus, attended the protest. She was a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student when she was raped in 2007. She reported the crime to an administrator and got, she says, "a victim-blaming response." Before she graduated, she teamed up with a group of activists to pressure the campus into changing its policy so that victims could file blind reports, remaining anonymous.
In 2012, she was working at the University of Oregon when another, younger UNC student, Andrea Pino, was raped and reached out to her. "We started talking," Clark says. "And I saw patterns everywhere of colleges not doing anything."
The two women pitched an article on campus rape to the Chronicle of Higher Education and began talking to people on campuses around the country. The material they collected "read like a lawsuit," says Clark. "We realized we needed to do something."
They studied Title IX, the Clery Act and the "Dear Colleague" letter and filed a complaint against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They started a Facebook page that eventually attracted 800 survivors and wrote articles for the Huffington Post. They also encountered two students, Yale's Alexandra Brodsky and Amherst College's Dana Bolger, who had created an advocacy group called Know Your IX. By the summer of 2013, Clark and Pino, along with others, had formed their own organization, End Rape on Campus, to help young women bring Title IX cases, and had filed complaints against 12 schools. Meanwhile, Know Your IX gathered 175,000 signatures on a petition demanding that the DOE take measures to deal with unsafe campuses and put teeth behind Title IX.
The young activists didn't have to wait long before they got an audience with leading DOE officials. The secretary of education himself, Arne Duncan, even made an appearance. And nine months later, Clark and Pino met Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who has championed their cause. "Annie and Andrea were called liars and retaliated against," Gillibrand says. "The climate they had to endure is disgusting. And yet these women are so inspiring. I have never met more emboldened, determined people, demanding answers from the most powerful people in the world."
Given the paralysis that has gripped the capital for much of the past few years, activists are justifiably enthusiastic about the strides they've made. Colby Bruno, a lawyer with the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, an organization that has shepherded hundreds of women through the campus tribunals and into Title IX cases, calls the White House response to the issue "a lifelong dream. We had been fighting so hard to get this issue recognized by colleges, let alone the White House. It was an unbelievable success for the whole country. Only six percent of people who report rape to police are seeing their rapist found guilty in a court of law. The fixable solution is campuses."
Ever since Joe Biden wrote the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, he's been associated with women's issues. In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone, Biden says the recent statistics have shocked him. "I thought we were making tremendous progress in violence against women. The domestic violence stats are down. Then we get this report from the CDC with respect to teens in high school: One in 10 are being hit by boyfriends or girlfriends in 1999, and one in 10 today. What the hell's going on?"
Biden believes young men should be more accountable for their peers' behavior. He compares the paradigm shift that needs to happen to the change in society over the past 10 years, where making fun of gays became socially unacceptable.
"We gotta get to that place where the moral disapprobation of the community comes down on you," the vice president says. "We still have this culture where men are sort of conditioned not to speak up, not to go against the clan. Young men know better. They know who the predators in the fraternity house are. If you see a young girl getting drunk – I've done this on at least four occasions in college – you see a young girl getting drunk, you start talking to her, and you walk her out. That just takes the courage of willing to be ostracized."
Biden says he's "gotten into a little bit of difficulty" himself for stepping up. "Walking down a supermarket aisle, and a guy grabbing his wife's wrist and bending her down. Walking up and giving the guy a forearm shove in the chest and saying, 'Jeez, are you OK?' Nobody I know who sees something happen, where someone is powerless being beaten or taken advantage of, and doesn't speak up, would be able to go home and really look in the mirror."
However, the task force's recommendations are not binding. So while White House attention raised the issue's profile, the real work will have to be done in Congress and at universities in order for anything to change. The White House task-force writers are careful to repeat that it is just a start. Even the surveys, which could be used to name, shame and rank campuses for women's safety – hitting institutions right in their brand – are optional.
But the young activists' campaign has put women's safety on the national radar and kept it there. "This is a priority for me not only as president and commander in chief, but as a husband and a father of two extraordinary girls," President Obama tells Rolling Stone. "Now it's up to each of us – every single one of us – to keep up this momentum. We've got to keep teaching young men to do their part to stop sexual violence from happening in the first place, whether they're in junior high or high school or college or beyond. We've got to keep working with educators and police officers to search for new ways to prevent these crimes. We are going to keep pushing for people to step up across my administration, in state capitals and on college campuses across the country. And perhaps most importantly, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: You are not alone. We have your back."
This story is from the June 19th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.