This is the cover story for the January 2018 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine. Read the editor’s note here.
1968 has been described as the year that shaped a generation. From the Tet Offensive in Vietnam to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy to the first manned orbit around the moon — the tumultuous events of a mere 12 months would offer America’s youth a new, at once jaded and revolutionary, perspective on the world. It’s no surprise that college campuses, including Stanford, were home to anti-war sit-ins and civil rights protests. In many ways, 1968 marked a break from the past and a beginning of the future.
It was against this backdrop that a 21-year-old female undergraduate was riding her bicycle east on Serra Street, the road that runs along the picturesque front of the university, toward Escondido Village. When she was on the stretch near where the Graduate School of Business now lies, sometime around midnight, a man forced her into his car at gunpoint, took her to the Sharon Heights area on the other side of campus, and raped her.
Stanford had no crimes of violence before this incident, the Stanford Daily reported that year. The police captain at the time described being “shook” by the rape, and he declared that it could either be an isolated case or the start of a new trend. Only time would tell, he assumed. It did.
Just two years later, a different female student would be raped one Friday night while walking up Palm Drive from the railroad station. But it was 1970 now, and this kind of thing no longer came as a shock. In fact, the number of reported rapes on campus had begun to climb from one in 1968 to three in 1969 to five in 1970. One police officer at the time dispassionately described the weekend of crimes that included that particular 1970 rape as “fairly normal and routine.” According to the officer, it was not a particularly unusual weekend in any respect.
Whether the 1968 case was actually the first reported sexual assault on campus or not, it certainly wasn’t the first incident of sexual violence. Just seven years earlier, Bill Griffin ’62 penned an op-ed in the Stanford Daily after the 1961 Full Moon on the Quad event. He decried the behavior of a mob of freshmen who he claims harassed and assaulted multiple female passersby, including surrounding one woman and repeatedly shouting “Rape her!” Sexual violence definitely existed on campus in the eighty-something years before that, even if it went largely unreported.
As for the 50 years since the supposed first reported rape on Stanford’s campus, reports of sexual violence have become more and more prevalent, a few of which this article explores.
The following stories told are not meant to convey exhaustiveness. The complete picture of sexual violence on campus cannot possibly be given due to the culture of silence and shame that has historically been directed at victims and advocates. Most sexual violence goes unreported, and even what is reported is often shrouded in secrecy due to its sensitive nature.
Nevertheless, through reading thousands of relevant articles in the Stanford Daily archives, consulting academic work on the topic, requesting university and police records, and interviewing former and current students, administrators, and professors, we were able to put together a partial picture that shows how, over the past half-century, the public’s understanding of sexual violence has evolved, the cultural narrative surrounding its framing has changed, and the attention given to it has ebbed and flowed.
1970 at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in May, a student walking to her car in the Tresidder parking lot is stopped by two men. One of them has a gun. After surrendering the $48 in her purse, she is directed to get in her car and drive with the armed man to another parking lot. When he rapes her, he reportedly keeps the gun in his hand. Then he directs her to drop him off at the corner of University and El Camino and to drive away.
This assault was the third of its kind in six months; only 24 hours earlier, another girl was raped in her dorm room in Wilbur Hall. The Stanford Daily, whose coverage of the Wilbur incident was limited to a single cursory paragraph, reported that the rape had occurred “while her roommate was taking a shower,” demonstrating that, even in her own room, a woman alone is vulnerable to attack.
As the number of disturbing reports on and around campus grew in the 1970s, the previously unacknowledged spectre of rape began to emerge from dark corners and shadowy bushes with an increasingly distinct personality and form. The Rapist was a lurking criminal element, a usually non-white stranger who attacked lone women late at night. As awareness of rape steadily permeated the campus consciousness, it was primarily perceived as a crime problem, not a culture problem.
The perpetrators of rape were also believed to be entirely distinct from the student body; popular dialogue at the time suggested that Stanford was being preyed upon by external, often racialized menaces. Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Investigations Sgt. Ken Bush, assigned to the local sex crime unit in 1978, told the Stanford Daily, “There’s no real problem right on the [Stanford] campus, but rather off campus in the community … the concern comes from off campus. In East Palo for instance, there is a problem.”
“In those days, I thought about sexual assault firstly in terms of the vulnerability I felt when returning home late at night,” said Debra Herman, AM ’73 Ph.D. ’79 MS ’86, in a recent interview with Stanford Politics.
Herman, while a graduate student in the history department, joined four other women on campus in assembling the first-ever “Guide for Stanford Women.” The guide, published in 1974, was a comprehensive listing of resources for women that the students felt people weren’t generally aware of, including a rape crisis center, self defense classes, and counseling services in addition to a number of other academic, professional, and health resources.
It coincided with a burgeoning national feminist movement that women at Stanford began organizing around the issue of sexual violence on campus, among other concerns, and taking matters into their own hands.
“Being a woman student can be difficult here,” reads the introduction to one section of the guide. “There are no women deans, few women in high administrative staff positions, and so few women faculty that it is possible to go through four years of education without taking a course from a woman.”
It was that very sense of isolation that unfolded with the 1970s into a central issue on campus, both as a growing association between physical isolation and vulnerability to rape, and as a growing frustration among women who felt their needs weren’t being acknowledged or addressed.
The university, for its part, dedicated itself to what it continued to think was the primary issue for its female students: stranger rape. After reports of rape spiked in the early seventies, the Stanford Department of Public Safety, or Stanford Police, began improving lighting and night patrols around campus, measures which targeted the common understanding of what rape was and where it happened.
Women should “stay away from deserted areas when walking by themselves,” Stanford Police Captain Raoul Niemeyer told the Stanford Daily in Feb. of 1977. “They should have some companions or a male friend go with them.”
Every sexual assault on campus occurred as a result of the victims’ “stupidity,” Stanford Police Officer Debbie Whittemore said in 1974.
From this notion of victim prevention evolved what seemed at the time to be a more empowering strategy of teaching women to literally fight back. Women at Stanford began signing up en masse for self-defense classes, forming lengthy waitlists every quarter. Although they were met with some controversy in later years, women’s self-defense classes were consistently a significant aspect of the growing feminist presence on campus through the 1990s.
In the late 1970s, dorms began to organize unofficial escort services to help women get home at night. In 1979, Ron Lepow ’80 founded Students United for Rape Elimination, or SURE, a campus-wide, formalized escort service.
Lepow told Stanford Politics in a recent interview that SURE was created following a series of rapes in the late 1970s that he recalls finding shocking and unfamiliar.
“It was sort of a new thing, at least as far as I knew,” Lepow said. “And in talking to friends, I learned that there was this vulnerability and this discomfort, at least among females, to be able to go out at night. And it was a surprise to me, frankly. There was not a risk or a concern among guys to go out at night, but there was among females, and I thought it was unfair and scary and awful.”
The newly-founded SURE consisted then of a team of about 30 male students, all people Lepow knew and trusted, whom women could call most nights to accompany them home after dark. After some controversy, Lepow began allowing groups of two women to serve as escorts as well. SURE was endorsed strongly by Stanford Police, who Lepow said had been “taking heat” for not doing more to prevent rape and were “relieved” by the club’s presence on campus.
Today, a new iteration of SURE exists as 5-SURE, standing for “Students United for Risk [rather than rape]Elimination.” 5-SURE operates a night-time ride service on campus and provides water and snacks at tables near the fraternity houses on weekends.
“After I left,” Lepow said, “I noticed that [SURE] did fade away and then it came back, and it came back in a different way with a different name. … Over time it’s morphed into something to help with alcohol issues. … It’s not just about rape, it’s more about campus safety.”
1984 marked the beginning of a culture change at Stanford. In Oct. of that year, the Rape Education Project (REP) — a student organization founded in 1979 that had since become the pillar of campus activism on the issue — organized a two-week program to raise awareness of “acquaintance rape.”
“People don’t realize that two-thirds of all rapes occur between people who know each other,” REP member Doug McKenzie told the Stanford Daily.
Where the Rapist was once thought of exclusively as an unknown menace in the bushes, a psychologically unstable sexual psychopath, it was beginning to be seen that a more real danger existed in the interactions between women and the men around them.
“There was a sense, not that there was a panic about the extent of sexual violence on campus, but that culturally, we needed to rethink relationships, and we needed to raise consciousness about consent,” said Estelle Freedman — who has taught at Stanford since 1976 and is a co-founder of the Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies — to Stanford Politics in a recent interview.
“Rape is at the extreme end of a continuum of behavior and attitudes concerning women — attitudes of power and domination,” REP member Pilar Ossorio told the Stanford Daily. “There is no specific rapist mentality or tendency. Numerous studies have been done on convicted rapists and none uncovered any psychological trait common to being a rapist. That seems to indicate that anyone can be a rapist. It makes the contribution of society in tacitly condoning rapes very important.”
The condonation of rape was made more explicit just one month later. After a Beta Theta Pi fraternity party in Nov. 1984, five female students accused a sophomore of sexual battery and charged that 10 to 20 onlookers stood by and even cheered on as the assailant, in turns, forcibly grabbed victims and tried to “rip off [their]clothes in front of a large group of people.”
This wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last, that the issue of bystanders and the setting of fraternities would come up with regard to sexual violence.
In 1988, the Stanford Daily reported the anonymous account of a woman who described being gang-raped by a group, including her friend, at a campus fraternity house in 1986. The article speculates that while fraternities “cannot be assumed to be singularly responsible for such incidents. … [F]ew deny that factors more prevalent in fraternities have played an important role in date and gang rape incidents.”
The woman, whose name was anonymized, did not report her rape. Most victims of acquaintance rape don’t.
“If it’s your boyfriend that raped you, there’s an issue of trust or loyalty that comes into play, a fear about being believed or [a fear of]being blamed for what happened,” Palo Alto YWCA rape crisis director Teresa Rodriguez said to the Stanford Daily at the time.
In May 1989, in response to a campus survey that showed one in four undergraduate women experienced sexual coercion, Dean of Student Affairs James Lyons called for a Task Force on Sexual Assault to investigate the problem and make the reporting process more victim-friendly.
The task force would convene and deliberate, but it came under heavy criticism. In one story, a student member of the task force told the Stanford Daily that among some university officials, “there is definitely an idea that rape doesn’t happen here.” There was still no official university policy condemning sexual assault, and it would be over a year before the task force came to any conclusions.
In the meantime, sexual violence would persist. In Oct. 1989, a 13-year-old friend of a student was visiting campus. The girl attended a party at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house, where she reported that she was assaulted in the bathroom (by a non-Stanford student) as four or five other men watched without intervening.1992 was the first year in Stanford history that an individual accused of sexual assault received formal charges from the university. Stuart Thomas had the credits to graduate, but the university wouldn’t let him. The Stanford Judicial Council, an annually-appointed body of students and faculty who investigate violations of the Honor Code and Fundamental Standard, had found him responsible for “exploitative, manipulative conduct,” and resolved to withhold his degree for two years.
In Sept. 1991, Thomas was accused of rape by a 17-year-old freshman. She alleged that he provided her and several other students with a substantial amount of alcohol in his Casa Zapata dorm room, and then coerced her into sex once the two were alone.
In court, Thomas was found guilty of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and providing alcohol to a minor.
The Judicial Council’s unprecedented ruling on Thomas’s case symbolized a transition in university handling of sexual assault that was already several years in the making.
In early 1990, the University Task Force on Sexual Assault released Stanford’s first official procedure for assault victims to follow when reporting or seeking support. Later that year, then-President Donald Kennedy made his first official statement on rape, during Rape Awareness Week. The statement focused on acquaintance rape and consent, but was criticized by some for being weak and failing to confront the culture rape emerges from.
As dissent grew within a student body increasingly frustrated by the university’s judicial system and bureaucracy, the task force at last made its recommendations: among them, the hiring of a full-time Coordinator of Sexual Assault Response Services, sweeping reforms to the Judicial Charter of 1968 to make the judicial system more victim-friendly, and the drafting of an official university policy on unacceptable sexual conduct.
The recommendations were well-received, but the university proved that sexual assault resources were not a budget priority and cited financial limitations while taking minimal action. Susan Epstein ’91, a leading advocate at the time for greater attention and resources toward sexual assault, told Stanford Politics in a recent interview that she had met with Kennedy and ultimately got him to agree to fund the task force’s recommendations. However, she said that Kennedy was soon afterward embroiled in a scandal and later denied the agreement.
Frustrated with university inaction, the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) determined in 1991 that they would pay for the position of Coordinator of Sexual Assault Response Services for one year, to prove its need, with the expectation that the university would fund it thereafter.
Epstein, who graduated that year, was hired and began work on a New Student Orientation program that summer. The program, called “Sex in the ’90s,” introduced topics like body image, consent, and sexual assault.
“We cast drama students, and they role-played different situations to show what it looks like if there’s consent and what it looks like if there’s not consent, and how you would go about a positive relationship with consent,” Epstein said. “And I think we had a couple survivors of sexual assault speak about their experiences, which was really powerful. And then some people came out and talked about what resources there are and how you can help a friend.”
Students then went back to their dorms, where two trained upperclassmen would lead a follow-up conversation.
The program doesn’t sound all that different from “The Real World” performance that freshmen are exposed to during New Student Orientation today, but before Epstein created it, there had been nothing like it at Stanford — or, as far as she knew, at any college in the country.
For the rest of the academic year, Epstein was stationed in the health center, now known as Vaden but then called Cowell.
“I must have counseled hundreds of survivors who would just call or come into the office,” Epstein said. “A lot of it was triage, like helping people know where they could go to for what resources on campus, but being the first place they go and being supportive.”
Offering survivors one single centralized place to go was “huge,” Epstein added. Before her position was created, it was rarely clear to survivors whom they should talk to, and as they were redirected to various resources around campus, they were often forced to repeat their sometimes-traumatizing stories numerous times.
During Epstein’s one year as Stanford’s Coordinator of Sexual Assault Resources, she also helped organize weekend self-defense classes and draft the university policy on sexual harassment, which for the first time included a discouragement of “unequal” relationships.
At the end of the academic year, the university agreed to fund the position, and a new coordinator was hired as Epstein had only planned to serve for the pilot year.
The university was still drawing criticism, however, for having disorganized resources. In Oct. of 1991, the Stanford Daily reported that calls to Cowell weren’t always consistently handled, and that survivors could still have to relate their experiences to multiple new people.
An updated policy on sexual assault, which the university task force had called for two years previously, was released in Dec. of 1991, after being mandated by a 1990 California education law. This new policy stated that students found responsible for sexual assault could face expulsion and that faculty and staff could be fired. It also included that “sexual assault by force or coercion, including deliberate coercion with drugs or alcohol, is absolutely unacceptable at Stanford University.” This policy represented a dramatic change in official treatment of sexual assault, and it clearly demonstrated the shift in conversation toward acquaintance rape as a defining cultural concern.
Some, however, as evidenced by Stanford Daily op-eds and reports, still disparaged the policy as falling short of a broad definition of sexual misconduct, while others found it overly harsh.
The policy, and university treatment of sexual assault in general, came under fire again in 1994 when a law student accused the university of failing to provide adequate information about sexual assault resources as required to by law. That same year, the Sexual Assault Resource Center was temporarily closed and the full-time coordinator position Epstein created was eliminated due to budgetary issues. Students had failed to approve a special fees request from the Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a group which funded a number of resources on campus. Many argued that it was the university’s responsibility to provide such services, not the students’.
The university responded to the situation by forming yet another task force. In an interview with the Stanford Daily in 1994, Epstein called such committees “delay tactics.”
In 1994, Stanford still required proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” when prosecuting sexual assault cases. Harvard had lowered its burden of proof two years earlier, leaving Stanford as the only university in the nation with such a stringent policy in place. Critics claimed that it was almost impossible for sexual assault cases to meet that standard, making determinations of responsibility extremely unlikely.2000 did, however, see such a determination, and the resulting sanction was even said to be the university’s most serious punishment to date, though it wasn’t made public at the time. Stanford suspended English professor Jay Fliegelman and banned him from the department for two years, but few other than the faculty and students who were close to him seemed to know or care why. His graduate student advisee, Seo-Young Chu, had formally accused him of rape.
The matter was handled quietly, and the university ultimately behaved as if the rape had never happened, allowing Fliegelman to continue to meet with students during his suspension. After he died in 2007, a glowing memorial resolution was published the next year which described a triumphant career and offered no mention of his censure, let alone the accusation against him.
Chu’s memory wasn’t quite so short. In 2017, she published a widely-discussed creative nonfiction piece on the blog Entropy relating her experiences and finally making Fliegelman’s behavior public knowledge. At her request, Stanford also finally published a summary of their 2000 investigation. But for 17 years, that story went untold.
The secrecy with which the Fliegelman case was handled raises the question of how many more sexual assault allegations have been adjudicated behind closed doors. How those proceedings operate has been an ongoing source of controversy at Stanford.
A judicial charter approved in 1997 was being used to guide all Judicial Affairs investigations, including sexual assault cases, although it had not been designed with the specific challenges of such cases in mind. The university still required that guilt be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” in sexual assault investigations until 2011.
The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights issued a directive to publicly-funded universities in Apr. 2011, commonly referred to as the “Dear Colleague” letter, which required they use a lower burden of proof in sexual assault cases. Within days, Hennessey approved a change in Stanford policy that lowered the standard in such investigations from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “a preponderance of evidence.”
The Stanford Daily reported in 2013 that, between 1997 and 2010, only four allegations of sexual assault went to hearing and only two students were found responsible.
Those low figures were at odds with the number of rapes reported on campus, which continued to grow throughout the decade. Ten years ago, in 2008, there were ten sexual assaults reported at Stanford, three of which were classified as rape.
In May of 2009, the Board on Judicial Affairs (BJA) began meetings to design a pilot program called the Alternate Misconduct Review Process, later called the Alternative Review Process (ARP). The judicial system at the time, it was reportedly stated in a BJA meeting that Dec., “[did]not benefit the victim, nor help the accused to clear his name, nor [did]it protect the Stanford community from predators.” Then-president John Hennessy signed the proposal in April 2010, to be enacted as a pilot program and reviewed the next year. Among other things, the ARP ended the requirement that accusers and suspects appear at the same hearings and sometimes testify in front of each other, and it extended the statute of limitations for such cases from six months to two years.
The ARP was extended to a three-year pilot program, and later approved with revisions by the ASSU and Faculty Senate in 2013.2014 was the year Leah Francis, and her rapist, graduated. Francis alleged she had been raped off-campus by an ex-boyfriend on Jan. 1, 2014, and under the ARP, Stanford found him responsible for sexual assault. His punishment was 40 hours of community service, completion of a sexual assault awareness program, and a five-quarter suspension, to take effect after he graduated. He would even be permitted to return for graduate school after what, in an email to the student body, Francis characterized as a “gap year.”
Francis made headlines in 2014 for organizing a rally that called for Stanford to reform its sexual assault policies, including mandatory expulsion for all individuals found responsible for rape. She also heavily criticized the ARP for being “extremely detrimental to the ability of the survivor to keep on surviving,” claiming that the judicial investigation was an exhaustive and burdensome experience.
After Francis appealed the university’s sanctions and demanded her rapist’s expulsion, Stanford decided instead to defer his degree for two years, neither suspending nor expelling him. Almost a quarter century later, this ruling resembles the administration’s first-ever formal punishment of sexual assault, in the 1992 case against Stuart Thomas, and the Francis case is currently under review with the Office for Civil Rights.
And the controversy was déjà vu in more ways than one. Following the “Stand With Leah” rally — attended by hundreds of student demonstrators — and widespread criticism of how Stanford handles sexual assault, the university announced its response: yet another task force.2015 was the year Stanford would make headlines across the globe for a now infamous case of sexual violence on its campus. Brock Turner, a freshman, was caught in-the-act, raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was arrested that night, but the incident went unnoticed by the public for over a week.
The barrage of sexual assault reports over the years had become so monotonous that the Stanford Daily no longer even made pretense to treat new ones as newsworthy. What would become the most-talked-about Stanford news story in recent history occupied only a single sentence in the Stanford Daily’s weekly rundown of police activity.
After the anonymous, muckraking campus newsletter, the Fountain Hopper, investigated and broke the story, it went viral. It was first treated as an egregious example of sexual assault, but as Adrienne LaFrance later wrote in the Atlantic, the case stood out not for any unusual horridness but rather for the fact that “it’s so rare for sexual violence, despite its ubiquity, to garner this kind of attention.”
Turner’s peculiarly short sentence along with his victim’s powerfully written and widely-shared, 7,000-word letter read in court sparked ongoing national conversations about justice, privilege, and culture. It also, for better or worse, inspired California lawmakers to pass new mandatory minimum sentencing legislation.
In a statement in June 2016, Stanford announced that it had concluded its own investigation and banned Turner from setting foot on campus, which the statement described as “the harshest sanction that a university can impose on a student.” But dealing out such a punishment probably wasn’t that difficult considering the unambiguousness of the Turner case.
In Apr. 2015, the Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices (created a year earlier amidst the Leah Francis controversy) announced its recommendations. Chief among them were that the ARP be replaced by a process called the “Student Title IX Process.”
The Student Title IX Process intended to allow for a more streamlined reporting and adjudication process for victims and alleged perpetrators. Its most controversial components, however, in the eyes of those concerned for the rights of victims and the accused were that a “finding of responsibility” would require the unanimous agreement of a three-person panel and that the “expected” sanction for those found responsible for sexual assault would be expulsion.
“It is very difficult to get a 3-0 decision from a panel, and these young women are terrified and traumatized and just want it to be done,” Crystal Riggins, a Stanford-retained attorney who represented victims in the university’s new adjudication process, lamented to the New York Times. Shortly after her public comments, Riggins was controversially dismissed by the university purportedly because of her “fatalistic attitude.”
As for the 3-0 requirement for a finding of responsibility, law professor Pamela Karlan, chair of the Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices, told a meeting of the Faculty Senate in 2017: “It’s important for people to understand that the vote occurs after deliberation among the members of the hearing panel. It’s not as if they each go back to a room and they press a button and we look at the result. This is the result of discussion. You could just as easily call it a consensus as calling it unanimity.”
And in an attempt to explain the presumptive punishment, ASSU representatives in 2015 wrote in an op-ed in the Stanford Daily that Stanford’s narrow definition of sexual assault “is one of the most serious forms of interpersonal violence and impossible to commit ‘accidentally.’ In its enormous violation of respect for the humanity of another student, it is the ultimate expression of ‘sufficient cause for removal from the University’ in our Fundamental Standard.”
The Student Title IX Process went into effect in Feb. 2016 and remains the university’s adjudication process today as part of a three-year trial. A summary of all cases reported to the Title IX office in the 2016-17 academic year, as well as the outcomes, will be released by the Provost this upcoming Feb. Thus far, however, only one student since Brock Turner has been effectively expelled for sexual assault, and it was through a non-hearing agreement with the Title IX office, though a report published last May shows that several others have been found responsible for sexual misconduct since the inception of the new process.
It is this very delineation between sexual misconduct and sexual assault that has frustrated many advocates.
In 2015, the university announced the results of a campus climate survey. According to the announcement, 1.9 percent of Stanford students have experienced sexual assault. To many, however, that number seemed startling lower than the reality. Whether intentional or not, this was the result of a very specific definition of sexual assault and basic number averaging.
The same survey shows that five percent of undergraduate women have experienced sexual assault, even under the precise definition of “penetration without consent and/or oral sex without consent and when the respondent indicated that the act (or attempted act) was accomplished through threat of violence, force, and/or when the respondent was incapacitated.”
What’s more, according to Stanford’s definition, “incapacitation is not the same as legal intoxication.” Rather, incapacitation is defined as when “a person lacks the ability to voluntarily agree to sexual activity because the person is asleep, unconscious, under the influence of an anesthetizing or intoxicating substance such that the person does not have control over his/her body, is otherwise unaware that sexual activity is occurring, or is unable to appreciate the nature and quality of the act.”
A further 33 percent of undergraduate women reported having experienced sexual misconduct, defined as any non-consensual acts that don’t meet the aforementioned standard for assault.
The report came under fire in columns and op-eds from students and alumni, and the university is now in the process of reforming its next survey, which will take place this spring.2018 can be a year of reckoning at Stanford and across the nation. Fewer than four months ago, reports of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein set off a firestorm of accusations of sexual misconduct against prominent figures in Hollywood, politics, media, academia and a host of other sectors. The #MeToo solidarity movement of late 2017 gave many women the courage to go public with their experiences of sexual violence, and now “Time’s Up” has become the rallying cry of those who are tired of letting those types of experiences persist.
But if the story of sexual violence at Stanford over the last half-century is to teach us anything, it’s that commotion will only do so much to reform culture. Although it has dominated campus headlines every few years — seemingly only after high-profile incidents or series of incidents — and although new initiatives have been tested each time, the problem of sexual violence remains an intractable one. Even the attention given toward sexual violence by the university tends to be reactionary, and it has done little to affect the cultural norms that perpetuate this problem on campus.
“Too many students at Stanford experience unwanted sexual contact or relationship violence,” the university declares on its website. “We’re working to change that through education, prevention, support and adjudication. Our goal is a campus culture free of sexual and relationship violence. It will take time, but we intend to get there through continual improvement — learning from ourselves and others, and fostering partnerships between students and the university.”
There is no doubt that Stanford and many other colleges are dedicating numerous resources to the issue of sexual violence. Since 2011, Stanford has even had a dedicated Office of Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse Education & Response (SARA) to “provide support and education for the campus community on sexual assault and misconduct, dating/domestic violence, and stalking.” And yet, as Crystal Riggins said in an interview with Marie Claire magazine after her dismissal from Stanford: “Are universities doing enough? That’s a valid question to ask.”
Not much has changed from when a 1957 American Sociological Association study found that one in five women in college “were offended by forceful attempts at intercourse.” The Department of Justice and the Association of American Universities report that the same number of undergraduate women experience sexual assault in college today.
We’ve almost become numb to the horror of campus sexual violence, and while Stanford students and administrators have certainly made, and continue to make, efforts to address it, it persists nonetheless. In the month of Oct. 2017 alone, as required by the Clery Act, the Stanford community was informed of three rapes, a sexual assault, and an assault, all by the AlertSU campus safety notification system, none of which were further reported on or commented on in the Stanford Daily or any other local news outlets.
What feminist lawyer and scholar Catharine MacKinnon said in a 1981 speech at White Plaza has held true over and over again: “We are not in the midst of an epidemic of rape; we are in the midst of [short flurries]of rape reporting and rape publicity.” Campus sexual violence is neither a new nor an old cancer. It is a constant affliction.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna ’18 is the editor-in-chief of Stanford Politics. He studies political science and comparative studies in race and ethnicity. He has written for Stanford Politics, the Stanford Daily, Vox.com, and Politico Magazine, and he intends to pursue a career in political or environmental journalism.
Roxy Bonafont ’21 is a staff writer for Stanford Politics. She primarily reports on campus politics. Roxy previously served as the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper in her hometown of Austin, Texas, and at Stanford, she is a prospective English and political science double major.