California Forum

Viewpoints: Universities need to take sexual assaults more seriously

If you go to any corner store and pick up a copy of Cosmo or Glamour, chances are that several pages will be full of tips for having the best sex ever. Usually, they’ll tell you to communicate more with your partner. But having better sex is hardly the only reason why communication, and affirmative consent in general, is so important.

In February 2012, I was sexually assaulted at an off-campus event. I was not the only person who my assailant targeted. Three other women also were assaulted, and when we reported our assailant to officials at the University of California, Berkeley, he was ultimately punished only with “counseling measures” and disciplinary probation until he graduated a few months later. University officials believed that his remorse was “credible” – though that remorse did not deter him from assaulting another student less than a month after my assault.

All this spurred me and 30 other students to file a Title IX complaint against Berkeley for acting deliberately indifferent to sexual assault cases. This situation is not unique to our school. More than 60 universities are being investigated for possible violations of Title IX, the anti-gender discrimination educational statute. Those investigations are part of an effort to combat the normalcy of sexual assaults on college campuses.

Senate Bill 967 by state Sen. Kevin de León would require that students affirmatively consent to engaging in sexual activity. It would be a great step forward in achieving a cultural change that many students hope to see. The bill would set a basic standard so that a student’s claim is taken seriously even if the student had been incapable of saying “no” or had fought off the attacker.

Often, if there were no witnesses, university officials will argue they cannot find the assailant responsible, essentially saying: “Gee, we’re so sorry that the perpetrator was smart enough not to have witnesses. Too bad.”

But why should university officials dismiss the overwhelming majority of sexual assault cases when the reality is that only between 2 percent and 8 percent of cases are falsely reported, which is on par with levels of false reports for other crimes?

It’s hard to understand why there is so much pushback against this, since affirmative consent simply means communicating an agreement to engage in a sexual activity. An affirmative consent requirement would establish that consent can be verbal or nonverbal. It certainly does not have to be in writing. Meghan Warner, who is one of the Title IX complainants, says: “If you can’t ask someone to have sex with you, then you shouldn’t be having sex anyway.”

De León’s bill would require preventative programming at student orientations, which would be critical to ensuring that students are aware of their rights and to teaching students that sexual assault will not be tolerated.

Training would be especially effective during the first week of the “Red Zone” – the period between when students arrive on campus and Thanksgiving break, and the time when students are most likely to be sexually assaulted.

Misinformed critics claim every campus has a rape crisis center of some kind, with counselors on call 24 hours a day. If only that were true. At Berkeley, our student health center isn’t open on weekend nights, when the bulk of sexual assaults occur. The nearest place you can get a rape kit is 6 miles away.

The national movement of college students working to hold their schools accountable for keeping them safe and following federal laws is hardly creating a war between genders. Men can also be assaulted, and it’s more likely that a man will be a survivor of sexual assault than a perpetrator of one.

The notion that boys will be boys, and are not capable of controlling their own behavior is a damning indictment. Are we really incapable of accepting the basic notion that you should know whether or not someone wants to have sex with you?