Watershed Moment for College Activists: Sexual Assault Joins Election Conversation
Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on October 24, 2016 at 8:14 am
The economy, jobs growth and terrorism. Typical issues for a U.S. presidential campaign. But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House this time around: Sexual assault became a major campaign focus.
The discussion started with old footage of Republican Donald Trump discussing sexual incidents; he countered by dredging up accusations against Democrat Hillary Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. But for student activists and groups trying to drive awareness about sexual assault, the 2016 election has become a landmark moment.
“We would never call sexual assault of at least nine women a positive, but for those of us in this movement, it’s interesting to see the attention from the general population about this issue,” says Anna Voremberg, managing director of End Rape On Campus, referencing allegations against Trump. “It’s pretty interesting for us to see sexual violence being the thing that might bring him down.”
Trump’s comments and his bid for the White House
Trump’s disparaging comments about women and boasts about being able to grope and kiss women with impunity because of his stature were made back in 2005 when he wasn’t running for public office. He brushed the remarks off as “locker room banter.” Since then, at least 10 women have come forward to contend Trump groped or kissed them without consent. Trump, his family and supporters have repeatedly denied the allegations, blaming them on a left wing conspiracy to bring down his campaign.
“Trump’s greatest gift to our nation may be that he has forced us to take our heads out of the sand and recontextualize sexual assault and rape, no longer relegating them to the backroom as a ‘women’s problem,’ but rather forcing them out the world stage,” says Cindi Love, executive director of ACPA-College Student Educators International, the student affairs association. “Trump’s long-tenured perpetrator pattern, mindset, behaviors and understanding of consent offer us the opportunity to understand what we are willing to tolerate or willing to reject. It is up to us.”
College rape, sexual assault a huge problem
For student activists, Trump’s comments and the allegations against him run deeper than just normal banter among men. College rape and sexual assault is a huge problem impacting all walks of life.
Consider this: according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. What’s more, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted on campus, and more than 90 percent of the assaults go unreported. At one university, 63 percent of men who self-reported acts constituting rape or attempted rape admitted to doing it more than once. Parents remain concerned about the safety of their students.
Under President Obama, the White House has committed to fighting sexual assault and rape on college campuses. According to the Washington Post, the Education Department has 253 ongoing investigations at 198 post-secondary institutions probing how the schools handle sexual violence on campuses. What’s more, hundreds of schools now make it easier for victims to report an assault or rape and to discipline offenders.
“Activists have been working for years, even before I was born, to get people to say sexual assault on air, and hearing it every single day is a watershed moment for our issue,” Voremberg says. “In general, it is comparable to outrage we saw this summer over Brock Turner.” (Turner is the former Stanford college student who was charged with sexually assaulting an unconscious women but served only three months behind bars.)
Vice President Joe Biden, among others, expressed outrage over the sentence. He wrote in a letter to the victim that he was “filled with furious anger both that this happened to you and that our culture is still so broken.” Biden went as far as to say he wants the federal government to withhold money to postsecondary schools that fail to change how sexual assault and rape are handled.
The attention could vanish with the election
While activists are encouraged by the attention sexual assault is getting, they aren’t unrealistic about its staying power. With Americans notorious for short attention spans and politicians adept at changing the topic, activists realize sexual assault may fall off the radar when the next scandal materializes. “There’s no way they are going to talk about it 15 times a day on CNN after the election,” Voremberg says. “But if he (Trump) is elected, it’s something he has to deal with.”