American Culture

Book Review: Unsafe on Any Campus by Samuel R. Staley

“Rape is a violation of personal sovereignty and the basic principles and values of a free society.” – Samuel R, Staley

Unsafe on Any Campus by Samuel R. Staley (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

Unsafe on Any Campus by Samuel R. Staley (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

One of the sad truths about life on college campuses over the last several years has been the rise of what is sometimes called “rape culture.” Professor Samuel Staley of Florida State University has a new book that tries, humbly and intelligently, to address this sad and terrible cultural phenomenon.

Professor Staley became interested in the subject because of his involvement in working with students at Florida State University in self-defense classes. His work led to his becoming a confidant to a number of female students who had experienced sexual assault of one form or another and who grew trustful enough of him to share their stories. Moved by their pain and their search for self-esteem and ways to move beyond their trauma, Sately began researching the topic. An economics professor specializing in public policy, Staley approached the topic in scholarly fashion, conducting both primary and secondary research on campus sexual assault, and Unsafe on Any Campus is larded with direct quotes from leading scholars in the field as well as tables, graphs, and other  representations of the data he gathered on the topic.

That said, one shouldn’t think of this work as a dry academic monograph. It is anything but. Staley is deeply, personally invested in the subject as both a member of an academic community rocked by a high profile sexual assault scandal and as a parent of college aged children. The ideas he presents in his book attempt to cover the wide range of sexual assaults that occur on college campuses, those ranging from violent stranger assaults to bad decisions on the parts of both genders. He is very clear in his explanation of the limitations of solely legal solutions as a satisfactory way of achieving not simply justice but a sense of closure that allows victims to achieve some sense of healing. He is also quite clear that colleges are not well equipped through their policy systems to handle cases of such gravity without some serious revisions to their procedures.

What Staley proposes is a multi-pronged approach. He treats this not as a solution but as a way forward to address what he shows to be a serious problem that is harming students of both genders and eating away at the fabric of campus life. His approach suggests, for instance, the possibility of “Justice and Reconciliation” panels that, while unable to mete out punishment as the legal system could, might help with giving victims a sense of closure, an end that Staley freely admits is but a step in their healing processes. He also recommends that colleges revise their code of conduct policies so that perpetrators of sexual assault face punishments based upon the nature of their misconduct (he offers a description of types of sexual assault ranging from violent rape to failure to seek rational consent for sexual contact that is unclouded by drugs or alcohol.

These and other sorts of suggestions that Staley makes to improve colleges’ ability to deal with sexual assault cases are based on four “pillars” that he believes are essential to making policy that is both comprehensive in its coverage and encouraging of prevention instead of solely punishment. These pillars are 1) emphasis on the human dignity of all members of the campus community; 2) empowerment to develop effective self-defense, bystander intervention, and risk reduction programs to educate members of the campus community in civic and personal responsibility; 3) accountability policies and procedures so that those who perpetrate assaults receive appropriate censure as consequence of their actions; and 4) reliance on the criminal justice system when other avenues fail (this last is based on convincing evidence Staley presents that the system is ineffective in prosecuting all but the most egregious cases of sexual assault).

Staley has done his homework and presented colleges everywhere with a lucid and comprehensive plan for dealing with one of campus life’s most serious issues. We can only hope that his book will reach a wide audience and foster meaningful discussion on a topic that needs immediate and comprehensive treatment.

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