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Betsy Kneepkens: Rape crisis on campus demands reflection and action

I did not want to write on this subject, but I feel compelled to do so. Sometimes God puts little messages in your life, over and over again, and at a certain point, you must try to do something.

My something is sharing my outrage with readers in hopes that we can move each other to face a horrible problem plaguing college-aged women.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

This past year, four mothers, independently, likely unknown to each other, shared similar, painful stories about incidents that had happened to their daughters attending college. I did not seek out this information, nor were the situations designed to draw attention to this subject. My priority was to be a listener, but when one mom after another approached me, I began to contemplate what to do with this knowledge. Prompted again by some recent newspaper articles on this subject, I said to myself, “God, I am listening, what should I do?”

I have heard enough, and so I begin by writing.

These mothers shared how their daughters were raped by fellow students on their respective college campuses this past year. Recent media articles have included staggering statistics of reported incidents of sexual assault at Minnesota colleges and universities, in addition to news covering college men who were sanctioned by their institutions for their involvement in sexual assault cases.

The daughters of the moms I talked to were raised in similar fashions. They come from faithful, Catholic homes. They are not shy about proclaiming their faith in Christ, and they all seem to strive to live in accord with Christ and his teachings. They are bright, driven and appear to appreciate the privilege of attending an institution of higher learning.

These women varied by college year, with the oldest being a senior. Two attended two different Catholic colleges, and the others were at secular institutions, one large and the other small. These ladies were blessed with parents who worked hard and made many sacrifices to form their daughters to prepare them for a life of holiness and goodness for the sake of others.

In two of the incidents, the perpetrators were athletes, and in the other two situations they were not. In all cases, the women knew the men who raped them, and the date rape drug of choice by each offender was alcohol. Consistent in each story was that the perpetrator coaxed the women into drinking an excessive amount of alcohol. They certainly did not intend to drink too much, and it appears they all respect marital union as a sacred gift for the benefit of marriage only.

Two of the women reported the incident to college administrators, and the other two did not. In no instance did the institution contact the parents; the mothers found out through other sources. In each case there is a mom with a son that raped another mom’s daughter. Two mothers are likely aware of this fact, and two are not.

Additional similarities were that these mothers entrusted their children to the environment of higher education expecting safety to be a priority. They assumed parents were a part of seeking their daughters’ best interests and welfare in the educational process. All willingly made the financial sacrifice while expecting their daughters to encounter challenges that would shape them positively, not scar them internally.

Colleges do spend time explaining to students the potential dangers of acquaintance rape; they have protocols to follow when a student, likely a female, reports a situation to school authorities, and they typically provide resources to deal with the trauma, including the option to contact local police regarding the crime. They will do an internal investigation if the student requests one and sanction the students according to school policy. These efforts are well-intended, and in most cases, a triage approach to dealing with the situation is what happens.

From my perspective, one key to the problem of rape on college campuses is that they have a culture that is sexually boundary-less. The colleges approach rape primarily in a reactive way instead of a proactive one and triage instead of preventing the crime from happening.

Another way of saying this is that colleges essentially start the house on fire knowing the family is inside and then do everything they can to go into the fire to save the burning victims. There is a systemic problem when there are nearly 300 reported rape cases a year on Minnesota campuses, a figure that is likely double or more when you include unreported cases, all while institutions are spending significant time, energy and finances on handling the consequences, after the fact, with negligible results.

The question I would like colleges to ask is: Are we at all culpable or an indirect accessory to the crime of rape by establishing a culture that has the tenets which beget the act of rape?

What I mean is, does allowing a culture mostly made up of 18- to 22-year-olds, which promotes consensual sex, the act of spousal union without the benefit of the covenantal bond, institutionalize a flawed use of the marital gift? If this is true, institutions set up young people to unknowingly or unintentionally misuse each other for personal pleasure, a college culture that no longer even sees the act of intercourse to be a spousal gift. When you start walking down this road it eventually opens itself to abuse.

For example, culture is telling college students that as long as they communicate with their partners and they both approve of this intimate act, this “union” is acceptable. Expecting 18-year-olds who likely know each other minimally to communicate rightly on this very personal matter defies logic. How can any educated person who has been the age of college students think this will widely happen when most married couples struggle with communication even after years of being together? Sexual miscommunication dramatically opens itself to rape.

Additionally, handing out condoms and contraception to keep women “safe” speaks directly to the how colleges may be accessories to misusing the marital gift. When one needs to worry about “safety,” one is in harm’s way. Colleges’ health services frequently advertise how condoms and contraception will protect a student. Protection is only needed by women when they have to prepare themselves against those who intend harm. No condom or contraception will protect women from the greatest wound of a non-spousal union, rape. Never have I seen a sign on a college campus that says, “Caution, condoms and contraception will not protect you from rape, abstinence is expected.”

Furthermore, colleges need to examine the impact of the extinction of single-sex residence halls, visitation hours, single-sex bathroom and residence facilities, and faculty or religious live-in prefects on the culture. Universities need to know if these decades-ago policy changes ended up supporting a culture of misguidance, lack of accountability and improper formation as it relates to students and virtues. Worse yet, could the lack of guidance move a person to an even darker place where they believe they have the right over another person’s body?

Perhaps the worst institutional policies are federal laws and university principles stating that a student becomes an adult once they arrive on a college campus. This notion of adulthood is treated as a rule even though students are largely dependent on parents financially. Additionally, we know from research that development, both cognitively and emotionally, varies widely from student to student. Researchers acknowledge that full brain development may not be complete until the age of 25. In other words, we treat college students by rule as adults, but science tells us otherwise.

We have a federal law commonly referred to as FERPA that prohibits parents’ involvement and knowledge in their child’s life at the college level. Who better to assist in the process of bringing an older adolescent to adulthood than parents who have unconditional love and desire to see their child succeed? This instrument, intended by God, is removed once a child steps on to a college campus.

In other words, those who have never met a student get to decide adulthood, no matter where the student may be intellectually or emotionally. We treat students’ maturity like an on and off switch, when in reality, raising a child is more like a dimmer that slowly turns on until it is fully bright. Are parents being forced to abandon their children when they might need us the most? In truth, we need our government and the academy to acknowledge this reality as well and make policies accordingly.

Rape is the most common devastating crime on college campuses. It is an atrocity that attempts to defile the heart of who we are as a person, our ability to love. An education is worth nothing if institutions do not see the value of holding up the most important human interaction, the spousal union, as a sacred gift.

Understanding the inclinations of young students and placing guidelines which hold up and lead a young person to virtue ought to be a foundational obligation of the academy. Anything less than this, I believe, eliminates the institution’s purpose for being. Universities must get this right, because the sin and crime of rape jeopardizes the community of learners and their understanding of love. It is now time for parents, colleges, and universities to ask, are we partly culpable and accessories to the act of rape? And if so, what must we do to get this right?

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.