It’s the same story everywhere. Be it Mumbai or Massachusetts, students and their safety on the college campus is a matter of rising concern. That is, only for girls and their parents, of course.
Earlier this year when several women students at four noted colleges in Massachusetts reported being raped, "not a single political leader stepped up to express concern", according to commentary by former sex crimes prosecutor Wendy J. Murphy in ‘The Patriot Ledger’.
Sadly, neither the rapes nor the lack of response to them by campus administrators or government officials were unusual occurrences. According to a national study, ‘Voices of Diversity’ that examined sexism and racism on American college campuses in 2009, sexism and sexual assault are "regular, ubiquitous and pervasive," as William Trent, a professor at the University of Illinois, put it after reading the study results.
Sexism was evident in a number of ways. Women students interviewed by the study’s researchers reported experiencing the stereotypical view that women do not belong in fields like physics or engineering when they were in classrooms and majors with few women present. Others felt demeaned by comments from classmates or faculty about their intelligence, or a focus on their appearance rather than their academic ability.
A form of micro-aggression occurred when professors talked more with male students or took their opinions more seriously than women’s. Another concern among women students was the sexual harassment and assault associated with Greek letter organisations and, in the case of an Ivy League university, with its private social organisations for men.
One Latina student, describing the sexist mistreatment, said, "I go nuts… it hurts so much, it’s indescribable the way it makes you feel…because you just feel so inferior…I try to just walk away but then I cry, I feel bad for feeling weak about it… it does cause a great, overwhelming emotion within me."
Another troubling finding about sexism was that both sexes appear to regard racism as a more serious offence than sexism, which was more likely to be perceived as "just part of human nature," "a joke," or both. Psychologist Dr. Paula J. Caplan, the ‘Voices of Diversity’ project director, sees several reasons for the discrepancy in the way racism and sexism are viewed. One is that "it is less threatening to believe that serious problems exist between racial or ethnic groups than between groups defined by sex. We tend not to live with a member of a different racial group but often we do live together with someone not of the same sex as ourselves. It can be terribly upsetting to consider that our closest relationships are plagued by something that is seriously hurtful, not to mention powerful."
Dr. Caplan also strongly advises that greater attention be paid to the prevalence of sex-based physical attacks and to "the difficulties women experience in considering whether or not to report such attacks, as well as the disappointing responses they often receive if they do make reports."
According to Dr. Caplan, commonly reported physical assaults on women range from groping and grabbing to rape. One Asian-American student reported that at a party, a man "just grabbed my behind and squeezed." When she tried to protest, he said, "I am not going to apologise. You were asking for it." Another student, calling sex-based aggression "always shocking," reported being upset by the expectation that women victims should change their behaviour (e.g., not go out at night or dress differently). "We kind of have to deal with it the best way we can, because that’s our only option … if we obsess over it, we get called out for obsessing over it."
Stories of women being drugged and then sexually assaulted at parties emerged as students responded to in-depth interview questions during the ‘Voices of Diversity’ study. According to one student, after a woman she knew was assaulted and attempted reporting it to officials, "they basically said it was her fault and didn’t really do anything about it. And I think it really traumatised her… she was really depressed after that. She got into drugs and stuff … and she was finally getting over everything that happened. And she said that the guy who assaulted her… came up to her and was like, "Hey, I had a great time, we should do it again."
One rape victim did not report the incident but left school because she was so humiliated, according to a friend. When another woman at the same school was sexually assaulted she called the helpline. "They didn’t really do anything," her friend reported. "I think it was because she was nervous about talking about it and they were like, ‘If you don’t want to give up any more information, then [we] really can’t help [you]."
A male student described a gang rape of a first-year woman student by players on the football team. "She may have taken a semester or a year off," he said, but as far as he knew no charges were pressed against the rapists. However, he reported, the next issue of the campus humour magazine made a "joke" about the incident on its front cover.
The ‘Voices of Diversity’ study was carried out in only four universities across the country, chosen for their representational characteristics within a range of criteria, but the findings speak volumes about the continuing culture of sexism that prevails at institutions of higher education in America, and the consequences of that culture for women.
In remarks made at an American Educational Research Association conference in April 2011, Professor William Trent said, "Institutional responses [to the study’s findings] need to be intentional, formalised and sustainable."
All four institutions that participated in the ‘Voices of Diversity’ study are now undertaking initiatives on their campuses and within their larger communities to address the issues raised and the problems identified by the project.