The sexual assault epidemic, part three: A national crisis that needs to be addressed

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Contact CU Independent Opinion Editor Emily McPeak at emily.mcpeak@colorado.edu. 

Brock Turner. Daniel Ryerson. Austin Wilkerson. These three men, along with countless others, have at least one thing in common: they are rapists who, despite the severity of their crime, were dealt punishments that erred on the side of lenience.

While we explored the Wilkerson case in depth, these specific examples of the national sexual assault epidemic must be addressed as a whole. They undeniably demonstrate how the nation does not, and will not, handle sexual assault cases in an appropriate or effective way, nor does it do nearly enough to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place.

The problem does not lie in a misunderstanding of the crime. If you were to go up to almost any individual and ask them if rape and other forms of sexual assault are bad, they would quickly and assertively answer yes nine times out of 10. But you could also ask any college student if they or one of their friends has experienced sexual assault, and the answer would statistically be “yes” as well.

The sexual assault epidemic finds its breeding ground in the fact that we all know it is wrong to cross the line between consent and assault, but in many situations we are unable to identify exactly where that line lies.

Universities across the nation, including the University of Colorado, have taken broad and commendable steps in addressing sexual misconduct as a notable issue on their campuses, but there is still more to be done. As some Buffs expressed in interviews we conducted last week, universities must go beyond merely identifying that there is a problem. Until the nation develops clear educational standards aimed at preventing sexual assault, colleges themselves must ensure that their students are fully aware of what does and does not qualify as consent.

In addition to changes in our education system, our legal system must be modified so that rapists are punished in a way that better fits their crime. There have already been movements made in this direction: Last week, California passed new legislation that set a minimum sentence length for people convicted of rape. 

Laws such as this one must become the national standard. Rehabilitation should be the ultimate goal of our prison system, and life in jail may go beyond what is a fair and reasonable punishment for rapists. But, criminals like Turner walking out of jail after only three months does not serve as a proper deterrent for a crime that often haunts victims for a lifetime.

For the public to demand such a legal change in a way politicians can’t ignore, there must first be a shift in our collective attitude toward rape and sexual misconduct. We need to stop placing even an ounce of blame on victims and put it all on those who commit the assault. We must stop making victims feel like what happened to them is something they cannot and should not talk about. We must stop teaching people how to prevent sexual assault from happening to themselves and instead teach people how they can avoid assaulting someone else.

Ultimately, we must stop treating sexual assault like a sad reality of life and start to treat is as what it really is: a horrible and inexcusable crime that we can and must do more to prevent.

Emily McPeak

Emily McPeak is an undergraduate student who writes about society and politics. She is studying journalism and political science.

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