The XX Factor

Campus Sexual Assault Reports Are Up. Don’t Panic.

Lilly Jay speaks at the launch of the “It’s on Us” campaign to prevent sexual assault on college campuses at the White House in Washington on Sept. 19, 2014, as Vice President Joe Biden looks on. 

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The rate of sexual assault reports on campus has skyrocketed in the past five years, nearly doubling in number, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In response to a request from Sen. Barbara Boxer’s office, the department provided details on their numbers, which increased from 3,264 in 2009 to 6,016 in 2013.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the actual number of sexual assaults is going up. “We believe this increase is the result in the increase in federal enforcement efforts, as well as the growing public attention paid to the issue of campus sexual assault,” the letter explains. Boxer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Sen. Tim Kaine released a statement calling for better funding to fight sexual assault on campus and accommodate this surge of college women stepping forward with their stories. 

Sexual assault continues to be a dramatically underreported crime, but these numbers suggest that raising awareness and demonstrating public support of victims can have a huge impact on victim willingness to step forward. Jon Krakauer’s new book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town takes an in-depth look at the scandal at the University of Montana, which was put under federal investigation for mishandling campus sexual assault. “There seems to be this tipping point where there’s now this support women feel—it’s easier for them to report because they have support among themselves,” Krakauer said in a recent media roundtable.

It’s a terrible thing that there continue to be so many sexual assaults. But strange as it may sound, it’s a good thing that there are more reports overall. More victims reporting means that more rapists are facing consequences, more victims are accessing help, and more wannabe rapists are thinking twice before choosing to rape.

Of course, as the Department of Education letter details, while this uptick in reporting is a good thing, it also means that their offices are being overwhelmed by the increased workload. In particular, investigations of schools facing complaints about noncompliance with Title IX are taking longer than the Education Department would like. More funding could go a long way to helping resolve these complaints more quickly, which in turn would help reduce some of the anger and tensions at schools where students don’t feel enough is getting done to address the problem.