A friend once told me about a horrendous experience she had as a teenager. She had liked a young man, a popular athlete, but when they were alone together he pushed her to the floor. Her head struck a table, and while she was dazed, he raped her. Years later, she was still traumatized.
Another friend confided in me that she too had been raped when she was a college student. Fearing she wouldn't be believed, she told no one. Instead, she signed up for martial arts classes and became a self-defense expert. But the terror never left her.
I'd venture that pretty much every woman has friends with stories like these — or has one of her own. Certainly there isn't a woman out there who hasn't felt physically vulnerable on at least one occasion. And a particularly susceptible time for many is when they venture away from home for the first time.
So now that the topic of sexual assaults on campus has suddenly become the focus of white hot debate — after decades of seeming indifference by college administrators and political leaders, and skepticism by some about whether this really is a widespread problem — I'm allowing myself a measure of cautious optimism that this new national conversation will result in some constructive progress.
The intensified level of scrutiny in recent months has been fueled by a rash of reports, studies, speeches and editorials. Many have sought to cast light on the prevalence of assault cases on campuses nationwide, and upon some of the most common elements when sexual misconduct is alleged, including the role of alcohol, a lack of follow-through by college officials, and a longstanding perception among young women that their complaints haven't been taken seriously.
A recent Time magazine cover story, for instance, titled "Rape: The Crisis in Higher Education," included the following analysis:
"The numbers on campus rape and sexual assault are so disturbing that it can be tempting to look for a flaw, to assume they are inflated by some overly broad definition — misunderstandings or morning-after regrets. They aren't."
And some of the statistics are sobering. One frequently cited report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 19% of undergraduate women had experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault while in college. Another study released by the U.S. Department of Education last week found that 3,330 forcible sex offenses were reported on campuses in 2011, the latest year for which data were available, representing a 51% increase from a decade earlier.
Now the White House is weighing in with a task force on campus sexual assault. And in California, a bill pending in Sacramento seeks to make state colleges adopt an "affirmative consent standard," defined as "an affirmative unambiguous and conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed upon sexual activity." Put another way, the absence of an explicit "no" can't be construed as a "yes."
What's more, many colleges — known more for their interest in preserving their reputations than taking concrete action — are suddenly becoming more proactive in their education and outreach efforts, tightening policies on sexual assault, and vowing to improve follow-through. A glance at a page on UC Irvine's website, for example, lays out in specific language what constitutes sexual assault, makes it clear that consent must be actively given, and states that intoxication by either party can never be used as justification.
Not surprisingly, some critics of this focus on college rape are raising alarms of their own, charging that assault statistics are misleading and overblown, and warning that stricter campus policies often go too far and could have a chilling effect on normal social interactions. In comments solicited to accompany the Time story, one scholar lamented what she referred to as "the new rape-culture crusade," and contended that the ranks of falsely accused young men is growing.
One of the most incendiary responses has been from syndicated columnist George Will, who enraged some readers with his op-ed piece earlier this month that castigated efforts on college campuses to combat sexual assault as part of a ploy to "make victimhood a coveted status that confers privilege."
Certainly no one wants to see young men treated unfairly. The vast majority would never coerce women into unwanted sex, and their rights must be protected too. No policy changes should go so far as to assume guilt without due process.
It's also worth examining the confusing messages that arise from social media and a hook-up culture that encourages casual sex. And young, inexperienced women need to be educated about the dangers of allowing their new friends to convince them that getting wasted is the best way to have fun.
But it's high time that sexual assaults on campus were treated with the seriousness they warrant, and for college officials to work far harder to improve the safety of its students and better handle complaints. For too long sexual predators have found colleges easy places to target vulnerable young women and walk away with little or no punishment.
Now that this issue is at last getting widespread attention, we must resist efforts to put it back in the shadows. We owe it to the many young women who have been hurt, first by their attackers, then by a defective system.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.