Originally published in The Week on April 28, 2014.
The movement to end sexual assault on college campuses is more powerful than it has ever been. That’s extremely important. After all, a recent government report states that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while in college, and that too many higher education institutions fail to enforce federal law when it comes to punishing perpetrators, supporting survivors, and publishing campus crime statistics.
President Obama said earlier this year that campus sexual assault is “an affront to our basic decency and humanity,” and that “college should be a place where our young people feel secure and confident, so they can go as far as their talents will take them.” Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill also recently announced their plans to take on college sexual assault. They are reportedly pushing for millions of dollars to increase the federal staff dedicated to sexual assault law enforcement and investigations.
For this graduating college senior, these are all encouraging developments. I have close friends who have devoted their entire college careers to working on this issue, whether that meant staying up late at night to help man the RAINN crisis hotline, working to push recalcitrant administrators to take sexual assault more seriously, or waging campus-wide awareness campaigns. I also have close friends who have been assaulted and raped during their time as students.
But it’s worth taking a step back to think critically about the national attention this issue has garnered, and which groups of survivors are heard the most.
There is an indisputable and often cyclical connection between poverty and sexual violence. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that individuals with household incomes under $7,500 are twice as likely as those in the general population to become victims of sexual assault. Ninety-two percent of homeless mothers experience severe physical and/or sexual assault at some point in their lives. Sexual assault is hardly a problem limited to university campuses.
Twenty percent of college women being sexually assaulted is unacceptable. But other groups are at even greater risk. Immigrants, refugees, migrants, those suffering from addictions, minorities,LGBTQ individuals, sex workers, prisoners, the homeless, and the impoverished all experience high rates of sexual assault. And, unlike college students, these groups very often lack the knowledge, credibility, resources, and federal protections to do anything about their attacks.
We should be working to end sexual assault everywhere. But we also have to ask why our political leaders are prioritizing college campuses over other high-risk environments.
Disparities in media coverage also highlight the ways in which we privilege certain groups over others. Instances of sexual assault at elite private schools frequently make national headlines whereas the violence endured by Americans living in poverty is regularly ignored. Just this month,Slate, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Huffington Post, The New Republic, BuzzFeed, The Wire, Newsweek, National Journal, Al Jazeera America, and others reported on developments within the campus sexual assault movement. Similar coverage for other populations was conspicuously absent.
Nobody should have to endure sexual assault, period. We need senators to launch initiatives to prevent sexual assault in low-income communities. We need Clery Act equivalents for non-traditional labor environments. We need federal task forces to study this issue beyond college campuses. We need the media to focus more consistently on marginalized groups. We cannot assume justice will trickle down.
This should be a national priority, not only for college students, but for women everywhere.