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Cutting Their Losses, Raising the Stakes

A way forward on college sexual assaults

Last week’s decision by the University of Virginia to reinstate the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity (Yan, 2015)—not to mention the social activities of the school's other Greek organizations—likely represents a decision to cut its losses and move on from a troubling, conflict-filled first semester. Although not everything turned out to be what was initially believed, neither UVA nor any other institution of higher education can move far from the undeniable fact that sexual assaults on college campuses represent a clear and present danger.

If anything, the controversial case at UVA simply raised the profile of such violence and the stakes of figuring out a way forward. As the late best-selling author Charles J. Givens said, “Use the losses and failures of the past as a reason for action, not inaction” (Givens, 1990).

While some might quibble as to the failures, the losses at the distinguished university founded by Thomas Jefferson were hard to miss, including news that applications have dropped for the first time in 12 years (Staiti, 2015).

The charting of a path to change actually began long before the now somewhat discredited claims in the UVA case. A year ago this month, The White House issued a memorandum establishing a task force to protect students from sexual assault, saying in part, “The prevalence of rape and sexual assault at our nation's institutions of higher education is both deeply troubling and a call to action. Studies show that about one in five women is a survivor of attempted or completed sexual violence while in college. In addition, a substantial number of men experience sexual violence during college. Although schools have made progress in addressing rape and sexual assault, more needs to be done to ensure safe, secure environments for students of higher education” (The White House, 2014a).

Despite the fact that some have challenged a definition of sexual assault that includes “verbal, visual, or anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual activity or attention” (Contorno, 2014) a report from The White House Council on Women and Girls (The White House, 2014b) paints a rather grim picture of the problems faced by young people of both genders and differing ages, especially college students.

• Women and girls are the vast majority of victims: nearly 1 in 5 women—or nearly 22 million—have been raped in their lifetimes.

• Men and boys, however, are also at risk: 1 in 71 men—or almost 1.6 million—have been raped during their lives.

• Most victims know their assailants.

• Young people are especially at risk: nearly half of female survivors were raped before they were 18, and more than one-quarter of male survivors were raped before they were 10.

• College students are particularly vulnerable: 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college.

The report goes on to detail the psychological fallout (including depression, chronic pain, diabetes, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation) and economic repercussions ($87,000 to $240,776 per rape) of what can really only be called an epidemic. It also identifies some contributing factors, including “the dynamics of college life” in which “many victims are abused while they’re drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated” (The White House, 2014b).

The link between intoxication and sexual assault is hard to deny, even if some brave college presidents have been criticized for pointing it out (Svokos, 2014).

To that point, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) states that “more than 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape” (NIAA, 2013). Additionally, it cites another 600,825 students who are injured or die due to alcohol use.

Some other potential factors, such as a “hookup culture”—something controversially referred to by columnist George Will in The Washington Post (Will, 2014) and discussed by the Kinsey Institute (Garcia et al, 2012)—are hard to measure.

Nevertheless, etiology counts. So, too, do solutions. To that end, the Federal government has called for far-reaching change, including 1) continuing to focus on campus sexual assault, 2) increasing arrest, prosecution and conviction rates, 3) committing vital resources and 4) changing the culture.

These all sound good, even if each is problematic.

In the end, America needs to take a candid, hard look at how it raises and educates its children. This may be especially the case with boys, given that The White House report notes that the vast majority of sexual assault perpetrators (98 percent) are male.

Time is short and the stakes have never been higher.

Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at and NBCUniversal’s For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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Contorno, S. (2014). In light of UVA story, pundits ask: are 1 in 5 college women sexually assaulted?. Tampa Bay Times. December 7, 2014.… (20 Jan. 2015).

Garcia, J., Reiber, C., Massey, S. and Merriwether, A. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: a review. Review of General Psychology. February 2012. American Psychological Association.

Givens, C. (1990). SearchQuotes. (20 Jan. 2015).

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2013). College drinking. National Institutes of Health. July 2013.… (20 Jan. 2015).

Staiti, C. (2015). UVA applications drop in wake of discredited gang-rape story. Bloomberg. January 15, 2015.… (20 Jan. 2015).

Svokos, A. (2014). Eckerd College president: you can stop rape by not drinking or having casual sex. November 25, 2014. The Huffington Post.… (20 Jan. 2015).

The White House. (2014a). Memorandum – establishing a White House Task Force to protect students from sexual assault. Office of the Press Secretary. January 22, 2014.… (20 Jan. 2015).

The White House. (2014b). Rape and sexual assault: a renewed call to action. January 2014. The White House Council on Women and Girls and the Office of the Vice President.… (20 Jan. 2015).

Will, G. (2014). Colleges become the victims of progressivism. June 6, 2014. The Washington Post.… (20 Jan. 2015).

Yan, H. (2015). UVA reinstates fraternity after police can’t find evidence of Rolling Stone rape claims. January 13, 2015. CNN. (20 Jan. 2015).

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