WASHINGTON » There is little to intersect the lives of a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq war, a college freshman and a 59-year-old former model. Their targets — the U.S. military, a prestigious state university and a long-beloved entertainer — do not have much in common, either.
But in just the last week, the governing board of the University of Virginia has scrambled to answer allegations that it has mishandled sexual assault claims by women after Rolling Stone magazine published an account of a freshman raped at a fraternity party and more than a dozen women, long in the shadows, have come forward with allegations that they were raped by the comedian and actor Bill Cosby. A new military study released Wednesday night demonstrated that reports of rapes and sexual assaults had increased 8 percent, and Congress reopened the debate over how to best address that problem — one that potentially threatens the life of a major defense bill and perhaps the confirmation of a new defense secretary.
While protests of the so-called rape culture on college campuses have surfaced before — Take Back the Night marches are decades old — the sudden convergence of exposure and outrage over these acts of sexual violence suggests a tolerance tipping point in American culture for a problem that institutions and victims alike have long hidden from view.
"I think we are at a critical moment," said Eugene R. Fidell, an expert on military justice at Yale Law School. "The military is not on an island all to itself, and the debate in the country is over what is the medicine we need to take. The fact that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way our society treats women is a proposition on which there is now general agreement."
What has changed are the willingness of women to come forward in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past and, as a result, the pressure on institutions to respond to issues that were once allowed to fester just out of sight.
"As women expect more equality," said Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, who banned some fraternity functions after two assault cases, "the prevalence of this archaic behavior becomes increasingly intolerable. You now find flash points where you can protest against that behavior on college campuses and in the military, and there will be others where women and others can get attention for their claims."
What is still in question is whether awareness will lead to effective change in an emotionally charged landscape where the overall problems are clear, but the facts in individual cases can often be elusive.
For all the talk of "zero tolerance" on campuses, in the military and in the White House of sexual assault, extensive legislation on Capitol Hill has yet to move forward and President Barack Obama has largely stayed out of the fray on the issue. The Obama administration has begun to put more pressure on schools and expose the names of schools under investigation. But the federal government has yet to pull out its biggest gun: the ability to take away federal funding from schools that are found to violate student rights in sexual assault cases. Critics note that a 2-decade-old federal law requiring colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses, including sexual offenses, is rarely enforced.
After the Rolling Stone article detailing a gang rape allegation and an emergency meeting of the board, the University of Virginia found itself under increasing scrutiny this week. Virginia lawmakers have called for hearings on the matter; the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent the university a letter asking officials to demonstrate they are in compliance with student safety standards; and more than 1,000 alumni have written emails about the incident.
On Tuesday, former President Jimmy Carter blasted Yale’s handling of an assault case and suggested the military was falling down on the job of adjudicating cases. In Baltimore, two young men were charged in a rape case stemming from a November incident at a Johns Hopkins University off-campus fraternity house.
Almost every day, another woman emerges to detail rape or assault allegations against Cosby. This week in the Senate, lawmakers again presented different versions of bills that would address sexual assault in the military, potentially setting up a legislative conflict that may well hold up a defense bill.
One version, sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., which will be included in the broader defense bill, offers various changes to the system to give victims more rights and assistance. Another, which would be offered as a possible amendment and is sponsored by Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would strip commanders of their role in prosecuting the cases.
There are several similarities in the challenges faced by colleges and the military, where the adjudication of sexual assault often is conducted outside the criminal justice system. Providing accountability, protections for victims and due process for the accused, while fostering a new culture in which such violence is not tolerated and in which victims are not intimidated or bullied out of reporting the crimes, are common goals. Gillibrand and McCaskill are also the authors of bills to address campus assaults.
At the same time, the Obama administration has pressed schools hard to better report and deal with sexual assault under laws many have flouted.
"I have said I believe we should support survivors of attacks," Roth, the Wesleyan president, said. "The second thing we need is to have clear public procedures for punishing perpetrators."
Some schools are also reconsidering their policies on Greek life, which some critics have insisted are at the center of sexual violence on campus. At the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, the consideration of establishing a fraternity and sorority system was delayed this week by President Richard Hurley.
At Wesleyan, Roth suspended the fraternity Psi Upsilon’s ability to hold social events until the end of 2015. The University of Virginia has suspended its fraternity activities until January.
That university’s Board of Visitors is expected to develop new and tougher policies for assaults on campus that university officials desperately hope can rewind its growing image as a school that symbolizes rape culture.
In the case of all violence, there are matters ingrained in the culture that experts on sexual violence say go far beyond the institutions now under fire.
"The fix that I’d like to see," said Erin Buzuvis, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Western New England University School of Law, "and one that is relevant whether we are talking about Cosby or the military or UVA is to cultivate as individuals and society intolerance to the ways violence against women is normalized in the media, through sports, on TV and in movies, in video games, in advertising and online."
Skeptics may say that is more an aspiration than a change likely to occur anytime soon. But McCaskill, who prosecuted sex crimes before she joined the Senate, said there was something real building, beginning with the willingness of victims to come forward in ways they had not.
"What you’re seeing with Cosby and college campuses and the military is that victims are gaining strength by seeing the courage of other victims," she said. "I have seen this incredible increase in the number of people who have come out and are saying, ‘I want people to know that this happened to me.’ "
Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times