in College & University Settings

"It is on all of us to reject the quiet tolerance of sexual assault and refuse to accept what's unacceptable."
- President Barack Obama
Launch of the "It's On Us" Campaign to End Sexual Violence on Campus

A Different Response to Sexual Assault to Campus

Survivors of sexual assault on college campuses are protected by Title IX. However, not every college student is aware of their rights under this law, and not every college or university has a comprehensive set of resources for students who have been assaulted. Sydney Rae Chin is a sexual assault survivor whose university at the time did not provide the necessary services to process the trauma. There are institutions that model best practice responses, though, including the Philadelphia Sexual Assault Response Center (PSARC) at Drexel University.

A Decades-Long Effort to Support College-Age Survivors of Sexual Violence

Sydney Rae Chin (they/them) was a student at Emerson College when they were sexually coerced during a frat party in 2019. Chin sought any available resource to help process the events of the incident, only to find their institution lacked the necessary resources to assist them. “[Emerson was] basically like…if you have to find an advocate, you have to do it on your own,” Chin said. 

Chin did not actually realize that they were violated until months after the assault, emphasizing the gaps in support structures that many survivors of sexual violence still face today, 50 years after the enactment of Title IX. The only choice that Chin had was to file a Title IX report at their next institution, Illinois Institute of Technology, around December of 2019, which was months after the incident. 

Looking at the history of sexual violence and survivors’ reporting patterns, Chin’s story is not an isolated one. In fact, history shows that sexual assault reporting in the U.S. has evolved across different decades. 

In the early 20th Century, notably the Roaring Twenties, there was a veil of silence around sexual assault discussions, hindered by societal norms and lack of resources for survivors. As society’s focus shifted through the Great Depression and World War II, the struggle to assist survivors of sexual assault remained hidden, with limited data and resources available. There were no comprehensive national databases or standardized methods to document sexual assault cases during the first half of the 20th Century as there are today, especially on college campuses. Consequently, official statistics may not accurately represent the prevalence or actual numbers of sexual assaults during that time. 

The late 1950s saw initial discussions on college sexual assault, such as a 1957 study published by Eugene Kanin titled “Male Sexual Aggression on a University Campus.” The 1970s marked a significant shift with the enactment of Title IX and the emergence of anti-rape movements, paving the way for increased awareness and advocacy. Further legal landmarks in the 1980s and 1990s, such as 1992’s Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools case, bolstered victims' rights and institutional accountability. 

The 21st Century witnessed the emergence of victim advocacy groups like RAINN, as well as policy changes, online resources and sexual assault hotlines, including shifts in Title IX enforcement between different presidential administrations. Despite progress spurred by movements like #MeToo, challenges still persist, reflecting disparities in Title IX enforcement and limited access to crucial resources for survivors. 

While significant progress has been made, enforcement of Title IX policies and procedures remains uneven across colleges and universities today. These disparities lead to inequities in the support available to survivors. Echoing Chin’s story, many college students still find access to sexual assault resources difficult due to limitations such as underreporting, guilt, and re-traumatization. They are forced to seek support beyond their own institutions, navigating unfamiliar processes and often facing fear of retaliation. 

“I think everyone would fear reporting. How could the police protect you 24/7? They really can’t,” said Michael Boyle, project director of PSARC. Drexel University’s PSARC is a response center that seeks to help college students who are survivors of sexual assault surmount these difficult hurdles. 

PSARC, which stands for Philadelphia Sexual Assault Response Center, provides medical attention to survivors along with forensic evaluation, injury documentation, and even court testimony should the student take the incident to court. The center was established in 2011 to meet the medical needs of students who are at least 16-years-old. The non-profit’s services are provided privately in a medical office near the Philadelphia Police Department’s Special Victims Unit. PSARC has a history of building relationships with the police department to provide a “survivor-centered approach to sexual assault.” 

However, even with PSARC, there are still some significant limitations, including the fact that some survivors may be re-traumatized just for recounting their story. “They’ve already told the uniform officer, they’ve already told the nurse, and now they have to tell the detective. That’s maddening, especially after you’ve been assaulted, you just want to go home to your safe space,” said Boyle. “You don’t want to go through all this.”

While the majority of universities have on-campus resources for survivors of sexual assault, many college campus would like to provide additional education and support for their students.  “We would need more funding” to do that, said Jackie Irving, a Title IX Coordinator at Eastern University. “We’ve been able to get a few grants from It’s on Us to provide [support].”

Survivors of sexual assault in college settings continue to face challenges in the reporting process; however, many colleges today are seeking to redouble their efforts in the fight against sexual assault on campus.

Breaking the Stigma and Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault

There are a number of reasons why survivors of sexual assault are reluctant to report their case or drop it entirely. The PSARC at Drexel University seeks to mitigate these factors, which include a student's fear of retaliation, feelings of depression, concern over the judicial process, and lack of an advocate or support network. At another college not far from Drexel, Jackie Irving, the Associate Vice President for Student Development at Eastern University, describes what institutions could do to one day increase the number of students who report their assault.

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