Sexual assault in America is not taken seriously

Saskia Teterycz, Assistant Opinion Editor

Trigger warning: This article references cases of sexual assault and harassment. 

In 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, it seemed as though the way sexual assault was handled in America might change forever. Suddenly, powerful men all over the country were being put on blast in the media and finally being held accountable for their actions. High profile news outlets like The New York Times were willing to invest time and resources into the investigative potential of their reporters in order to break the Harvey Weinstein case wide open — encouraging dozens of women to come forward about the Hollywood film producer’s decades-long pattern of predation and assault — and ultimately solidifying Weinstein’s day in court, where he was convicted on felony sex crimes and sentenced to 23 years in prison on March 11, 2020. 

Even so, as I watched Weinstein’s arrogant and dismissive behavior on live television, I couldn’t help but wonder what the real legal consequences would be for all the sexual predators who aren’t as high profile as Harvey Weinstein. After all, protection of sexual assault and violence against women is one of the trademarks of a patriarchal society, with a reluctance to punish the perpetrator being one of its signatures. This pattern was dramatically highlighted by the #MeToo movement, as more women survivors felt supported via the hashtag to come out publicly about the sexual violence they had endured. Yet at the same time, it revealed a system that is much harder to dismantle — a system that shields men from public accountability and legal consequence — sometimes for decades, as in the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. This phenomenon makes it clear that cases of sexual assault have never really been taken seriously in American law or in American society at all. And while this is recognizable on a national level, it is also painfully noticeable in local ways. 

Women all over the country endure sexual assault similar to Weinstein’s on a multitude of levels — whether that be on a movie set, in the work place, on college campuses, and even in high school, women and girls face sexual assault every day. Work settings are a common environment for a woman to experience or witness sexual assault. According to NPR, “38 percent of women said they experienced sexual harassment at the workplace.

 To combat this, big companies typically require a series of training sessions to guide and inform employees, specifically male employees, on how to avoid performing unwanted sexual advances onto others in the workplace. But according the the National Conference of State Legislatures, even on the federal level “there is no federal provision on training related to sexual harassment.”

Not only can powerful men like Weinstein avoid legal prosecution; we see a similar lack of accountability on college campuses, where instances of sexual assault are notoriously mishandled and downplayed by college administrations or just don’t get reported at all. As more and more young women speak out about their assaults on college campuses, the harder higher education institutions fight to push those voices down. Not only are victims’ voices silenced, the consequences for assaulters are minimal — just like Weinstein’s were. According to the Association of American Universities 2019 campus climate survey conducted across 21 college campuses found that “The overall rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent since the student enrolled at the school was 13.0 percent, with the rates for women, TGQN and undergraduate students being significantly higher than for men and graduate/professional students.” Even at institutions close to home such as Northwestern University, student surveys show that only about 50 percent of students are aware of their available resources on campus to combat sexual assault. Furthermore, the University’s survey revealed that minority groups such as LGBTQ+ as well as students with mental disabilities “experience sexual misconduct at higher rates.”

This is not an uncommon statistic for most campuses— the list just goes on and on. Most, if not all, men are protected from legal pushback when committing a rape or other acts of sexual assault. In an article by The Atlantic, they claim that “sexual assault [is] the easiest violent crime to get away with,” because sexual assault cases are so rarely prosecuted. In many cases, the investigation and sanctions for sexual assault are adjudicated by  school administrations. Women often report their experiences with administrations as hostile when they try to report. 

Most women don’t even feel able to report their assault at all — that’s how much American attitudes around rape and sexual assault have discouraged speaking up. The National Justice institute attributes the cause of under reporting to a “lack of trust in the criminal justice system,” as well as distrust in administrations or authorities. Best Colleges explains the realities of sexual assault on campus by noting “that nearly 70 percent of victims don’t inform the police and that a mere 25 percent of reported assaults eventually result in an arrest.”

These staggering statistics are cause for action by the federal government. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, our current administration has actually reduced the severity of legal pushback of sexual assault for students. According to The New York Times in 2018, “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is preparing new policies on campus sexual misconduct that would bolster the rights of students accused of assault, harassment or rape, reduce liability for institutions of higher education.” A deeper explanation provided by the Huffington Post of DeVos’s proposal stated that “It would also make schools responsible only for harassment or violence done on campus or at school-sanctioned events (so not at off-campus fraternity houses or apartments.), and restrict whom someone must report to at a college in order to initiate a formal investigation. And these new regulations would encourage a higher standard of evidence.”

This lack of cooperation from our own government in cases like these directly affects students all over the country. By making it harder for young people to come forward and reducing the consequences for their assailants, the chance for justice against sexual assault feels as though it is slipping away. 

The mishandling of sexual assault cases in America, as it relates on national and higher education levels only holds cause for concern more immediately. Young girls have to grow up in a society where rape and sexual assault is pushed aside to promote the patriarchy. They are taught by the media and society that “blaming the victim” is acceptable and logical and that it is increasingly easier for men and boys to get away with sexual assault. As students at ETHS head off for college and the workforce, how are we preparing them as a community to be ready to face this reality? 

Leader and board member of Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Education (SHAPE) junior Anna Grant-Bolton addresses the goals of the club and the change it is seeking at ETHS. 

“A lot of times stories of survivors are silenced, and a cycle of rape culture compounds,” says Grant-Bolton. “SHAPE was designed to interrupt that cycle of violence through peer education and activism.”

While education remains a primary goal of the club, another focal point of SHAPE is working towards making change at ETHS and how our administration deals with sexual assault. Evanston reflects national patterns when dealing with sexual assault as well, according to Grant-Bolton.

“We’ve talked to a lot of administrators about school policy, and searched for resources ourselves, and in a lot of ways, supports for survivors are hard to find, and are often intimidating to use,” says Grant-Bolton. 

SHAPE’s plan for change at Evanston begins with transformed ways of reporting assault —  increasing accessibility to help.

“While it may seem small, revisions in school policy like this help to break the silence of sexual assault and harassment, and make resources more accessible for survivors,” Grant-Bolton comments. 

A national change begins locally. Although the way we talk about sexual assault and rape in this country, and especially the way we handle these cases, has a lot of room to improve, the steps we are taking in Evanston can have a massive effect. Through SHAPE and the cooperation of our administration, we are preparing students to deal with sexual assault through the tools provided here. We need to continue to encourage conversation and education locally in order to make the necessary changes in our country. We must enforce the notion to believe survivors, end victim blaming, and overall work to create a more reliable justice system for victims of sexual assault.