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The party was huge. Every room at the football players’ house was packed with people, and most of them were drinking. East alum and college freshman Ella Bell* was among them. She and her friends had been at a frat party earlier, but left to go to the party next door. They thought it would be more fun.
She’d met a guy who looked like someone from East. Travis*. She mentioned that he looked familiar, and he said he’d lived near to Kansas City. They were still talking when he motioned to get his phone to show her a photo, and when he did, he groped her from behind. She told him that it wasn’t okay with her — that she didn’t want him to — but he wouldn’t stop.
From across the room, Bell spotted another guy, Jake* coming toward them. He came over and told Travis to back off, and when he did, he introduced himself to Bell. He was friendly. Cute. But soon enough, Jake began touching her as well.
“It was a huge party, and it’s kind of fun at first [because] it’s like, ‘Oh, boys are paying attention to me,’” Bell said. “Girls everywhere get felt up at parties…but it’s really uncomfortable and makes you feel really… I don’t know. It’s just baffling to me. I just don’t understand.”
Bell’s story isn’t unfamiliar. The occurrence and acceptance of sexual assault and violence, otherwise known as rape culture, on college campuses is hardly uncommon.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) defines sexual assault as “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.” This includes rape. In a 2000 report by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), it was recorded that between 20 and 25 percent of a sample of female college students had been raped while studying at a two- or four-year institution.
Charlene Muehlenhard, professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas, says that high school- and college-aged women are at a higher risk of sexual assault than older or younger women. There is no single reason why sexual assault occurs. However, several factors can contribute to a higher likelihood.
According to Campus Safety Magazine, of all college sexual assaults, 43 percent of the victims had consumed alcohol prior to the assault, while 69 percent of the perpetrators had. Jenna Tripodi, coordinator of the Center for Advocacy, Response and Education (CARE) at Kansas State University, also notices a strong connection between drinking and the occurrence of sexual assault.
“Especially on college campuses, we so often see a correlation between alcohol and sexual assault,” Tripodi said. “Not that alcohol causes sexual assault by any means, but there’s a strong correlation, because perpetrators frequently use alcohol to isolate victims and make them more vulnerable, and to make their story less believable afterwards.”
At the party Ella Bell had attended, everyone had been drinking — herself included. And, like many college freshmen, Bell was also in the “red zone.” The red zone is known as the period of time from when a student first sets foot on campus to Thanksgiving break, is when new students are most likely to be assaulted. Records from the Campus Sexual Assault Study showed that 50 percent of all college sexual assaults occurred in August, September, October or November. Tripodi cites naivety as one of the reasons why students in the red zone might be more likely to be sexually assaulted.
No matter what the circumstances surrounding a sexual assault are, a college student who has been sexually assaulted has the ability to report the crime to the university itself. They can contact CARE, or any center like it, to receive counseling. They can also report it to an Office of Student Conduct, or the Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access (IOA), which investigates reports of discrimination.
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, any kind of discrimination based on sex is prohibited. This kind of discrimination includes sexual harassment, sexual battery, sexual assault and rape that are “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”
Students can also report the assault to the police, although according to the Drug-facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape study done in 2007, only about 11 percent of women in college report their rape to the police. After reporting to the police, the idea is that their rape will be investigated and the perpetrator’s fate is left to the criminal justice system, which may or may not be reliable.
“The University is not part of the criminal justice system, so it cannot impose any criminal sanctions,” Muehlenhard said. “The University’s responsibility is to provide all students with an educational environment free from discrimination. The University can be very helpful with that. The police and the criminal justice system are responsible for justice. This can be challenging, however, because in criminal cases, the standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a high standard.”
The Huffington Post reported that around 30 percent of students found responsible of sexual assault were expelled from their college, and only 47 percent were suspended. Last year, the University of Kansas was one of about 30 percent of schools that punished student offenders with educational sanctions and probation.
Colleges have a bad reputation when it comes to handling sexual assault cases. There is no concrete reason as to why this is, but the result is this: student perpetrators are allowed to further their education and attend classes with little, if any, punishment. The victims, however, receive little justice. And many are left to believe it’s their fault.
“It changes girls’ perspectives on sexual interactions,” Bell said. “Like, it starts out as fun, obviously, but then you feel like guilty about it or something, and you just feel so dirty about it. Like, ‘Okay, what did I do wrong? Why was that happening to me?”