US universities battle scourge of campus rape

Washington (AFP) - Last spring, emails written by members of American University's Epsilon Iota fraternity were leaked, revealing to a horrified public the strategies -- from manipulation to outright drugging -- the brothers used to get sex.

The messages from the members of the unofficial group at the campus in the US capital gave tips on targeting first-year female students -- perceived to be more naive -- and the best places to have sex without being seen.

One email suggested inviting girls over for drinks before a party, so they "would feel more relaxed and safe."

That "would be such a good idea to get the bitches in the right state of intoxication," it said.

The problem at American University is one that colleges across the nation are confronting -- how to stem the rising tide of campus sexual assaults.

The issue again made headlines earlier this month when Rolling Stone magazine detailed graphic allegations of assault and gang rape at fraternity parties -- and the administration's troubling lack of action -- at the prestigious University of Virginia.

After the article was published, the school announced it was suspending fraternity and sorority activity -- so-called "Greek life" -- until January, when the new semester begins, and would hold meetings with students, faculty, alumni and others concerned to discuss steps to prevent sexual violence on campus.

At American University, students are taking action.

Amanda Gould, who is in her second year of studies, created a group -- "No more silence" -- and gathered 1,700 signatures to urge the university to expel the authors of the emails.

"Everyone considers them as 'rape fraternities,'" said Gould.

"But the university consistently said we can't do anything, because they are not affiliated with us," she noted, referring to Epsilon Iota's unofficial status.

Gould nevertheless organized a demonstration on campus that she called a "turning point", explaining: "The university can't just sweep it under the rug anymore."

She never managed to get a meeting with the university president, but she indirectly got support at a much higher level.

- 'It's on us' -

As outrage over the prevalence of sexual assaults on college campuses -- and what many critics blast as an inadequate response from authorities -- spread, the White House launched a national campaign.

"It's on Us" -- promoted by President Barack Obama -- calls on each student to "be part of the solution."

"Don't be a bystander. Stopping sexual assault is about being the guy who stops it," the campaign urges in videos using footage shot at parties, showing drunk women targeted by unscrupulous students.

Across the United States, an estimated one college student in five is raped, and only 12 percent of these attacks are reported, Obama said when he launched the campaign in September.

At American University, sophomore Faith Ferber is part of a student group that runs workshops on sexual violence prevention, which have grown in popularity on campus since the email scandal.

The group has gotten the university administration to require all members of the dozen officially recognized fraternities to attend a workshop.

For other students, workshop attendance is voluntary -- despite troubling statistics from a 2013 poll showing that 18 percent of American University students had been subjected to undesired sexual relations within the previous six months.

- 'Yes means yes' -

The hour-long presentation -- with free pizza as an extra enticement -- focuses on what constitutes true consent in a sexual encounter.

In a slightly stilted atmosphere and using a prepared script, two presenters explain that both parties need to be sober and must consciously agree to any sexual act.

"Consent is sexy. It is awesome to desire and to be desired," emphasizes one of the presenters.

Very little is said, however, on ways to stay out of danger -- for instance, about drinking, or accepting either a drink in an open cup or a ride from a stranger.

"Risk reduction is one very small, even not essential piece to sexual prevention," said Daniel Rappaport, the university official tasked with preventing sexual violence.

The program takes inspiration from "Yes Means Yes," a law just passed in California. Under the new law, any sexual encounter without clear agreement could be considered rape if a complaint is filed with the university.

In other words, at issue in investigations would not be whether there was a rape, but whether there was consent -- with public funding for institutions tied to compliance.

But AU's Rappaport says the problem goes deeper than laws.

"The core problem is the way we train boys to become men who are taught to be aggressive and dominate and to see women as objects of conquest," Rappaport said.

Perpetrators don't stand out as easily identifiable monsters, he said.

"They have the same social skills, same class schedules, same whatever as everyone else," Rappaport explained.

"But they have been taught and reinforced by our culture over and over again that doing what they do is acceptable."