Monday, December 23, 2013

You Can't Be an Alcoholic If You're in College, Right?

Have you heard this one before? It's not uncommon to find it on the lips of college students. For some it's almost a rallying cry.

The sheer prevalence of binge drinking and the youth of college drinkers can mislead students into thinking that heavy drinking is just a college thing, a rite of passage that they'll mature out of, and that it therefore poses little risk to them in the short or long term.

For many students that may be true. But some students won't outgrow their dangerous drinking habits, while others are already suffering the negative consequences of excessive drinking.

Young Adults and Alcohol Dependency

Contrary to college lore, there is no minimum age for alcoholism. Sadly, many young adults do meet the criteria for alcohol dependency and abuse. A 2002 study found that 31% of college students abused alcohol and 6% could be diagnosed with alcohol dependency.

A 2007 study identified five "subtypes" of alcohol dependency: young adult, young antisocial, intermediate familial, functional, and chronic severe. Only the chronic severe abusers fit into popular stereotypes of what most of us associate with alcohol abuse, yet they are the smallest percentage of problem drinkers.

Shockingly, young adults made up the largest subtype (31.5%), according to the study. They are also the least likely to seek help for their drinking.

In an interview with Psychiatric News, the researchers themselves expressed surprise with their finding "that so many of the individuals who met diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence were young adults [in their early 20s]."

Young adult drinkers drank less frequently than other subtypes, but when they drank, they tended to binge (73% of the time). Since over a third of young adult drinkers are still in school, the researchers suggested that "they may be an unrecognized part of the college drinking problem."

More recently, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has changed how they define substance use disorder.

Previously, the APA treated substance abuse and dependency as an either/or scenario: either you had a problem or you didn't. In contrast, the newest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) treats substance use disorders on a continuum from mild or moderate to severe.

As Dr. Charles O'Brien explained, "In DS- 4, we had essentially two diagnoses: one was abuse and the other, dependence...By doing a lot of research, we've discovered addiction doesn't work that way. It starts off mild at the beginning and becomes gradually more severe."

There was some controversy over the new standards. Critics claimed as many as 40% of college students could end up being labelled as alcoholics if the DSM 5's new diagnoses are followed.

This increase in diagnoses, critics argued, could do more harm than good. Rather than encouraging students to seek help, the diagnosis might lock them into the identity of an alcoholic or addict, causing them to act and think accordingly.

"And that poses a huge problem," wrote Maia Szalavitz for Time,  "particularly for adolescents and young adults with mild problems who may be pushed to adopt an addict identity and to see themselves as having no way to control their drinking or drug use if they ever 'relapse'. Rather than empowering those who do have control to use it, these programs essentially tell kids that if they ever have just one drink or puff on a joint, they’re lost."

But if telling students that they're problem drinkers doesn't work, then what other solutions are available?

Drinking Problem versus Problems with Drinking

Some researchers have suggested another approach that avoids the labels associated with substance use disorders. The Harvard School of Public Health, for example, has recently released a series of books that addresses the grey area between normal and problem drinking.

The series is called the "almost effect" and discusses circumstances where individuals may experience negative consequences from their drinking, such as poor sleep, depression, a drop off in work performance, or relationship troubles, but may not qualify for a formal diagnosis of alcohol dependency. They call these individuals "almost alcoholics."

Though they may not be formally diagnosed for a substance use disorder, they may nonetheless benefit from counseling or a brief intervention in order to help them see the connection between their drinking and its consequences.

Dr. Joseph Nowinski, one of the series' authors, explains that the decision that your drinking is a problem "does not imply that you admit to having a 'diagnosis', or that you are 'mentally ill'. Rather, it simply means that you have decided to make some changes in your lifestyle in the interest of your overall health."

In other words, perhaps the problem isn't that students think you can't be an alcoholic in college, but that they're thinking in terms of alcoholic or not alcoholic. Such binary thinking prevents them from seeing how their drinking is beginning to cause them problems and from doing something about it. Even if it's not an official diagnosis and even if it doesn't lead to problems later in life, college drinking can still be a problem now.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Confidentiality vs. Student Safety

A victim's request for confidentiality is a problem that schools often grapple with under the difficult circumstances of a sexual assault case. In a previous post we discussed how FERPA allows public disclosure of the outcome of student conduct hearings when accused students are found responsible for sexual assault. But what about a victim's request for confidentiality when the report is made? Does the school have an obligation to respect the victim's wishes? The following case provides one example of how following a school's reporting policies can have unintended results.

Seventeen-year-old Anna Livia Chen told her residential assistant she would not participate in Swarthmore College's Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention workshop for incoming freshmen. As a childhood sexual abuse survivor, Anna said it would be too emotionally difficult for her to listen to other survivor's stories, which is a standard part of the program.

Anna was abused when she was a junior high school student in California. Given that the incident occurred years before and thousands of miles away, Anna and her RA didn't think this needed to be reported to the Title IX coordinator. Swarthmore's sexual assault policy "applies to off-campus conduct that is likely to have a substantial adverse effect on any member of the Swarthmore College community or Swarthmore College … ."

However, a facilitator who contacted Anna to arrange a private session told the RA that Swarthmore's new interim policy requiring all college employees to report information about sexual assault to Public Safety applied to Anna's case. The RA complied by reporting the incident to Swarthmore's Title IX coordinator, but stressed that Anna "was no longer in any danger whatsoever" and had "all the support" she needed from her family, friends, and therapist back home.

The Title IX coordinator, in turn, was required by the school's policy to report the information to the school's general counsel who advised that under Swarthmore's policy the abuse must be reported to the Pennsylvania child abuse hotline. It should be noted that pending Senate Bill 31 would add postsecondary school employees to the list of mandatory child abuse reporters in Pennsylvania.

When she was contacted by child protective services, Anna told CPS that she did not want them to investigate her case. Later, on Anna's 18th birthday, CPS informed her that it was legally required to notify local police about her case.

Swarthmore's Policy Goal

According to Swarthmore's secretary of college, the reporting policy that set this chain of events into motion was meant "to not only meet the letter and spirit of the law, but to ensure that our policies assure the safety of our students, provide meaningful support to victim/survivors, and enable us to respond with the highest levels of fairness, compassion, and respect for privacy."

But this is how Anna described her experience: "So much of my time was being drained by having meetings with various administrators and resources, not to mention the emotional energy it took. I had no time for self-care, which is something that I desperately needed with everything that was going on. I am still frustrated that this process got to a point where it overtook my life in the way that it did."

Now Anna is working on changing Swarthmore's policy and procedures to prevent other victims from having to go through the same experience.

Title IX and Victim Confidentiality

What does Title IX require schools to do to protect a sexual assault victim's confidentiality? First, Anna should have been told that school employees are required to report information they receive about sexual assault. If she wanted the information to remain confidential, she should have been referred to confidential resources, such as religious and professional counselors.

Second, Title IX requires schools to respect a victim's request for confidentiality in a sexual assault investigation and response except when it interferes with the school's ability to stop harassment and protect the safety of its students. The OCR's 2001 Handbook explains: 
In all cases, a school should discuss confidentiality standards and concerns with the complainant initially. The school should inform the student that a confidentiality request may limit the school’s ability to respond … If the student continues to ask that his or her name not be revealed, the school should take all reasonable steps to investigate and respond to the complaint consistent with the student’s request as long as doing so does not prevent the school from responding effectively to the harassment and preventing harassment of other students.

In its 2008 publication, "Sexual Harassment: It's Not Academic," the OCR listed three factors that must be weighed against the victim's request for confidentiality in light of the school's "responsibility to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students":
·              seriousness of the alleged harassment;
·              age of the harassed student; and
·              other complaints that the same individual has harassed others.
Additionally, state or local laws may require schools to report incidents to the police.

In addition, the April 2011 "Dear Colleague Letter" included a fourth factor that must be weighed against the victim's request for confidentiality: "the alleged harasser’s rights to receive information about the allegations if the information is maintained by the school as an 'education record' under [FERPA]." The bottom line is that the victim should be told if the school cannot ensure confidentiality.

The OCR's latest official word on victim confidentiality is found in the Resolution Agreement between the OCR and the University of Montana. As part of that settlement agreement, UM adopted a policy with "an assurance that the University will keep the complaint and investigation confidential to the extent possible." Below is UM's policy protecting victim confidentiality:

UM's Policy 507 – Title IX adopted May 25, 2012

IV. Confidentiality of the Alleged Victim:

Student confidentiality will be respected to the extent possible. Even if the alleged victim requests confidentiality or asks that the complaint not be pursued, a campus is required to:
A. take all reasonable steps to investigate and respond to the complaint to the extent possible consistent with the alleged victim’s wishes;
B. notify the alleged victim that the failure of the alleged victim to pursue a complaint may limit the campus’ ability to fully address the matter; and
C. report the incident or assault to local law enforcement authorities if a health or safety emergency as defined by state or federal law is found by the campus to require such reporting.


To summarize, these are the essential points that college employees need to know about a victim's confidentiality:
·              if you expect to or do receive information about sexual assault, explain that you need to make a report to the school's Title IX coordinator
·              maintaining confidentiality may limit the school's ability to fully respond to the alleged assault
·              students who desire a confidential conversation should meet with a counselor or other confidential resource
·              if individuals prefer no action be taken at that time, let them know you will share their preference with the Title IX coordinator
·              explain to the victim that their request for confidentiality will be respected to the extent possible, however:
o               the school must respond to sexual assault effectively and prevent harm to other students
o               the accused student may have a right to receive information about the allegations if it is included in the school's education records

Finally, if disciplinary action is not possible because the victim insists on confidentiality, the OCR says the school "should pursue other steps to limit the effects of the alleged harassment and prevent its recurrence." Those "other steps" are education and prevention, such as defining sexual misconduct, deciding what the school's policies and disciplinary procedures are, and possible sanctions for violating the school's rules of student conduct.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Why Are Students So Unhealthy during Finals Week?

It's that time of the year: the trees are all bare, a coat of frost shines on the sidewalk, the smell of  anxietys hangs in the air, and sleep-deprived students lumber around campus unshowered and unshaven. Ah, finals season!

Most of us intuitively understand that stress is connected to students' failure to fulfill even the most basic self-care during finals, but why? After all, students usually don't have class or other commitments during finals week, so they should be able to focus exclusively on studying without ignoring the basics like brushing their teeth and getting enough to eat.

Indeed, one might think that faced with the intense pressure of finals, students would renew their focus and effort. In fact, research suggests otherwise, demonstrating how stress alters the way we make decisions.

When stressed out we tend to focus on short-term rewards and pleasurable outcomes of a decision while ignoring the less savory and long-term consequences. That's why it's so hard to resist eating that pint of ice cream in your freezer after a tough day or to forgo buying that new pair of shoes you covet but can't afford after a miserable meeting at the office.

In other words, it is exactly because students have to study for five finals that a friend's invitation to party tempts them so much. The stress causes them to focus on the immediate reward of going to the party (socializing and drinking) and not the downside of losing a night's sleep to late night carousing (hang over and poor grades).

Stress also makes it more difficult for students to connect bad decisions to their consequences. Even if students go out the night before a test, stress will help them remember the pleasurable experience of socializing and drinking and forget the fact that they were horribly hung over for the exam. This is one reason why researchers also link stress to substance abuse and addiction. Under stress, you focus on the pleasures of the drug and lose sight of the negative consequences.

Am I saying that stress makes us short-sighted and irresponsible? Not quite. Another recent study shows that under stress some people are actually more likely to sacrifice their time to help someone they care about. The research supports the uplifting hypothesis that humankind's default setting is to self-sacrifice (when it comes to close relationships). This is well and good for our species, but it also explains why some harried students take on big social commitments during finals week when they should be making more time for themselves.

All this rather paradoxically suggests that exactly when we need to buckle down and get the most done, we have the fewest cognitive resources to do so because stress saps our willpower. Given this fact, a nudge in the right direction might help students keep their cool and improve their grades.

A few common tips worth reminding students about:

Exercise (like walking) has long been touted as an important stress reliever and memory aid. Recent studies suggest that regular exercise also boosts creativity.

Mindfulness and meditation are also good ways to decompress and still the turbulent waters of daily life.

Also remind students to wait until after finals to make big decisions. The simple act of waiting can help students make better, more reflective choices.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Social Media and Sexual Assault

Audrie Pott's sexual assault was just the beginning of her nightmare.  On Sunday night of Labor Day Weekend, Audrie passed out drunk at a friend's house.  Three male classmates took her to an upstairs bedroom, where they stripped her down to her underwear, drew on her naked body in green marker, and sexually assaulted her.  They also took pictures.  Audrie spent the next eight days frantically trying to find out how far those pictures had spread, and enduring the abuse of classmates who had already seen them.  Then she hung herself.

Sadly, this narrative of the tragic results of the combination of sexual assault, bullying, and social media is by now a familiar one. 17-year-old Rehtae Parsons hung herself after a year of bullying prompted by the distribution of photos showing her rape. The nationally infamous rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two high school football players were convicted of sexually assaulting a sixteen-year-old girl, featured similar bullying and documentation of the assault on social media. Two thirteen-year-old girls were called "whores" on Twitter after a pair of eighteen-year-old football players were arrested for statutory rape.

In an age when everything that's newsworthy, and plenty that's not, is Tweeted, Facebooked, or Instagrammed, it may come as no surprise that social media has invaded even this particularly ugly aspect of our lives. However, sexual violence activist and expert Dr. Rebecca Campbell, whose research we've written about in the past, suggests that the relationship between sexual assault and social media may be deeper and more disturbing. "Sexual assault is a crime of power and dominance," she says. "By distributing images of the rape through social media, it's a way of asserting dominance and power to hurt the victim over and over again."

Of course, as the cases described above demonstrate, the continued trauma endured by sexual assault victims through social media isn't perpetrated solely by their attackers. Any number of their peers share photos and videos or use social media as a platform from which to bully victims, often for having reported the assault. In this way, social media discourages victims from reporting these crimes by facilitating a reaction to assault comparable to the secondary victimization suffered at the hands of law enforcement that we've previously written about. Such bullying seems to be both a symptom of and a contributing factor to a society that blames victims for their sexual assaults.

Yet the very photos and videos whose dissemination can torture victims of sexual assault can also lead to convictions for their assailants. Indeed, visual images like these can be essential to securing a criminal conviction in cases of sexual assault, where muddled recollections and conflicting accounts can make it very difficult to prove a perpetrator's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Moreover, some of the very aspects of social media that make it such a virulent breeding ground for bullying also make it the ideal platform for survivors to find communities where they can share their stories and receive much-needed support.  The anonymity of such spaces makes it possible for survivors not yet ready to reveal their experiences to friends and family to share their stories, allowing them to spread awareness and, in some cases, help the healing process.

Perhaps its most important aspect though is the potential role social media plays to prevent assaults in the first place by changing the culture that tolerates and indeed encourages such behavior. In an article for the Fordham Observer, Alissa Fajek argues that the outrage over cases like Steubenville, often fostered and spread via social media, can help to spread awareness and begin to change that toxic culture.

Clearly, the story of social media and sexual assault is more complicated than social media simply being used as a platform to fight sexual assault or as an extension of the crime itself. Because, like any other tool, the person using it must decide whether social media is used to hurt or to heal. Educating students about the enormous impact their decisions have on the survivors of sexual assault suggests the importance of harm-prevention training. The more students know about social media's effect on sexual assault victims — the damage it can cause or, alternatively, its power to solve the problem of sexual assault — the better equipped they'll be to use social media in way that heals instead of hurts.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Privacy vs. Safety: Does FERPA Apply to Sexual Assault Cases?

Navigating the muddy waters between protecting student privacy and addressing complaints of sexual misconduct still causes confusion. Does FERPA prohibit disclosure of information about sexual assault cases? Many perceive a conflict between the confidentiality of student records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) on the one hand, and the competing rights of sexual assault victims and other students under Title IX and the Clery Act on the other.

While this post is only intended to address whether FERPA prohibits disclosure of information about peer sexual assault complaints, a few basics are in order. As the Department of Education explained in a 2006 interpretation letter, FERPA protects "education records" maintained by or for the school which are tangible documents (including media and electronic data). FERPA does not, however, protect personal knowledge or observations:
FERPA applies to the disclosure of tangible records and of information derived from tangible records … As a general rule, information that is obtained through personal knowledge or observation, and not from an education record, is not protected from disclosure under FERPA.

Therefore, even if an education record exists containing the same information, FERPA doesn't protect the confidentiality of information independently obtained from personal knowledge or observations.
In addition, the education records must contain "information directly related to a student" — in other words, they must directly or indirectly identify the student. So far this seems pretty straightforward. However, the various exceptions to FERPA protection when sexual assault is involved seem to cause confusion.
Starting with a clear exception, schools may disclose — without the accused student's consent — the final results of a disciplinary proceeding involving alleged acts that, if proven, would constitute a violent crime or non-forcible sex offense:1

  • to anyone if the alleged perpetrator is found to have committed the offense
  • only to the alleged victim if the accused is not found responsible. In this case the victim must be told not to disclose the outcome to a third party

The result of a disciplinary proceeding is not final until after any appeals. Once the result is final the school may disclose the student's name, the offense, and any sanction imposed, as indicated above.

Another slightly more confusing exception allows disclosure of the investigative reports and other records2of campus police and security units involving sexual assault complaints if they are created for a "law enforcement purpose." Whether the records qualify for this exception depends on (1) who created the records, (2) why they were created, and (3) who maintains them.

Under FERPA, if the records are created "exclusively for the purpose of a possible disciplinary action against the student" those records would be "education records." However, the ED Secretary has said that it "expects such occasions to be very rare, especially when incidents involv[e] criminal conduct by students at postsecondary institutions." Thus, if a student reports a sexual assault to campus police and other security staff their records are probably not protected from disclosure by FERPA.

A couple of cases illustrate how FERPA has been misapplied at the expense of student safety. Last year Oklahoma State University did not alert campus or local police when a victim reported to Student Affairs that he'd been molested. Over the next month the accused molester committed more assaults. Finally, a student newspaper reporter received an anonymous tip and contacted police, which led to the perpetrator's arrest. In September, Nathan Cochran pled guilty to three criminal counts of sexual battery for fondling and performing oral sex on other male students while they slept in his fraternity house. Cochran was suspended from OSU for three years.

When the OSU victim first came forward, no tangible education record existed relating to the accused student. LeRoy Rooker, the ED's chief FERPA enforcer for 21 years, said "Just forget FERPA at that point."

And even if an education record existed a third exception, FERPA's health and safety exception likely applied. Again, Rooker provides guidance in ED's 2006 interpretation letter
This provision allows an educational agency or institution to disclose personally identifiable information from education records, without prior written consent,
in connection with an emergency [to] appropriate persons if the knowledge of such information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other persons. 20 U.S.C. §1232g(b)(1)(I); 34 CFR §§99.31(a)(10) 99.36.3

In another case, Swarthmore College's disciplinary proceeding found the accused student responsible but the victim felt the sanction did not protect her or other students in part because the accused's identity was never revealed by the school. Though her assailant was found responsible for rape and suspended, he will be allowed to re-enroll after she graduates. In the meantime, his suspension wasn't made public so he continues to visit the campus and present a safety risk. When Liz Braun, Dean of Students at Swarthmore, asked for student feedback about the school's College Judiciary Committee process, the victim described the CJC process as "unnecessarily torturous." She asked a valid question in her response to Dean Braun: "Should the outcomes of CJC hearings and appeals be made public with identifiable names of perpetrators?" In fact, the accused student's name could be made public if the CJC's final decision found him responsible. This would not violate FERPA and could help protect other students.

Responding to a question about obtaining information from schools regarding sexual assaults against college students, ED Secretary Arne Duncan encouraged journalists to seek assistance from Department of Education staff if they encounter schools misapplying FERPA. While participating in a conference call organized by the Education Writers Association, Duncan stated, "Where districts or schools are — I'm not saying they are — but if they're sort of hiding behind FERPA and not sharing simple information, we're happy to try and assist there."

A journalist from Student Press Law Center said she plans to follow up with ED's chief privacy officer, Kathleen Styles. We'll be looking for further guidance on this issue but hope that in the meantime this post provides some explanation of what is and isn't a legitimate use of FERPA when it comes to protecting the privacy of students accused of committing sexual assault.

1. While this post focuses on sexual assault complaints, this exception to FERPA protection covers a number of violent crimes and non-forcible sex offenses listed in 34 CFR §99.39 and 34 CFR §99.31(13)and (14) covers the conditions that allow disclosure of information without consent.

2. 34 CFR §99.8(b)(1) defines "law enforcement records" as "records, files, documents, and other materials that are — (i) Created by a law enforcement unit; (ii) Created for a law enforcement purpose; and (iii) Maintained by the law enforcement unit." While FERPA allows disclosure, the confidentiality of records maintained by a school's security staff may be restricted by the school's policies or applicable State law.

3. 34 CFR §99.31(10) provides that prior consent not required to disclose information where "The disclosure is in connection with a health or safety emergency, under the conditions described in §99.36."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What Happens in College Doesn't Always Stay in College

Photograph courtesy of Amanda Berg
While a junior at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Amanda Berg noticed her female friends trying to match men drink for drink at parties. The trend bothered her and she was interested in exploring it further. So on Halloween, Berg decided to bring her camera to a party, and instead of knocking back drinks, she snapped photos.

The one-night experiment developed into a long-term project, and Berg continued to document her female friends while they partied. The fruit of this project, Berg's photo-essay, "Keg Stand Queens: Binge Drinking among College-Aged Women," explores "the complex relationship women undergraduates have with alcohol." 

Berg has plenty of images of binge drinking that we might expect from a photo-essay on college partying: students shotgunning beers, another chugging from a bottle of booze as she flips off the cheering crowd encircling her, and a young woman throwing up in the bathroom after partying too hard.

Other photos show the way drinking insinuates itself into the more mundane aspects of student life like one photograph of a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels on a bathroom counter, nestled among makeup, toothpaste, and combs.

In some ways, it is this last photo that is the most troubling. It suggests the way drinking becomes as routine as brushing your teeth or combing your hair. Indeed, harm-prevention programs usually educate students about the dangers of binge drinking, but rarely do they mention the dangers of daily drinking.


The Importance of Weekly Limits

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines moderate drinking by both daily and weekly limits. For men, those limits are no more than four drinks a day or 14 drinks in a week. For women, it's three drinks a day or seven drinks in a week. Daily limits protect people from acute risks such as alcohol poisoning. Weekly limits, meanwhile, protect them from long-term risks associated with alcohol such as certain types of cancer.

While alcohol programs generally educate students about daily limits and the dangers of binge drinking, most don't mention weekly limits, even though keeping within both limits is important to students' health.

In a recent study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Bettina Hoeppner and her colleagues found that 50% of college women and 45% of college men exceeded the NIAAA's weekly limits at least once in their first year of college. The findings reveal a hole in some campuses harm-reduction efforts. By failing to educate students about weekly limits, Hoeppner argues, schools may be missing an important chance to have a long-term impact on students' lives, especially young women.

In fact, recent data show that while young adults binge less after college graduation, they continue to drink just as frequently if not more. "[T]his raises the possibility," Hoeppner speculates, "that the weekly limits become more relevant after leaving the college environment when weekly volume is less likely to be driven by heavy episodic drinking."

Breaking the cycle

College students are still more likely to exceed daily than weekly limits. Indeed, according to Hoeppner's data, almost no students exceeded weekly limits without also exceeding daily limits. Furthermore, the risks of binge drinking (blackouts, injuries, alcohol poisoning) are more acute than the potential long-term effects of regularly exceeding weekly limits. But, as Hoeppner's research suggests, students also need to think about how their drinking fits into a bigger picture.

Just as colleges and universities educate students for professional life after graduation, schools need to consider how their harm-reduction strategies promote healthier lifestyles at college and beyond.
Telling students that alcohol abuse is just a "college" problem reinforces the perception that there aren't long-term consequences to their behavior: "What happens at college stays at college."

Failing to warn students about the long-term consequences of heavy drinking not only lets women down, it lets all students down. Education programs prepare students for life, not just college.

The final image in Berg's photo-essay is a young girl practicing flip cup. She is surrounded by the detritus of a wedding celebration. Empty cups and containers are strewn across the table. In the distance, just out of focus, lies a discarded silver sandal. As Berg told Slate Magazine, "It seems like the end is the beginning, and it just goes on."


Works Cited

Hoeppner, B.B., Paskausky, A.L., Jackson, K.M., Barnett, N.P. (2013) "Sex Differences in College Student Adherence to NIAAA Drinking Guidelines," Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37, 1779-1786.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Prevention Must Include the LGBTQ Community

Recent research suggests that members of the LGBTQ community are just as—if not more—likely to be victims of sexual violence as their heterosexual peers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2010 Findingson Victimization by Sexual Orientation found that nearly half of lesbian women, four in ten gay men, half of bisexual men, and three-quarters of bisexual women have been victims of sexual violence in their lifetime. Such alarming figures make it clear that sexual assault is a problem that affects students of all sexual orientations. Moreover, the often marginalized position of the LGBTQ community compounds and complicates numerous issues faced by survivors of sexual assault.

For example, as we've written about in the past, it's not unusual for survivors to be discouraged from reporting by the fear that they will encounter hostility on the part of law enforcement and other first responders. The fear of hostility motivated by homophobia compounds the problem for members of the LGBTQ community. For some LGBTQ survivors, reporting a sexual assault could mean "outing" themselves before they're prepared to reveal their sexuality. There's also the fear that, because the conventionally accepted narrative of sexual violence focuses on heterosexual assaults, an assault involving members of the LGBTQ community will be sensationalized.

Another ugly fact is that homophobia not only contributes to underreporting of sexual assault in the LGBTQ community, but can also motivate assaults against members of that community. According to the University of Minnesota Morris Violence Prevention Center, sexual assault is often used as a weapon by those who wish to humiliate LGBTQ people for their sexual orientation, or (especially in cases where a lesbian woman is assaulted by a straight man) somehow "cure" them of their orientation. The unhappy overlap between hate crimes and sexual assault is especially important for administrators to be aware of in light of the Campus SaVE Act's requirements for schools to include hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity in their annual security reports.

These issues make clear the importance of harm-prevention programming that encompasses the entire spectrum of a campus population. The current conversation about sexual assault on college campuses is, of course, incredibly important and a welcome change from decades of silence on an issue that won't go away unless it's addressed directly. But does the conversation campuses are having about sexual violence include all of the students affected by the problem? A conversation about sexual violence on college campuses that revolves around or even assumes scenarios involving heterosexual male perpetrators and heterosexual female victims fails to address the needs of survivors whose experiences fall outside the range of that common but by no means universal experience.

 Administrators need to consider programming designed to help all students by covering the unique problems faced by members of the LGBTQ community. By bringing these issues into the conversation, schools encourage students to report sexual assault, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation.  Inclusive and effective prevention training must recognize the grim but important truth that sexual assault can affect any student on campus.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Do You Know Your Campus's Sexual Assault Red Zones?

Most schools concentrate their substance-abuse and sexual-violence prevention efforts during the first six weeks of the academic year, a period called the "red zone."  First-year women are believed to be at the highest risk for sexual assault during these first six weeks because they are unfamiliar with college social life and thus vulnerable to sexual predators.

Though research does show that first-year women are at greater risk for sexual assault than other undergraduates, no studies (that we're aware of) have shown that the first six weeks of school are the highest-risk period for them.

Researchers, however, have found evidence for other "red zones." These red zones, researchers suggest, are particular to schools and are the result of local factors, such as rush periods, big games, or other important social events.

In a 2008 study, William Flack and his colleagues found that second-year women at one college were at a higher risk for sexual assault between the end of the first month of school and fall break.  Flack tentatively attributed this spike in risk to the fact that many second-year women were pledging local sororities before fall break. The high number of parties and heavier drinking during pledge week, Flack suggested, put the young women at greater risk for sexual assault.

Flack concluded: "Risk for unwanted sex associated with the academic calendar year may have more to do with the available range of types of social events in which students engage...the contexts within which those events take place, and the sometimes intense pressures on students to conform to campus social mores, than with students’ inexperience of college social life per se."

Other research, meanwhile, has found that the risk of sexual victimization is evenly spread out across the school year (Fisher et al., 94-95).

Taken together, this research suggests that schools should consider spacing their prevention effects across the entire first year instead of frontloading prevention efforts in the first six weeks of school.

To determine the timing of the programming, administrators might identify major campus events that put students at greater risk for sexual violence or substance abuse and then schedule programming around those events.

Schools could also develop follow-up programming and re-orientations for students in their second, third, and fourth years. These follow ups could present students with new information that is more relevant to their experience -- such as upcoming rush or pledge weeks -- thus allowing students to continue a discussion that often seems to end after first-year orientation. After all, though women may be at a relatively lower risk of sexual assault later in their college careers, programming should be addressed to potential bystanders and perpetrators as well.

Indeed, spreading programming out isn't just consistent with research about red zones, it's also good pedagogy. Spacing any kind of practice across time (rather than massing it in one long event) promotes better long-term retention of material.

Sexual violence is not just a problem in the first six weeks of school and it's not just a first year problem. All students are responsible for preventing sexual violence.

Further Reading

Fisher, B.S., Cullen, F.T., Turner, M.G. (1999) "Extent and Nature of the Sexual Victimization of College Women: A National-Level Analysis." Washington, DC: Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

Flack, W.F., Jr., Caron, M.L., Leinen, S.J., et al. (2008) "'The Red Zone': Temporal Risk for Unwanted Sex Among College Students," Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23, 1177-1196.

Kimble, M., Neacsiu, A.D., Flack, W.F., Jr. and Horner, J. "Risk of Unwanted Sex for College Women: Evidence for a Red Zone." Journal of American College Health, 57, 331-337.

Thalheimer, Will. (2006) Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says. Work-Learning Research, Inc. Accessed 18th November 2013 <>

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Campus Climate Surveys and the "Information Problem"

Education surveys are nothing new. In fact, the Department of Education was established in 1867 to collect "such statistics and facts … as shall … promote the cause of education throughout the United States."1 In his 1860 education treatise, Herbert Spencer said that asking people how they "think, feel, and act under given circumstances" to solve social problems was a self-evident conclusion: "Society is made up of individuals … and therefore, in individual actions only can be found the solutions of social phenomena."2

Fast forward to the 21st century and schools are using student surveys to help them address the epidemic of sexual assault affecting college women. In a previous post we talked about the University of Montana's "rape-tolerant campus" and its agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to take steps to change the campus climate.

On October 29, 2013, the University of Montana used Amazon gift cards to entice students to complete an annual safe campus survey on their knowledge, attitudes, program use, and experiences. The survey will help UM develop "effective programs and [create] positive change in sexual and interpersonal violence," said UM psychology professor Christine Fiore. This annual survey is part of the "blueprint" for Title IX compliance that resulted from UM's settlement agreement with the ED. The blueprint also includes educating students, faculty, and staff on what is sexual misconduct and how to file complaints.

Other investigations by the ED's Office of Civil Rights call for annual student surveys. The State University of New York reached a settlement agreement with ED on October 31, 2013, and will begin conducting annual campus climate assessments to help improve sexual misconduct policies and procedures at its twenty-nine campuses. In May 2013, the Yale News reported that the school's second "campus climate assessment" found, based on feedback from more than 300 students, it was making progress in addressing sexual misconduct issues.

In addition to a federal investigation, there is the risk of expensive Title IX liability to victims. When schools are faced with six- and seven-figure settlements, why does it take a federal investigation to get to the root of the problem? One possible explanation is what legal scholar Nancy Chi Cantalupo calls an "information problem" about sexual assault and how that impacts a school's reputation for safety.

According to Cantalupo, many schools are reluctant to confront the problem of sexual violence precisely because helping victims and punishing perpetrators requires reporting. Increased reporting drives crime statistics up and makes the school look like a dangerous place to send your children. On the other hand, when victims are discouraged from reporting crimes statistics go down, making the school look safer. Thus, schools have an incentive to discourage reporting to protect their reputations.

However, sociologists and criminologists who study campus violence suggest that ignoring the problem feeds a rape-tolerant culture that leads to higher rates of sexual assault.3 Fortunately, these tragic consequences are turning into stricter enforcement and grassroots action: federal complaints by sexual assault victims are increasing, Title IX enforcement is being taken more seriously,4 and student organizations like Know Your IX are focusing national attention on the problem.

Cantalupo argues that annual student surveys provide more accurate information on the incidence of sexual violence, which helps schools turn their policies, procedures, and education programs into meaningful change. Therefore, Cantalupo recommends that all schools require students to respond to a campus climate survey before they can graduate or register for classes.

Tucker Reed has filed two federal complaints over the University of Southern California's handling of her sexual assault complaint. She agrees that exit surveys of graduating seniors would not only be a better way to find out how many students were sexually assaulted while in college, but could also "pinpoint which programs are working and which aren't."

Student surveys provide a direct source of data that inform a school's Campus SaVE Act education programs, and confront the sexual assault problem with a targeted approach to reducing the rate of sexual violence in all schools, not just those featured in the latest headlines for another federal investigation.

1. The History and Origins of Survey Items for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Report of the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (2011).
2. Spencer, H. Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical, p. 70 (London: D. Appleton and Company 1860).
3. Cantalupo, N. Burying Our Heads in the Sand: Lack of Knowledge, Knowledge Avoidance, and the Persistent Problem of Campus Peer Sexual Violence (2011) 43 Loyola Univ. Chicago L.J. 205, 218.
4. Cantalupo says, "In fiscal year 2009, OCR had 582 full-time staffers—fewer than at any time since its creation. And it received 6,364 complaints, an increase of 27% since 2002," citing Lax Enforcement of Title IX in Campus Sexual Assault Cases: Feeble Watchdog Leaves Students at Risk, Critics Say, Center For Public Integrity (Feb. 25, 2010).

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why the Semantics of Rape Matter

In December of 2011, the FBI amended its definition of rape from "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will," to "Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim." Phrases like "carnal knowledge" and the insistence that rape victims must be female might suggest the outdated definition’s antiquity—in fact, it had stood since 1927.

How rape is defined is an issue with consequences that go beyond the merely semantic. Consider, for example, this recent post on the gulf between the prevalence of sexual assaults as reported by researchers like Mary Koss (who found that 1 in 4 women are the victims of rape or attempted rape before leaving college) and as reported by the FBI, which, in 2012, reported 26.7 forcible rapes per 100,000 inhabitants. The discrepancy can be attributed, at least in part, to how each study defined terms like "rape" and "sexual assault."

The FBI’s new definition will apply to how it collects and reports statistics like the ones quoted above—those regarding the incidence of rape. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, "This new, more inclusive definition will provide us with a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these crimes." Indeed, an emphasis on penile-vaginal penetration and the use of force limits what acts are counted as rape. With that in mind, it is particularly alarming to realize that for 84 years the FBI was using a definition of rape that didn’t include date rape or rape involving a male victim, perpetuating the myth that rape is only committed by strangers who jump out of the bushes.

The real-world consequences of how rape is defined make the history of the word itself both significant and instructive. Our English word "rape" is derived from the Latin raptus or rapere.  Its first appearance in British law refers not to any sort of sexual assault, but instead to violent theft of property. That linguistic connection is no coincidence. In the 19th century restitution for a rape resulting in pregnancy was paid not to the victim but to her father, and the rape of a woman by her husband was not recognized as a crime until the latter half of the 20th century. The conceptualization of rape as an attack on a woman, instead of the appropriation of the commodity that is her chastity, is a shift that has taken too long to come.

Today, a long-overdue shift in the way we define and conceive of rape is occurring, evidenced by the FBI’s updated definition. The FBI’s old definition bears no small resemblance to the English common law definition of rape: "carnal knowledge of a woman, forcibly and against her will."  Matthew Lyon, writing for the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, parses this definition into three elements: "intercourse, force, and lack of consent." Now that women are widely viewed as people instead of property, the most important change in the way we define rape today is the shifting emphasis from the second element of that ancient definition, force, to the third, lack of consent.

That shift is obvious in the new FBI definition, which notably makes no reference to force.  It also has important legal consequences. At one time many states required rape victims to prove a certain degree of physical resistance beyond a reasonable doubt in order to secure a conviction—so as to prove that force was involved in the sexual assault.  Thanks to rape’s shifting definition, many states have loosened or, in some cases, completely removed the requirement for "rigid resistance" on the part of the victim—a positive outcome, given recent research suggesting that for many sexual assault victims, physical resistance of any kind becomes physically impossible once the assault is initiated. 

Similarly, thanks to the new found emphasis on consent (or rather the lack thereof) as opposed to force, certain states have begun to define the post-penetration continuation of intercourse after consent has been withdrawn as rape. Previously, it was widely held that once a woman gave consent and penetration had occurred, there was, at least legally, no turning back. Emphasizing consent over force, however, leads logically to a different conclusion. Consent can be withdrawn at any time and once it has continued intercourse becomes rape.

The blunders of insensitive politicians have brought notoriety and national attention to the issue. In 2008, Tennessee Senator Douglas Henry declared that rape today "is not what rape was." He elaborated, saying that, "Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse." In an even more infamous incident, former Rep. Todd Akin claimed last year that, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Such gaffes point to the suspicion with which many still view a definition of rape based on lack of consent as opposed to the use of force.  That such gaffes are being made by people who hold positions of significant power points to what is at stake in this ongoing debate.

In fact, as recently as 2011, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which, as its name might suggest, would have banned federal subsidization of abortions, made exception specifically for cases of "forcible rape." The distinction raised an outcry from women’s group, who pointed out that such language could exclude victims of date rape or statutory rape. "Forcible" was eventually removed from the bill, although it still failed to pass the Senate.

A common refrain of activists opposed to that particular qualification was that "rape is rape." However, even as rape’s meaning has shifted to focus on a lack of consent, a whole host of qualifiers has sprung up, often to make the distinction between rape that involves force and rape that doesn’t.  Date, statutory, legitimate, forcible, gray, the list goes on and on. The question is whether those qualifiers clarify, or merely diminish? To which one might answer that the definition of "rape" is not merely semantic for the victims.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rewriting the College Hook-Up Script

Popular media makes it seem like college today is more like the seamier corners of a Las Vegas club than the ivy-clad, brick-edifice institution of yore.  Students today, it seems, are more likely to hit the bottle than the books and more likely to get a booty call than a phone call.

But college life isn't one big party as our media often portrays it. Indeed, the sensational portraits of college depravity, however well intended, might be doing more harm than good by reinforcing students' misconceptions about college life.

Let's take a look at some popular misconceptions about "hook up" culture, how they might be hurting our students, and how we can confront these misconceptions to enable students to rewrite the hook-up script.

Are Millennials are more sexually active than past generations?

Hook up culture is often portrayed as the crisis of the current generation of college students. The internet is full of accounts of the collapse of morality on college campuses. But scholars who study hook up culture trace its roots back forty years or more.

In her book on campus sexual culture, "Hooking Up," Kathleen Bogle suggests that the shift to hook up culture was already underway by the mid-1970s. She believes hook up culture arose out of the turmoil of the wider cultural and demographic changes of the 60s. In that regard, it's something that both current students and their parents experienced.

Other researchers put the origins in the early 1920s, when "with the rise of automobile use and novel entertainment venues...traditional models of courting under parental supervision began to fade" (Garcia et al.). Now we're talking four generations of hook-up culture!

Indeed, a study presented this year at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting found little change in college students' behaviors or attitudes regarding sex in the last 25 years.

The study compared the answers of two batches of college students, 1988-1996 and 2002-2010, on the General Social Survey. Attitudes and behaviors between the two groups were quite similar. For example, 65% of the first group reported having sex at least once a week compared to 59.3% of the second group. Attitudes regarding sex between minors, cheating on a spouse, and premarital sex also remained largely unchanged.

The researchers concluded, "[o]ur results provide no evidence that there has been a sea change in the sexual behavior of college students or that there has been a significant liberalization of attitudes towards sex."

Is everyone is hooking up?

This summer, the New York Times published a controversial trend piece by Kate Taylor. Taylor reported that campus hookup culture was increasingly driven by young women, who were intent on "building their résumés, not finding boyfriends." In other words, it's not just men who are driving hook up culture: everyone's doing it.

But while hook ups may dominate discussions about campus culture, not everyone is actually hooking up.

Indeed, according to the most recent American College Health Association Survey, over a third of college students have never had sex. And while 46% have had sex in the past month, the vast majority of sexually active students have only had one sexual partner in the past 12 months. In fact, 47% of college students reported being in a relationship.

That doesn't sound like students intent on casual sex and one-night stands.

Why do we talk about hook up culture so much then?

Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Occidental college, suggests that it might have to do with who is hooking
up: white, wealthy, heterosexual students. The status that these students' race, class, and sexual orientation confer allows them and their habits to dominate national discussions of campus culture.

"Students feel that a hookup culture dominates their colleges not because it is actually widely embraced," Wade writes, "but because the people with the most power to shape campus culture like it that way."

Indeed, contrary to Taylor's piece in the Times, Kathleen Bogle found that hook up culture was driven by men. In their interviews with Bogle, women were far less satisfied with hook up culture than their male peers.

In general, women preferred relationships, whereas men preferred casual encounters.

Bogle offered two reasons for this difference. First, the women she interviewed were interested in getting married earlier than the men. Thus many women were actively looking for a long term relationship that might result in marriage. The men simply weren't.

Bogle also pointed to a persistent double standard in campus sexual culture. While men were praised for being promiscuous, women were stigmatized. If they behaved like men and pursued multiple partners, women risked earning derogatory labels like "slut." Indeed, many men confessed that they wouldn't date a woman who had had many sexual partners. Thus in order to protect their reputations, women sought out stable relationships.

So not everyone is hooking up and not everyone wants to. Instead the hook-up elites are imposing a hegemony over campus sexual culture.

What we talk about when we talk about hooking up

The problem with these misconceptions is that they make hook up culture seem inevitable. Indeed, when we press too hard on the prevalence of hook up culture, we might be sending students mixed messages.

On the one hand, we imply that students are randy and oversexed.  We insist that hook ups and no-strings-attached sex are endemic to college campuses.

On the other hand, we blandly tell students that they overestimate how much sex their peers are having.

Which message do you think students will remember?

If the vivid image of a college free-for-all is what sticks in students' mind, then we may be doing
them a disservice.

Students do tend to overestimate their peers' sexual activity, making the behavior of a few outliers (the hook up elites) appear to be the social norm. Students then turn to these social norms to guide their own behavior, reinforcing hook up culture. 

It is possible that by talking so much about hook up culture (even when condemning it) that we inadvertently reinforce the idea that the outliers are the social norm, that everyone really is hooking up.

Instead of just condemning hook up culture, we need to offer some alternatives. Or better yet, we need to elicit some alternatives from students themselves.

Rewriting the hook up script

According to Bogle, hook up culture is a social script: a set of cultural and social expectations surrounding dating that students internalize and follow. Bogle contrasts the hook up script with earlier social scripts, such as "courting" or "going steady," which were the products of different social and demographic conditions.

Rather than just trying to correct students' perceptions of their peers' behavior or point to the flaws of hooking up, perhaps we might engage with students to write new social scripts, in order to get them involved in rewriting hook up culture.

What might that script look like? It's hard to say. But it can start with conversations about dating, asking what men and women want to get out of their college experience and whether that includes meaningful intimate relationships.

In fact, research suggests that some women pursue hook ups because the risks of a causal encounter are actually less than those of a long-term relationship: "Bad hook ups are isolated events, while bad relationships wreak havoc with whole lives."

The conversation about hook up culture can begin with freshman orientation, and it can continue in classrooms from gender studies to philosophy.

Getting students to see the fact and fiction of campus culture is a laudable goal. Getting them to understand that they aren't simply passive subjects of culture, but active agents who can change it has the potential to make a real impact on campus life.

Students can be so intent on changing the world that they fail to see the change that needs to happen right around them.

There's a well-known parable about two young fish swimming in the sea. An older fish swims up and asks, "How's the water?" After the older fish swims away, one young fish turns to the other and asks, "What's water?"

The point is, students are so immersed in the culture that surrounds them, they don't even know it's there. But it is. And it affects them. Unlike the two fish, however, students have the chance to find new waters.

Start a conversation with students and keep it going. Help them replace the hook-up culture myth with the script that fits their reality.

Awareness is the first step towards changing the "water" around us...some students may not even know they're drowning in it.


Works Cited

Bogle, K.A. (2008) Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. New York: New York UP.

Garcia, J.R., et al. (2012) "Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review." Review of General Psychology, 16, 161-176.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault

In our ongoing coverage of federal investigations of the University of Montana’s response to sexual assault, we reported on a case in which a UM official overturned a previous ruling against a student accused of sexual assault because he believed that certain statements made by the victim were “hesitant and equivocal.”  The deciding factor?  Her use of the phrases “I think” and “I don’t think” when describing the assault.  The official in question determined that those phrases undermined the victim’s credibility, and as a result overturned the previous ruling against her alleged assailant.

The UM case may seem extreme, but researchers suggest that the perceived credibility of the victim of a sexual assault is often the deciding factor in whether or not the assault is prosecuted or even investigated.  Dr. Rebecca Campbell, professor of Psychology and Program Evaluation at Michigan State University and an expert in victimology, especially as it applies to victims of sexual assault, found that 86% of sexual assaults reported to police are never referred to prosecutors.  Moreover, through extensive interviews with both law enforcement and victims, Dr. Campbell determined that the perception of a victim’s credibility (or lack thereof) is often an important contributing factor to the failure to refer these cases to prosecutors.  She quotes law enforcement officials who told her “The stuff (sexual assault victims) say makes no sense,” “I see them hedge, making it up as they go along,” and “They can’t get their story straight.”

Such attitudes not only contribute to case attrition, they discourage victims from reporting sexual assaults in the first place because they don't want to subject themselves to the "secondary trauma" of not being believed. 

Failure to report sexual assault is itself a serious problem, starkly illustrated in this recent post exploring the origins of the oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted before graduating from college.  That alarming number is even more disturbing when considered in light of researchers' estimates that less than five percent of attempted and completed sexual assaults of college students are reported.  Which is why new research by Dr. Campbell on the neurobiology of victim’s response to the trauma of sexual assault has the potential to dramatically improve the handling of sexual assault cases.

Dr. Campbell’s research suggests that the hesitancy or even inconsistency with which survivors report sexual assault may have nothing to do with their veracity and everything to do with the brain’s natural response to physical trauma.  Such trauma results in the brain releasing a flood of hormones during the assault.  While those hormones may facilitate fight or flight, they are less beneficial to the process of creating memories.  The two structures in the brain responsible for memory creation, the hippocampus and the amygdala, are both highly sensitive to fluctuations in hormone levels. 

The flood of hormones triggered by a sexual assault can lead to the victim's memory of the trauma being fragmented and difficult to recall.  This, in turn, leads to the confusion and hesitancy that law enforcement officials are trained to interpret as clues of dishonesty.  The problem is only compounded by inebriation, a particularly troubling complication given the fact that 70% of sexual assault victims have been drinking at the time of their assault.

Dr. Campbell’s research has other important implications for professionals dealing with reports of sexual assault.  Those who deal with victims of sexual assault, as well as victims themselves, are often confused by the flat or emotionless affect survivors sometimes display immediately after an assault.  Such a reaction strikes many as being inappropriate for a person who has just undergone a traumatic experience.  It may lead victims to feel guilty, and others to doubt whether they're telling the truth.

Dr. Campbell, however, explains that such a reaction is not a symptom of dishonesty or a sign that a victim is somehow culpable in their own assault, but instead the consequence of natural painkillers released by the human body in response to physical trauma.  During an assault the body releases opiates to block the physical and emotional pain of the attack.  Those opiates are the natural equivalent of the morphine that might be administered to a surgery patient.  As pointed out by Dr. Campbell, “morphine’s not sensitive to subtleties.”  The body’s naturally-occurring painkillers behave the same way, masking emotional pain and leading to the monotone response that strikes some law enforcement officers as suspicious for a victim of recent sexual assault.

Finally, Dr. Campbell’s research posits a phenomenon known as “tonic immobility” as an explanation for certain sexual assault victims' failure to fight back or to run away.  Tonic immobility (also known, at least in this context, as rape-induced paralysis) is an autonomic response wherein the body freezes in situations that provoke extreme fear.  It is an involuntary response, and its most marked characteristic is total muscular paralysis.  Fighting back or running away is literally impossible for a victim of rape-induced paralysis, whose body has decided for her that the safest course of action is to play dead.  Thus, the failure to fight back, run away, or in some other way physically resist sexual assault does not mean that a victim “wanted it” – the assumption of many institutions and officials who treat such failure of resistance as evidence of consent.

And, even when a sexual assault victim is physically capable of moving (research suggests that the proportion of rape victims who suffer from tonic immobility may approach fifty percent) it doesn’t necessarily mean that she is psychologically capable of doing so.  Besides impairing memory formation, the hormones released during a sexual assault prevent optimum operation of the circuits in the prefrontal cortex that make rational thought possible.  For the victim of rape or some other form of sexual assault, the thought process needed to resist may not be present during the assault itself.

Dr. Campbell’s research is important not only because it might alleviate the guilt of survivors struggling to understand their reaction to an assault, but also because it suggests certain crucial improvements that might be made to the way law enforcement and other officials handle sexual assault cases.  Failure to resist assault, inability to recall events clearly or sequentially, and surprisingly flat reactions to such trauma aren't necessarily suspicious, and certainly should not be grounds for throwing out a case. 

Perhaps most significant though are the implications for interviewing victims.  Dr. Campbell’s research not only suggests why victim’s accounts often seem confused and incoherent – it also suggests a solution to the problem.  She says, “It’s just going to take some time and patience for (a survivor’s recollection) to come together.”  She recounts the story of a veteran detective who insisted on getting a sexual assault victim coffee before interviewing her, having found, after years in his position, that “If you give them a few minutes to breathe, it starts to make more sense” – and made little difference to his ability to discern a false report from an honest one.  While this may go against more traditional interview-taking procedures, Dr. Campbell’s research suggests that the institutionalization of a practice similar to that veteran detective’s coffee-break might not only offer survivors a welcome reprieve in which to gather and consolidate fragmented recollections, but also lead to more accurate investigations.

The presentation in which Dr. Campbell outlines these findings, and their implications for law enforcement, began as training for the Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Team in Detroit – around twenty police officers, nurses, prosecutors, and crime lab workers.  Since then, she has educated hundreds of audiences on her findings and what they mean for workers who deal with the victims of sexual assault.  She has delivered a presentation sponsored by the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice, and has collaborated with the writers of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” to write an episode involving a sexual assault and rape-induced paralysis.

During her presentation for the National Institute of Justice, Dr. Campbell shared a comment posted by a survivor of sexual assault on a blog post connected to that Law & Order episode which movingly illustrated the value of her work.  “I cannot believe I am reading this article. After years of blaming myself, questioning myself, feeling tormented, I now understand why I froze every time I was assaulted. It now has a name. I don't have to wonder why or what's wrong with me or why didn't I do anything. I can't tell you how much relief this article brings me. You must know how much your website and your work helps those of us who have suffered in silent torment and agony. You give us a voice. You give us compassion. You give us strength and hope. There are no words to express the gratitude I feel.”