Student-on-student sexual assault has been much in the news lately, and one recurring theme has been its under-reporting. Blowing the whistle on a peer is scary for a number of reasons, including the fear of having to continue seeing the abuser on campus, the threat of retribution, and the possibility that the accused won’t be found culpable, leaving the person who reported the assault swinging in the wind—embarrassed and possibly vulnerable to bullying or repeat assault.
At my home institution, Davidson College, three undergraduate women who reported being raped in the fall by acquaintances have all recently declined to submit criminal complaints. Covering the story, the Charlotte Observer cited Campus Police Chief Todd Sigler, who said that most women avoid criminal trials for two reasons: the length of time involved in getting a conviction and the fear of public exposure during court proceedings.
Take that fear, multiply by, say, twenty, and you may come close to a student’s fear of exposing a sexual entanglement with a professor. What’s more, the fear of exposure isn’t limited to what the student may be revealing about herself; it may well derive far more from sullying a professor’s reputation, a daunting prospect in an environment where faculty reign supreme. If the faculty member is married or in a domestic partnership, the stakes climb higher. If the professor has children, how much more reluctant is a student to register a complaint?
The tradition of professorial privilege in and of itself discourages a student from reporting an incident, lest the teacher be believed purely because of her position, and the student, in a less powerful role, be thought untruthful. Maybe the student hasn’t gotten the grade he wanted; maybe he’s retaliating against a professor who claims the student is obsessed with her and doesn’t reciprocate his attentions. In Shakespeare’s thorny play Measure for Measure, a young, naïve novice nun is shocked when a governor offers to spare her imprisoned brother’s life if she sleeps with him. When she threatens to expose him, he responds, “Who will believe thee?” After all, he’s the ruler with the sterling reputation; any one accusing him of sexual misconduct will automatically be thought mad.
Here is one of several places where the question of why students are reluctant to report abuse intersects with the issue of consent. By definition, a student has less authority—and therefore less power—than a professor. That power differential skews not just personal relationships—making consent difficult, if not impossible, for a student to grant—but also the system through which the maligned should be able to receive justice. A less powerful person’s version of events is less likely to be believed than the more powerful person’s. And the more powerful person is also likely to be backed up by an exponentially more powerful institution.