Students, Soldiers, Justice

One of the worst crimes is likely to be concealed by its victim

To a college president, the United States Army looks like an awfully big campus, with dorms and dining halls, playing fields, and an astonishing number of vehicles. But what does not look so different is the number of people not much past their 18th or 19th birthdays and a long way from home. Coeducation has given campuses decades of experience with the sexual assault and harassment problems that the military now confronts. Campus experience suggests a number of insights that the military should take to heart:

*Underreporting is not going to go away soon. Female soldiers and college students feel the same burden of shame and guilt on and off their bases and campuses. Our culture, along with most others, imposes this additional victimization on women subjected to sexual assault. Education is the only way out of the cruel irony - that one of the worst crimes one human being can perpetrate on another is the crime most likely to be concealed by its victim.

Again and again on our campuses, we teach that students must not hesitate to report what has happened to them. Deans, peer counselors, professors, doctors and nurses, and police reinforce the same message: "We will support you if you complain and we will help you to prosecute the charges of sexual assault and harassment." But fear remains a powerful deterrent: the fear, in the first place, of stepping forward to accuse someone who is either in a position of authority or else a member of a relatively close-knit peer group. It is not an unreasonable fear, because the accusation of sexual assault is almost always met with a counteraccusation: "You consented; you asked for it; you lied." Most perniciously, there is the fear that the institution will side with the person you accuse, out of resistance to the "bad news" or because of due process.

So the education that is called for is both broad and deep. Ultimately, it must engage the entire legacy of shame that our culture attaches to sexuality.

*Procedures should be simple, straightforward - and fair. But no procedure yet devised makes this easy or risk-free for the victim who comes forward. Typically, physical evidence is in short supply in date-rape and harassment cases. Complaints are often made days or weeks after the event. The better the victim and the perpetrator knew one another, the more likely the perpetrator did what he did without witnesses, in a private setting. Often the perpetrator used force without leaving bruises or cuts. The result is that the prosecutor has a case that depends on circumstances observed by few, on conflicting testimony, and on inferences about the character and motivation of the perpetrator.

Standards of proof

On campuses, the standard of proof is lower than in a criminal trial, and lawyers are often barred. The military may not have the luxury of trying such cases under procedures less stringent than criminal law. The upshot in these cases is that any system of due process - and certainly one that presumes the innocence of the accused - will lead to a high number of acquittals. And acquittals after bitter trials discourage victims from pressing charges. Thus the road is long and difficult, requiring tenacity, with cynicism a constant temptation.

*Any institution that wants to reduce the incidence of sexual assault will need to accept the limits of its own rules and procedures. In many, perhaps most, cases, prosecution will not be successful - not because no crime occurred but because none can be proven. This means that prevention efforts cannot rely very much on deterrence. The likelihood of escaping conviction, or of not even being accused in the first place, remains high for many perpetrators. Procedures that make the victims feel that they should come forward will gradually change the culture of shame and intimidation that surrounds rape and harassment. But the most important lesson for those of us who supervise young men and women in residential settings is that prevention is not only the most humane but also the more practical strategy.

The starting point

This raises the question of the best preventive strategies: Peer counseling; women's support groups; explicit discussion of techniques for resisting male imposition whether forceful or seductive; clear and repeated condemnation of abusive and insulting sexism. These and other promising efforts all have a common starting point. Without exception they involve an insistence on the equality of women in general and on the power of individual women to tell men - including men in authority - that insult and assault will not be tolerated.

On campuses we have abolished most arrangements or traditions that put upperclass males in positions of authority over underclass females. We are committed to making men and women equal participants in our work, with no jobs or assignments off-limits to women. So far, the military continues to insist on unequal numbers of men and women and to limit the kinds of jobs to which women can aspire. Moreover, the military's drilling and training seem at present to require some senior-level men - the drill sergeants - to exercise authority over the daily lives of the most vulnerable women in the services. The advice from colleges and universities would be to find another way to train young female recruits for a coeducational Army.

Equality is the hardest lesson of all in the military, as it is on campus. On campuses like mine, where coeducation is two decades old, women continue to feel that many of our practices and expectations reflect the males-only campus we once were. The military wants equality for women, but it also wants to limit their numbers and close off many assignments to them. It is hard to believe sexism will go away until full equality is the goal.

Tom Gerety is president of Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.

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