An epidemic of sexual assault at Ohio University

October 1, 2018

Ryan Powers and Max Hannum report on student efforts to pressure administrators at Ohio University to take seriously the epidemic of sexual assault on campus.

SOME 250 people protested sexual assault at Ohio University (OU) on September 27 in response to more than a dozen sexual assaults reported on campus grounds in Athens, Ohio, since late August.

Students and members of the community found themselves once again protesting the OU administration’s lackadaisical response to sexual violence on campus. “Everyone needs to put their story out there,” said first-year student Riley Moorhead. “We need more serious actions when we report to the police.”

Now an undergraduate senior at OU, Megan Veher feels that campus has deteriorated during her years on campus. “I used to feel cocky about walking home alone, but now I feel more unsafe,” she said.

In February 2017, students held a rally in response to the university’s seeming indifference to sexual misconduct by English professor Andrew Escobedo against multiple female students. The protest followed eight months of investigation into the accusations. It wasn’t until November 2017 that Escobedo finally resigned, and not until August 2018 that a settlement was finally reached between Escobedo and two of the women harassed by him.

Students protest sexual assault at Ohio University in Athens
Students protest sexual assault at Ohio University in Athens (Emilee Chinn | The Post)

Though the September 27 rally was a grassroots mobilization, the OU administration and OU Police Department also endorsed it. Given the recent flurry of reported sexual assaults, it makes sense that the administration would attempt to position itself as a friendly and supportive face of survivors.

But the administration’s pattern of sluggish responses should leave activists skeptical: Has the administration truly changed its approach, or is it merely trying to bolster its image?

OU still faces a lawsuit against former English Department Chair and current Faculty Senate Chair Joseph McLaughlin for being “deliberately indifferent” to Escobedo’s past sexual misconduct, according to the Athens News.

The Athens News also reports that the “university and McLaughlin filed a motion to dismiss the claims [against Escobedo] for a lack of merit in August last year.”

In response to the settlement with Escobedo, a U.S. district judge granted him a dismissal of the two students’ legal claims against him. In addition, because Escobedo resigned before he was summoned to a hearing before the Faculty Senate, he has managed to escape any formal consequences from the university.

NOW, THE university wants students to believe that it is willing to address sexual assault in a serious way, but there are structural reasons that explain why they have covered up incidents of sexual violence in the past and why activists should not collaborate with them today.

Indeed, the administration must be struggled against to win progress, and it is this type of struggle that forced Escobedo to resign in the first place.

Bobby Walker’s speech at the February 2017 rally against Escobedo got at the root of the structural roadblocks to OU’s inaction: “It’s against the university’s profit interests to do so!”

In her International Socialist Review article “The year of #MeToo,” Elizabeth Schulte explains how this dynamic works in practice:

On college campuses, university administrations continue to drag their feet on allegations of sexual assault for fear that the publicity may tarnish the reputation of the university. Like other major institutions and businesses, their chief concern is to protect themselves legally rather than empower women and create safe campus environments.

The increased reporting of sexual assaults on OU’s campus as well as the outrage at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and the broader #MeToo moment amount to a potentially explosive situation. But none of it would have been possible without the courage of the many students, some of them survivors, who rallied this week.

But for this to translate into effective reforms that make OU a safer place, as the administration claims it wants to do, this outrage must be organized. Activists must come together, coalitions must be built, and we must protest the university to the point that it becomes more profitable or more safe for them to give in to our demands rather than ignore them.

Furthermore, activists should be armed with a sound analysis of the roots of sexual violence. Measures that the administration is advocating, such as better lighting on campus, a safety app for students and increasing late-night shuttles for students, are of course welcome.

But we should also aim to build organizations and movements that can go beyond these essential elements, which should serve as the floor for our demands.

The culture we live in — including rape culture on campuses — is inextricably linked to the economic system upon which it is built. As Sharon Smith explains in an International Socialist Review article entitled “Capitalism and sexual assault”:

Capitalism relies not only on the alienation of labor and not only on explicit discrimination: it also produces personal alienation and the suppression of sexuality. In the absence of class and social struggle on a mass basis, individual people develop themselves in the “dog eat dog” mentality that the system produces. Some people — not all, but some — among those in a position to physically overpower, intimidate or coerce others into sex sometimes do so, at the expense of those who are overpowered, intimidated or coerced into sex.

Demands for a safer campus must bear this reality in mind; our demands should be aimed at those institutions within our society that sustain and reinforce sexual abuse.

One place to start is the toxic masculinity that courses through the fraternity system. Men who belong to fraternities are three times more likely to commit rape than other college men, according to a recent report.

Abolition of fraternities on OU’s campus would make it a safer place, but OU is unlikely to consider such a reform because it could potentially alienate elements of its donor base. Whatever demands the movement makes, it must be ready to seriously and collectively fight against the administration for their implementation.

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