12.21.15 | Nora Caplan-Bricker
This should have been a productive year for talking about how to prevent sexual assault on college campuses. Last spring, Emma Sulkowicz hefted her mattress across the stage at her Columbia University graduation, in a symbolic victory over a culture of silence and shame. This fall, an estimated 1,400 institutions across the country enacted new “affirmative consent” standards and started teaching students that they needed a clear “yes” to move ahead with sex. Through it all, U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand have been working to assemble a bipartisan group to push for a bill that would create more resources for victims of sexual assault as well as harsher penalties for universities that mishandle rape cases or fail to report them.
But all too often in 2015, the debate seemed to be slipping backwards. In a year that opened onto the unraveling of Rolling Stone’s massive feature about what proved to be a fabricated story of a brutal gang rape—and that closed with CNN’s decision to air the documentary The Hunting Ground despite reason to doubt one of its core narratives—much of the energy around this topic vanished into a vortex of questioning whether rape victims can be trusted and whether rape on campus has the proportions of a genuine problem. The more important and constructive discussions—the ones that actually got at the knotty realities of sex on campus—were often pushed to the sidelines.