It's on Us

Columbia. The University of Virginia. Vanderbilt. Florida State. Stanford. Oregon. All are outstanding universities. And all, along with many others, have made headlines associated with sexual assault. Intense media interest, the formation of a White House task force on the issue, and the efforts of policymakers and advocacy groups have brought the problem to the center of our national consciousness. How colleges and universities—including the University of Oregon—are addressing this complex issue within their own campus cultures is under intense scrutiny. For this story, we have chosen not to focus on the details of any particular case. Instead, we talked with some of those on our campus who have made it their life’s work to shine light on the reality of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct, who work every day to find solutions to a problem that is complex, long-standing, and societal—and who welcome the growing awareness of the issue as an important factor in changing the culture that has allowed the problem to persist. 


Standing at the front of a Chapman Hall classroom, University of Oregon junior Ruchi Mehta asks her audience, a group of about 50 fraternity men, to close their eyes and think back to their last sexual experience. Were you naked? How did it smell? How did it taste? After a long pause, she asks them to turn to the person next to them and share their memory—in detail.

Awkward laughter fills the room. Cheeks turn red.

She waits just long enough, and then reveals she is kidding about the sharing part.

But, she continues, now they understand how it feels to be asked to share the intimate details of a sexual experience. Imagine being required to share, over and over again, the details of a sexual assault. This, she reminds them, is among the many challenges confronting those who report being sexually assaulted.

Mehta’s memory prompt is the first act of an interactive presentation by SWAT, the UO’s Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team, which strives to help change campus culture by offering theater-based sexual-violence prevention workshops to various university groups and communities.

The problem of sexual violence on and around college campuses has been front and center lately. In January 2014, President Obama created the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which issued a preliminary report, Not Alone, last April. The report drew its statistics from the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, prepared for the US Department of Justice, which surveyed more than 6,800 undergraduate students at two large public universities. The findings were alarming:

  • One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. Usually, it’s by someone she knows: a friend, acquaintance, or current or former boyfriend.
  • Most sexual assaults happen during freshman or sophomore year, and most often during the first six weeks of college.
  • Many survivors are victims of “incapacitated assault”: they are sexually abused while drugged, drunk, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated.
  • Only 2 percent of incapacitated sexual assault survivors, and 13 percent of forcible rape survivors, report the crime to campus or local law enforcement.

UO psychology professor Jennifer Freyd, a national authority on the issue who served as a consultant to the White House task force, conducted her own research, in collaboration with UO doctoral students Marina Rosenthal and Carly Smith, on the UO campus early last fall. Sent to a random sample of students, her survey received nearly 1,000 completed responses. Ten percent of the female UO students who completed the survey reported being raped. When the question was expanded to include attempted rape, 19 percent said they had been attacked. When further expanded to include unwanted groping or oral sex, 35 percent of surveyed female students and 14 percent of male students reported being assaulted. In 73 percent of the cases, the victim knew the perpetrator. And 90 percent of sexual assault victims who completed the survey said they did not report what happened to them to any university source.

The survey did not use the words “rape” or “sexual assault” when assessing rates of these experiences. Respondents were instead asked whether they had experienced very specific forms of nonconsensual sexual contact or activity. That’s the best way to approach the subject, says Brooks Morse, associate director of the University Counseling and Testing Center and coordinator of the center’s Interpersonal Violence Response Team. Fifty percent of women don’t identify legally defined rape as rape, she says, noting that the experience of sexual violence can produce “shame and self-blame.”

Women don’t report sexual assault for other reasons as well, says Morse. A survivor may worry about not being supported by others, whether family, floor mates, sorority sisters, or the larger community. Women of color and queer-identified people could have a particularly hard time coming forward, Morse says, noting that “systems haven’t always been kind to people of color, those of other nationalities, or LGBT people if they do speak out.”

Morse is encouraged, however, that “young women are now more empowered to talk about it and come forward,” and credits the White House with doing a great job in bringing to campus messages that employ a “non-victim-blaming approach.”

Navigating the Red Zone

To provide a sense of what the problem of sexual assault looks like on college campuses, Morse offers a scenario she says is a composite of similar accounts she has heard during her 20 years at university counseling centers:

A young woman new to the university is invited to an off-campus house party by an older male student. He’s sipping on a beer but offers her a cup of sweet, highly alcoholic punch—and then offers her more. She’s having a good time and thinking he might be fun to date, so when he invites her upstairs to his room, she’s up for it, thinking they will chat and maybe kiss. Once in the room, he closes the door and begins to kiss her. She’s okay with that—she likes him, after all—but then he pushes her down on the bed. Now he’s on top of her. She tries to say no, but she doesn’t want to seem “bitchy,” so she’s not very forceful—and he’s not listening. She thinks to herself, “I can’t believe this is happening! He seemed like such a nice guy!”

Afterwards, she heads home, feeling dirty and violated. She blames herself instead of him. Why did she trust him?

Morse says such a scenario would most likely have taken place during what is known nationwide as the Red Zone, the first few weeks after freshmen get to campus. “Research shows that in the first six weeks of the year, there is an increase in sexual assaults, particularly among first-year students,” she says. “We have a large group of late-adolescents who are vulnerable. They are still moving toward adulthood.” Developing identity is a big part of being at college, she says. These first-year students, away from home for the first time and living in a new environment with new social circles, feel that something like this couldn’t happen to them. Sadly, these are the students often preyed upon, Morse says.

Many experiment with alcohol, which plays a major role in incidents of sexual assault. According to Freyd’s survey, 76 percent of UO students who were assaulted by another student said alcohol or drugs were involved—92 percent if the incident took place at a fraternity-affiliated location. “Alcohol is the biggest date-rape drug out there,” Morse says, noting that any meaningful solution to the problem of sexual assault must recognize the role of drugs and alcohol.

Morse says that societal messages also contribute greatly to the problem. She gives as an example pervasive advertising that uses alluring women to sell products. “The ads all say it’s okay to objectify women,” she says, adding that discussion about gender norms, power, and privilege needs to begin in families and in high schools—well before students head to college.

Of course, most college men are not rapists. According to a 2002 study by clinical psychologist David Lisak, more than 90 percent of rapes on college campuses are perpetrated by a relatively small group of serial offenders who use alcohol and other drugs to render their victims vulnerable. Lisak’s study found that of the men who admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, some 63 percent said they had committed an average of six rapes each.

It’s also important to note that male-identified people are also assaulted or raped by others of all genders. “But statistically,” Morse says, “women have more likelihood of being exposed to rapists or people who would hurt them.”

Greek Life

Morse recounts another composite scenario she has heard multiple times:

A first-year college student is in an upstairs bedroom in a fraternity house. Her body feels like it can’t move, and she doesn’t struggle as a young man climbs on top of her. The next thing she knows, it’s morning, and she wakes up in his bed. He acts like nothing happened and nicely offers to walk her home. Her roommate asks her where she was the night before, and as she talks, she sees pictures in her mind. She sees someone over her, and remembers him holding her down. She begins to cry, realizing she must have been drugged. She didn’t have a chance to say no.

According to Freyd’s campus climate survey, nearly 40 percent of women in UO sororities have experienced an attempted or completed rape, and 48 percent have experienced some kind of nonconsensual sexual contact. National statistics show that women in sororities are more than three times as likely to experience rape than other college students.

“The high rate of sexual assault at fraternities and sororities is correlated with alcohol and party culture,” says Andrew Lubash, a fraternity member, Truman Scholar, and member of the University Senate’s sexual assault task force. While Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) houses are technically dry, he says, most parties happen at “live-outs,” big houses off campus where FSL members live—which are not bound by the same rules. Lubash says during our interview that his sister, a UO freshman, has just joined a sorority. “The minute she joined,” he says with concern, “she became 3.5 times more likely to be raped.”

One of the Senate task force’s recommendations is that FSL put aside, at least for now, its intention to expand from close to 15 percent to about 20 percent of the undergraduate student population. Lubash wholeheartedly agrees. “I’m not anti-Greek life,” he says. “I’m anti–sexual assault. If nearly 40 percent of girls in sororities are victims of sexual assault, and we grow to 20 percent of the school population, how many more girls will be assaulted? Why are we continuing to expand this problem before addressing it?”

Lubash notes that the vast majority of the Greek community does not share his opinion, and that his own fraternity (which he preferred not to name) has extremely high standards.

Indeed, the problem appears to be concentrated among certain fraternities. “They don’t all have the same rate of sexual assaults,” Freyd says. “We need to find out what the ones with lower rates are doing right.”

At a campuswide forum on sexual assault last November, FSL members spoke passionately about their desire to address the problem. “We want to be leaders on this issue, and we are committed to be agents of change,” said Morgan Plew, an economics major who was president of the Panhellenic Council at the time. Other FSL representatives who spoke at the forum agreed that the reports are a “wake-up call.”

FSL has created a task force that will address not just sexual assault, but also gender violence, interpersonal violence, relationship abuse, stalking, and bullying. One member from each chapter will be trained to educate all chapter members. “We are trying to change the culture,” says Chase Salazar, a chemistry major who was president of the Interfraternity Council. “It takes constant education and constant discussion.”

Plew says that while FSL already had prevention programs, the new curriculum will be more in depth. “We are happy that people are talking about it,” she says. “It is an issue that has been surrounded by so much secrecy.”

She argues that sororities provide an important support system for women. “We educate our members to listen and to help the victim in the way the victim wants to be helped,” she says. “It’s important to have women around you that you know and feel safe with.”

Salazar notes that the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council implemented a new social policy in 2014, after experiencing an all-time-high number of alcohol-related medical transports. The policy mandates strict guidelines for all events sponsored by a chapter, including registering the event, providing sober monitors who will safely escort intoxicated guests out of the event and social liaisons who actively monitor the event, and prohibiting bulk quantities of alcohol. After the new policy went into effect, the number of transports dropped by half, Salazar says.

Despite the positive changes, Associate Dean of Students Sheryl Eyster is in favor of waiting a year before expanding the UO’s Greek system. The FSL students are “very passionate,” she says, “and we should harvest their energy to build and sustain healthy communities. We can work together to make changes.”


Athletes around the nation have faced highly publicized accusations of sexual assault in the past year or two, including high-profile cases at Oregon, Florida and Florida State, Ohio State, Arizona State, Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, UCLA, and others.

According to data compiled from 262 sexual assault claims and released by United Educators Insurance, which provides liability insurance for schools and colleges, 25 percent of alleged sexual assault perpetrators are athletes, even though they represent only 10 to 15 percent of an average institution’s student population.

The NCAA presented a different perspective in its 2014 report on campus sexual assault, stating that research does not show significant differences between student-athletes and their nonathlete peers when it comes to the probability of perpetrating acts of violence. However, the report indicated that male student-athletes in the sports of football and baseball have a higher association than other athletes with aggressive behaviors outside the sport. While aggressive behaviors are promoted in many sports, coaches and athletics administrators must make it clear “that what is allowable and even desirable during an athletic practice or competition has no part in social relationships or ‘off the field’ behavior,” the report said. Freyd and her students have not released any statistics about varsity athletes and sexual assault at the UO, because very few Division I team athletes participated in the study.

A review panel created by former UO president Michael Gottfredsen recommended that the athletics department contribute resources to the UO’s campuswide prevention programs while also providing additional training for athletes. “It would be better to integrate the athletes with other students in the prevention programs,” says Mary Deits, the former Oregon Court of Appeals judge who chairs the panel, although she acknowledges the logistical difficulties involved. The athletics department also needs to more uniformly look at character issues during the recruitment process, she says, because different sports have different methods of evaluation.

Katie Harbert, director of student-athlete development, says it is appropriate for student-athletes to have specialized training in sexual assault prevention. “You have to teach the same message differently to different groups,” she says. “You need a baseline, so that everyone gets certain information, and then you fill in with different educational efforts to meet the needs of different teams.”

Harbert says that her job is to get the student-athletes to use the training and experience they acquire at the UO to be successful as career people, family members, and citizens. Noting that there are conflicting studies that show student-athletes as being either more or less likely to be involved with sexual assault, Harbert says, “I try to get them to develop character and be on the positive side of the research.”

Campus Surveys and Institutional Betrayal

In July, a group of US senators cosponsored the Bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which would, among other things, require every university in America to conduct annual campus climate surveys and publish them online. Such surveys seek to discover the prevalence of sexual assault on a campus, as well as how respondents perceive their institution’s quality of response and efforts at prevention.

It is essential for survivors that institutions respond appropriately to reports of sexual abuse, says Freyd, to avoid what she calls “institutional betrayal,” a concept that has been a cornerstone of her research. One example is the historically high rate of sexual assault in the military and the low rate of reporting by survivors, who run the risk of their careers being ruined if they come forward. “There is often even bigger trauma after someone reports an attack,” Freyd says. “They may actually get punished.”

Freyd and Smith surveyed UO students in 2010 about their experiences with reporting sexual assault to various institutions they had been involved with, such as a church, the military, or a university. Almost half the women (46 percent) surveyed said they had experienced some sort of institutional betrayal, and many cited the UO (and particularly fraternities and sororities) as not being appropriately responsive.

The completed study was published in early 2013, in a leading peer-reviewed scientific journal. “I started getting a lot of phone calls from people who thought there was a problem with institutional betrayal, especially on the UO campus,” Freyd says, “and I felt the responsibility to do something about it. Then things heated up last year when the White House declared campus surveys a national priority.”

Freyd and her graduate students decided to put together a pilot survey at the UO that could also be used on other college campuses. “We thought we could create a new way of looking at things,” she says. “If one campus is doing better, with less sexual assault, what are they doing?”

Her campus climate survey, cited at the beginning of this article, was conducted in late August and early September of 2014.

The University Senate has also taken a strong interest in the subject, creating in July a task force to investigate the issue. Cochaired by Carol Stabile, professor of women’s and gender studies and journalism, and Randy Sullivan, senior instructor in chemistry, the Senate Task Force to Address Sexual Violence and Survivor Support released its own report titled “20 Students per Week,” using statistics from Freyd’s campus survey to conclude that at least 20 UO women are harmed every week by nonconsensual sexual contact. The senate task force provided a number of recommendations to interim president Scott Coltrane, including the need for a centralized office to address sexual and gender-based violence; funding for a UO campus climate survey; increased cooperation between the athletics department’s senior leadership and the Senate Intercollegiate Athletics Committee; and suspending plans to expand Fraternity and Sorority Life until problems have been identified, studied, and addressed.

The senate task force’s findings were similar to those of the review panel created last spring. After extensive analysis and interviews with hundreds of students, faculty and staff members, administrators, and law enforcement officials, the eight-member President’s Review Panel released its recommendations in December, with the creation of a centralized office providing resources for sexual assault victims as its top priority. “It was an incredible process,” Deits says. “I learned a lot, and I hope that our recommendations and those of the senate task force will be implemented as soon as possible.”

The panel also commended the university staff for their hard work, writing in their report, “The fact that we see many areas that need improvement should not detract from recognition of the exceptional work of these dedicated individuals who are all motivated by the common goal to reduce and, ideally, eliminate incidents of sexual misconduct.”

The UO’s administration has taken Freyd’s research and the review panels’ suggestions seriously, implementing some program and policy changes immediately. The university will conduct more campus climate surveys, possibly including one this spring created by the Association of American Universities, of which the UO is a member, as well as another survey specific to the UO. A Campus Climate Survey Advisory Group is being formed to oversee the projects and advise the president on collecting and interpreting campus sexual-violence data. The university has also agreed to work more closely with the Eugene Police Department on the investigation of sexual assaults. And, the UO has directed an additional $90,000 to support prevention and education staffing, in addition to two new positions created in the Division of Student Life last year: a director of sexual violence prevention and education, and a sexual violence response and support services coordinator.

Awareness and Prevention

In addition to staff members trained to respond to incidents of sexual misconduct, the UO has teams of professionals and volunteers dedicated to preventing it in the first place, from the prevention and response team in the Office of the Dean of Students to the staff and students in various organizations such as the Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team (SWAT) and the Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), both sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Students, and the student-run Organization Against Sexual Assault (OASA). For years, the UO has required far more sexual violence prevention education than many institutions, says Associate Dean Eyster, noting that “many universities are just beginning to require programs. We hold students’ registration until they complete them.”

Education begins before new students even start school. Those under 21 must take online courses about alcohol abuse and sexual violence prevention before they are allowed to register for classes the following term. During summer orientation, incoming freshmen watch a performance titled “It Can’t Be Rape,” put on by SWAT, the sexual violence prevention team of which Ruchi Mehta, the student who led the exercise described at the beginning of this article, is a member. Students learn about rape myths, the real meaning of consent, dating and partner violence, stalking, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. Other topics include how bystanders can effectively intervene to prevent sexual violence (an important component of the White House’s It’s on Us campaign) and how students should respond if a friend has been assaulted.

Incoming students are given the number for the UO’s hotline for reporting sexual assault (and asked to immediately put it in their phones) and made aware of the SAFE website, a central resource launched last year that offers clear options for immediate help and support as well as information to guide a student if they are unsure what they want to do.

During the Red Zone and beyond, students attend interactive SWAT workshops that are tailored to individual communities. Abigail Leeder, a drama therapist, is the director of UO’s Experiential Education and Prevention Initiatives and heads many of the sexual violence prevention and education projects. She leads the SWAT troupe and also puts together workshops where the leaders of communities such as international students and residence halls can create their own targeted information campaigns. “Abigail is a master,” says Eyster. “She has multifaceted ways to engage students in dialogue and creates workshops that are specific and socio-relevant to various communities. She’s in demand all over the country.”

In October, the UO’s Division of Student Life released a video, Ducks Do Something/It’s on Us, featuring activists, survivors, student-athletes, and Greek leaders, who urge their fellow students to step up and step in when they witness potential sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, or racism. Produced as part of the national It’s on Us campaign, the video specifically targets bystander intervention as an effective strategy. The division is also sponsoring a contest led by Kerry Frazee, director of sexual violence prevention and education, for students to create their own videos that would show how bystander intervention could work in their specific campus groups.

Although these efforts are helping to build awareness of the problem and the resources available to students, Leeder says it’s not easy to change years of societal programming. “The UO can’t do it on its own,” she says. “We need a whole cultural shift.”

Resources and Support

The Office of the Dean of Students has two trained support staff members available around the clock to provide advocacy and comprehensive services for students who have experienced sexual misconduct. “Someone is always ready to be on campus within 20 minutes if a student calls,” Eyster says. Her office sees a wide variety of issues, from partner violence and sexual assault to harassment and stalking. “Students come in pretty much every day,” she says, noting that four people had come in seeking help from staff members the Friday before our interview.

Across the street from the dean of students office is the University Health Center, where students who report experiencing sexual violence can see a trained sexual-assault nurse examiner, who may then take them to the counseling center to meet with a member of the Interpersonal Violence Response Team. During visits with the counseling staff, which are confidential, students are made aware of their rights and the resources available to them.

Generally, if a survivor comes in soon after their experience, they may only attend a few sessions, Morse says. Counselors work with them to challenge the most common after-effect they are dealing with: self-blame. “At first, they just want it to all go away and life to be normal again,” Morse says. For many, “therapy feels like it’s stirring things up, so after a bit they stop coming.”

But survivors often come back later. Intimate relationships may be problematic, or they may be plagued by triggers that set off anxiety and stress, such as a man wearing the same cologne, or the smell of a certain kind of alcohol that was on the attacker’s breath. Survivors often report a feeling of numbness that alternates with depression, anxiety, and hypervigilance around safety and touch.

“They come in with all these symptoms and might not realize it is due to the assault, sometimes even saying they feel like they are going crazy,” Morse says. “It’s similar to the effects of other trauma, such as war veterans. We help them understand this is a normal result of their experience, and remind them of their strength and resilience. We help them deal with their symptoms and triggers and experience some healing.”

The Big Picture

The first national study of sexual assault on campuses was published in 1987, nearly 30 years ago. Its author, psychology professor Mary Koss (then at Kent State University, now at the University of Arizona), was vilified, Freyd says, when she presented statistics showing that one in four women are victims of sexual assault. “The results have been replicated over and over,” Freyd says. “The problem is, new research is always news, but then it’s forgotten a few months later. Every time, people are surprised by it.”

But over the past year, she says, “we’re seeing a huge wave of public awareness. People are talking about it, and there’s a huge consciousness shift.” She is optimistic about the future. “I don’t think there is anything that is outside our capacity to change. We need to look squarely at it and not deny it—look at the causes and address them.”

Leeder agrees that this is a time for optimism. “I’ve been doing this for nine years,” she says, “and for most of that time it was not an issue that most people on campus were interested in or paying attention to. Now faculty, students, and staff are coming together to address it in ways that could make a difference in the campus social climate.”

As an educational institution, the UO has a responsibility to teach its students the skills and knowledge they need, Eyster says. “We want students to leave the university understanding this issue and carrying that understanding with them wherever they end up in their family and professional life.

“That would make all the difference in the world.”

​Two documentaries that deal with institutional betrayal were released this winter, with one of them, The Hunting Ground, premiering to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival. The other one, It Happened Here, by Emmy Award–winner Lisa F. Jackson, follows women from Amherst College, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Connecticut after they went public about their institutions’ mishandling of their sexual assault cases. It Happened Here is screening on college campuses around the country as part of the White House’s It’s on Us campaign.

—By Rosemary Howe Camozzi

Rosemary Howe Camozzi, BA ’96, is a former senior writer and editor for Oregon Quarterly.