- - Sunday, October 26, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In 2003, a student at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia reported a sexual assault to campus authorities. After a brief investigation, suspect Jesse Matthew was quietly allowed to leave campus in the middle of the semester, less than a month after he had joined the school’s football team. The police were not notified, and Matthew was never charged with assault.

Matthew was also implicated in rape charges at Liberty University in 2002, but claimed the relationship was consensual. In that instance, police apparently persuaded the woman not to pursue charges, and the case was never brought. A trail of assault reports followed in Matthew’s wake over the next decade, most of them involving young college-aged females.

We now have come to learn that Matthew is the prime suspect in the recent kidnapping and death of Hannah Graham, a University of Virginia sophomore. DNA evidence also links him to the 2009 disappearance of Morgan Harrington, another UVa student whose dead body was found dumped on a rural farm in Virginia. He’s also been charged in a 2005 sex assault in Fairfax County, based on DNA evidence.

To be fair, Matthew has not been convicted of any of these crimes, and could be totally innocent. But to the casual observer, the patterns and coincidences are too numerous to ignore.

Yet there are those in society that feel that the whole issue of campus sexual assault is the result of feminist political correctness run amok. Commentators including George F. Will have even alleged that identifying oneself as a rape victim bestows “coveted status” among women on college campuses. I wonder if the parents of Graham and Harrington would agree.

Columbia University is widely known as a bastion of feminist scholarship. And yet it is facing a class-action suit by 23 current and former students for failure to adequately address allegations of sexual abuse.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Emma Sulkowicz, says she initially did not report the assault to college authorities because she was ashamed, but only stepped forward after several of her classmates confided that they had also been sexually assaulted by the same perpetrator. She stepped forward, she said, to protect other potential victims.

After a university panel considered her and other women’s accusations, and heard testimony from the accused, it dismissed the women’s complaints. Still, Ms. Sulkowicz proceeded with her lawsuit because, in her words, “Columbia University is harboring a serial rapist.”

No one other than Ms. Sulkowicz and the suspect really knows what happened between them. That is the real challenge in rape cases in general, and the reason why less than 20 percent of rape cases end in conviction. Contrary to Mr. Will’s assertion, far from conferring a “coveted status” upon the victim, rape is so closely associated with negative stigmas about victims that it is second only to child molestations as the most underreported violent crime in America. Compound that with the incentive for colleges to avoid bad publicity (and legal culpability), and we have a potential crisis on our hands.

Let me be the first to say this. Colleges and universities are not equipped to adjudicate violent crimes like sexual assault (or assault in general). They do not possess the investigative resources, training, expertise, or legitimacy that traditional law enforcement bring to the table. And yet every day across America, colleges are attempting to try and determine which assault accusations merit disciplinary action and which don’t.

A recent survey conducted among over 250 colleges revealed that almost three out of every four had no protocol for how to work with the local police in sexual assault cases, and many had no formal process for dealing with the allegations internally. In many instances, even when universities do the right thing and the victim is informed of his or her option to report the crime, the crime still goes unreported because victims feel that once the police are involved, they won’t be able to control the process.

But rape is not only stigmatizing for the victim. It also stigmatizes the accused. In fact, social stigma, often appearing in the form of punishments such as a “registered sex offender” designation, is one of the ways in which society attempts to discourage sexual violence. The reality is that the allegation of sexual assault should stigmatize the author of a false accusation, and it should also stigmatize the perpetrator of a crime.

The threat of stigma is a means by which we as a society teach and enforce moral behavior to children and adolescents. Correctly applied, these stigmas encourage moral excellence (not merely adhering to the limits of legally permissible behavior). The ‘coveted status’ we should all be striving for is moral excellence.

The problem with sweeping accusations of sexual assault among college students under the rug is that it encourages misbehavior among both sexes. The “boys will be boys” attitude about raucous college antics flies in the face of society’s increasingly co-educational schools and workplaces, where that behavior will be counterproductive. Furthermore, the reluctance to report such crimes to the proper authorities on the part of victims puts other potential victims at increased risk of serious harm.

Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee online magazine.

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