Institutional Responsibility: Looking to Experts Working on Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Institutional Responsibility: Looking to Experts Working on Sexual Assault on College Campuses November 23, 2015

by Nadiah Mohajir

University campus in fallIn light of the conversation about sexual assault allegations and our responsibility as a community to support victims, I thought it would be appropriate to share some gems from the Symposium on Sexual Assault on College Campuses that I attended two weeks ago, as well as The Hunting Ground documentary which just aired on CNN on November 22. Now, although both the symposium and the documentary focused its discourse on sexual assault on college campuses, I do believe there are a lot of parallels to sexual assault cases at religious and community institutions. As the second of a series of posts on institutional responsibility (see first post by Samar Kaukab here), I share with you some important food for thought.


Survivors may carry a lifetime of physical, emotional, and social consequences with them.  Sexual assault is an extreme violation of one’s physical and emotional safety, and often victims face a lot of scrutiny from the greater community. People questioning their credibility. People questioning why they didn’t stop the assault from happening or what they did to cause the assault. People questioning why they didn’t disclose earlier. And then people blaming and shaming them when they actually do report. One of the main reasons survivors do not come forward is because they know how the community will respond and will be facing a lot of victim blaming. The Hunting Ground explores many aspects of the survivor experience. One of the survivors in the documentary reflects on why she didn’t stop her assailant, the challenges she faces in reporting the crime, not being believed, and then later leading a national movement helping other campus survivors get justice. She explains:

“When you’re scared and you don’t know what is happening to you, you just lay their and hope you don’t die….The vicarious trauma that I suffer from when I have to re-live my experience when others tell me their stories is often overwhelming…but it’s also the reason I get up in the morning. I would have done anything to have had someone believe me and support me.”

Other survivors shared their devastating experiences of turning to self harm and dropping out of school, because of the amount of victim blaming, shaming, and threats they received for coming forward about their assaults.


Sexual assault is often a premeditated or targeted crime. There is a culture – especially on college campuses – of “scoping” out vulnerable victims. Perpetrators spend some time gaining trust from their victim before assaulting them. They may buy their victims gifts or shower them with praise, and may behave like they are protecting them from harm. On college campuses in particular, they may buy their victims a drink, or use alcohol and other drugs to incapacitate them. Then, after the assault, they may place the responsibility back on their victim. Moreover, perpetrators make it easy to believe that they are innocent and they are being wrongly charged.  Why? At the symposium, Dr. Alan Berkowitz explained that perpetrators are generally outwardly very good people – they may be star athletes or have fantastic grades and even be a model citizen.  Perpetrators often don’t believe they did anything wrong. In fact, some perpetrators may even pass lie detector tests and cry – because they *genuinely* don’t believe they did anything wrong. Most importantly, if a perpetrator is not held accountable for their actions, they are more likely to repeat the crime. Put simply, many perpetrators – even as high as 50-88% of the time – are repeat offenders.


The sexual assault is bad, but the institutional betrayal can often be worse. Many of the survivors in the Hunting Ground film shared that the sexual assault was horrible and terrifying in and of itself, but the institutional betrayal and lack of timely response (or any at all) was even more re-traumatizing and detrimental. Many of the institutions featured in the documentary either protected the perpetrator because he was a star athlete, part of a fraternity, or chose to look the other way so as to protect the brand of their institution. Put simply, survivors are being perceived as liabilities that need to be dealt with, rather than perpetrators.


We are looking at prevention wrong. A one-hour sexual assault awareness session at orientation in the beginning of the school year is not enough to prevent sexual assault from happening at institutions. This also applies to the community at large. Many institutions are looking at their prevention efforts as including developing a policy manual and hosting a two hour talk for adults or children and thinking their job is done. It’s not. Moreover, we aren’t doing enough to respond to sexual assault when it happens in our institutions. While we can’t entirely eliminate sexual assault from ever happening, we can absolutely prevent the perpetrator from assaulting again. And majority of the time, they do. Again and again and again. How many victims is too much before we speak up?

Current efforts to raise awareness are missing the mark. As Dr. Gail Stern of Catharsis Productions explained, current education approach to raising awareness is flawed because we are still debating:

  • what rape is
  • how serious is is (was there penetration? did he really rape her or just kinda rape her? etc)
  • who is truly responsible for it (what was she wearing? Was she drunk? What could she have done differently? etc)
  • how or if it is truly preventable
  • we are obsessed with compliance and policies as a means of prevention
  • we have a lack of institutional leadership that is willing to take a hard stance on this and
  • we have a belief that a 1 hour sexual assault presentation is enough to reduce the number of assaults happening.


Addressing sexual assault at institutions requires a multi-pronged approach.  One panelist suggested a three pronged approach:

  • Prevent: Engage in comprehensive, ongoing prevention and awareness education for all students, staff, and faculty.
  • Respond to complaints: implement a process that allows victims to report in a confidential (or even anonymous) manner and respond to victims within 12 hours, including offering them accommodations to prioritize their safety in the interim as the investigation continues, and
  • Resolve (in a timely manner): Investigate the case, listen to both the survivor and the perpetrator, examine all other evidence (like facebook messages, tweets, etc) and implement disciplinary action in a timely and efficient manner.

We hope to expand more on the above three approaches in an upcoming post.

Institutions do not need to behave like they are a court of law when responding to allegations. Dr. Diane Rosenfeld explained how we have to separate a “criminal justice response” from a civil rights one. We – as a community – have the benefit of not being held to the same burden that lawyers have in a court of law. We do not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 strangers. We have to simply gather “preponderance of the evidence” to prove there is a hostile/unsafe environment. Similarly, we must distinguish between “false or disproven” and “unfounded” from “insufficient evidence” One means it didn’t happen, while the other acknowledges that it could have still happened, but cannot be proved in a court of law. Similarly, when talking about beyond a reasonable doubt, we must remember that “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a TRIAL right, not investigative right.

If we believe that sexual assault isn’t preventable we will never foster a culture of change. We have got to change the discourse. It is no longer okay to continue to silence the victims and stand and defend perpetrators. What kind of message are we sending to those who need us the most? That we value the reputations of our institutions and perpetrators more than the personal safety of those who have been violated. Sexual assault is a crime. But it is also a moral issue and we need to treat it as one. I will end with Dr. Stern’s powerful words:

“Rape isn’t wrong because it is a crime. It is a crime because it’s wrong.”

Stay tuned for a follow-up post that will elaborate on some recommendations for best practices for institutional responses.

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