Sexual violence is a psychologically, emotionally and physically damaging experience that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive thoughts, even suicide.

The recent sexual assault and harassment charges that have surfaced against producer Harvey Weinstein are shedding light on sexual violence in the entertainment industry. But beyond the realm of Hollywood, these allegations bring awareness to an even greater issue: The endemic of sexual violence.

Sexual violence is about seeking power through violation of a person’s boundaries. Weinstein was a man of great authority and power in Hollywood, and he exploited that power to foster a culture of silence around his abuse. It has taken years for victims to finally step forward, and it has been a challenge to bring criminal allegations against the producer.

This begs the question: How does justice for sexual assault survivors look outside of Hollywood?

In September, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidelines for setting standards of proof in campus sexual assault cases. The Obama-era reforms — referred to as Dear Colleague letters — were established in 2011 and called for college campuses to use a “preponderance of the evidence” in determining a student’s culpability for sexual assault. Issued by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), Dear Colleague letters also required schools to allow accusers to appeal not-guilty findings and strongly discouraged cross examination of accusers. This was an effort to encourage victims and survivors of campus sexual assault to come forward.

The Trump administration’s decision sets a dangerous precedence for perpetrators and discourages survivors from speaking out against their attackers.

As a graduate student at the USC Suzanne-Dworak Peck School of Social Work, I am impassioned to advocate on behalf of colleagues who are survivors or at-risk for sexual assault on campus.

Campus sexual assaults are on the rise nationwide, and USC is no exception. Per USC crime statistics in the “Security and Fire Safety Report 2017,” the number of reported sexual offenses increased by 29 percent from 2014 to 2016.

According to the report “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” issued in 2014 by the White House Council on Women and Girls, 1 in 5 women are subject to sexual assault while in college.

It should be noted that sexual assault and sexual violence are not just issues experienced by heteronormative women. Twenty-one percent of transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming (TGQN) college students experience sexual assault, according to 2015’s “Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.”

A 2015 report issued by the National Center for Education Statistics called “Crime and Safety on College Campuses” shows a 15 percent rise in the number of reported forcible sex crimes from 2011 to 2012. The fact that Dear Colleague was initiated in April 2011 suggests that more victims were empowered to come forward and report as a result of the letter.

The Education Department’s decision to rescind Dear Colleague letters diminishes all of the progress it set out to make. 

Upon rescinding Dear Colleague guidelines, the administration urged colleges to set their own standards for evidence, even encouraging them to raise these standards to “clear and convincing evidence.” Proponents cite anecdotes of falsely accused students, but these outliers contribute to the myth of high instances of false sexual assault reporting.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are never reported, and even fewer reports are confirmed to be false.

According to “The National Crime Victimization Survey,” only 344 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. Per the “Female Victims of Sexual Violence” report issued by the US Department of Justice, 20 percent of victims of sexual violence did not report to police, citing fear of retaliation, while 13 percent believed the police would do nothing to help. The meta-analysis, “Assessing Police Classifications of Sexual Assault Reports: A Meta-Analysis of False Reporting Rates,”  which reviewed false reporting rates, found confirmed false reports to be 5 percent.

It is unfortunate that false reports occur, but we should not let these rare instances undermine the bigger picture. Campus sexual assault is a prevalent issue, and survivors need our support in attaining justice.

According to the “National Crime Victimization Survey,” out of every 1000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free. Dear Colleague sets forth the opportunity to hold more perpetrators accountable and send the message that sexual violence will not be tolerated on school campuses.

No system is perfect, but Dear Colleague brings us one step forward in attaining justice for campus sexual assault survivors.

Ask Betsy DeVos to keep students safe and enforce Title IX by signing a petition at https://www.change.org/p/stopbetsy-keep-students-safe-and-enforce-title-ix). 


Contact Emily Ma at emilyma@usc.edu or care of this paper at kevinu@pasadenaweekly.com.