Sexual Assault in a Bureaucracy: How Universities and the Military Fail Victims

"Reporting a sexual assault is immensely difficult no matter where it occurs, because it is the most personally painful and private moment of a victim’s life, but it is often exacerbated in these closed environments," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said. "Reporting a sexual assault is immensely difficult no matter where it occurs, because it is the most personally painful and private moment of a victim’s life, but it is often exacerbated in these closed environments," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Sens. Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand have been leading the effort to hold universities accountable for the way they handle sexual assault on campus, similar to their efforts to reform the military in 2013. It's not a coincidence that both the university and the military struggle with this issue. While researching sexual assault on campuses, "I’ve been struck by similarities in the experiences of some victims on college campuses to those on military bases," McCaskill said in a statement to The Wire. McCaskill continued:

Reporting a sexual assault is immensely difficult no matter where it occurs, because it is the most personally painful and private moment of a victim’s life, but it is often exacerbated in these closed environments — where it may be difficult to come forward and report, because victims often feel they are under a microscope, may often know their attacker, and may have difficulty navigating the complexities on how to report these crimes.

Emphasis added. As McCaskill notes, women who are sexually assaulted on campus and in the military often face similar hurdles in reporting their assaults. Even though the military is typically characterized as a macho environment — Army leaders have said culture is at least partially to blame for the high number of assaults — and universities are majority women, both are big bureaucracies. 

Victims of sexual assault on campus and in the military might know their attacker, for one. He might be a superior or someone in her English class. Because these attackers are members of the same institutions as their victims, the institutions must consider both members when dealing with the incident. That's where the victim often gets left hanging in the wind, like the Florida State University woman who says Heisman winner Jameis Winston assaulted her in 2012. FSU didn't investigate the incident until 2014, after Winston won the championship game. McCaskill told Bloomberg this week, "There have been many allegations that universities have looked the other way when the perpetrator was a member of an athletic team." 

It's this kind of abject mishandling that McCaskill and Gillibrand want to stop. After getting bipartisan support for legislation to address military sexual assault last year, both have asked for more federal funding to investigate campus sexual assaults. McCaskill is surveying more than 350 colleges over the next few weeks to determine how officials handle the issue, and will eventually develop a plan for reform.

Meanwhile, the White House's task force on sexual assault on campus will release its recommendations as early as this week. So finally, many universities are feeling the pressure to increase reporting, investigate assaults, and punish attackers. It's not just President Obama and the Senate pressuring schools, either — Dartmouth's string of high-profile sexual assault cases has led to a 14 percent decline in applications this year. 

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