The Reauthorization of VAWA

The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act:

Important Developments For The Violence Against Women Movement, In Time For A Pivotal Anniversary


The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, also known as Campus SaVE, is legislation passed in 2013 that strives to strengthen campus security in regard to sexual assault by encouraging reporting, expanding prevention and bystander intervention education, and promoting transparency within conduct processes. Campus SaVE is part of the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and provides a comprehensive reform of the sexual assault prevention and response processes already in place at colleges and universities across the United States.

The provisions of the act will be implemented started in March 2014, which also marks the 50th anniversary of the pivotal Kitty Genovese rape and murder. Kitty Genovese was a young woman who lived in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of New York; she who was raped and murdered right outside of her home on March 14, 1964. Her story became one of the most well-known rape cases in American history and became the quintessential example in advocacy for bystander intervention education. While March 14th has always been associated with a tragic memory, with the enactment of the provisions of Campus SaVE in 2014, this date will represent both a sad remembrance of the past and a hopeful look towards a safer future.

The trajectory of Campus SaVE begins at the conception of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. The Act provided 1.6 billion dollars towards the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, including sexual assault and rape, domestic violence, sexual slavery, and intimate partner violence. The Act also established the federal Office on Violence Against Women. The ultimate goal of the Act was to draw more legislative attention to violence against women and revise the criminal justice system’s response to violence against women to make it more survivor supportive.

The initial act was considered successful, with states enacting more than 600 laws to combat violence against of women, increased rates of reporting sexual violence, and a spike in usage of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Revisions have been made since: in 2000, Congress added protections for the elderly, disabled women, and battered immigrants, and in 2005, Congress harshened penalties for repeat offenders, increased protections for trafficked immigrants, and introduced programs for sexual assault victims.[1]

Campus SaVE was first introduced as a provision of VAWA to address sexual assault on college campuses and a broader scope of intimate partner violence, including stalking, dating violence, and domestic abuse. Campus SaVE is in some ways an “upgrade” of the federal Jeanne Clery Act, which set requirements for colleges and universities receiving any federal aid to report instances of crime on their campuses. Campus SaVE expands these requirements to hold colleges and universities more accountable for crimes on their campuses and adds an education component to the effort to address sexual violence. [2]

Campus SaVE accomplishes these goals in three specific ways.

1. Victim’s Rights Provisions: Colleges are now required to establish a basic framework of clear and well- communicated standards regarding how the college handles cases of sexual assault. These standards include survivors’ rights in court, the range of realistic sanctions for convicted perpetrators, detailed outlines of the processes and procedures, etc.

2. Education: Colleges are now required to instate prevention and awareness education programs for incoming students and employees that clearly define consent, explain what the different sex offenses are, and educate about risk reduction and bystander intervention.

3. Best Practices Report: Colleges are encouraged to use a Best Practices Report put out by the United States Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services. This report recognizes the most effective, supportive, and judicious practices in the country of preventing and responding to sexual assault and intimate partner violence. [3]

The controversy surrounding the act involves an additional requirement included in the original bill, a mandate to use a lower standard of evidence in court to convict potential perpetrators, called “the preponderance of the evidence standard”. The preponderance of the evidence standard is used in most civil cases; in order to convict under the preponderance standard, the evidence has to indicate that the proposition is more likely to be true than not true. Compared to the other prevalent standards – “clear and convincing” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” – which call for 75% and 95% of evidence to match the claim, respectively, the preponderance of evidence standard is weaker and allows for easier conviction of potential perpetrators. The original bill proclaimed that “search proceedings shall- use the preponderance of evidence standard”. However, this mandate was struck and the bill passed without any specification as to which standard of evidence should be used.

Wendy Murphy, an acclaimed victims’ rights attorney, spoke out against the change, claiming that choosing a higher burden of proof will “erode the value of Title IX” because schools will be able to ignore and cover up sexual misconduct more easily. [4] As the number of institutions being accused of handling sexual assaults poorly increases, it is increasingly evident that sexual assault is an issue that many schools either ignore, undervalue as an issue, mishandle, or address in a way that increases oppression and discrimination on the basis of sex. : for example, in 2002 Harvard adopted a policy requiring victims of sexual assault to provide “sufficient independent corroboration” as a prerequisite for the university conducting a full investigation and resolution of their complaints. Such information could include an email sent by the victim to a friend, a prompt report of the incident, etc. [5] Additional affirmation of an incident indicates that sexual assaults are more falsely reported than other crimes, and therefore require supplemental evidence in order to be afforded university attention.  Other schools that have stood in a negative light over the past year include Amherst College, Yale University, University of Notre Dame, Harvard University (again), and others. Accusations range from improper treatment of sexual assault cases (Amherst, Notre Dame), a hostile environment that discriminate against females (Yale), and unfair judicial proceedings for sexual assault victims (Harvard).

Because of the sensitive nature of sexual assault, the low reporting and sentencing rate, and the tendency of our society to victim-blame and weight the denial of an offender more than the claim of a victim, a lower standard of evidence makes up for years of oppression that survivors have had to handle at the hands of the justice system. According to Murphy, since so many highly-ranked, prestigious institutions have been accused of violating victims’ rights, raising the standard of evidence required to convict an alleged perpetrators will only exacerbate all of the existing ways schools are failing to provide justice for rape victims. Another factor to consider is the pervasive rape culture that cloaks college campuses, which often encourages the questioning of the victim instead of the perpetrator and often denies the victim the emotional, physical, and mental justice they seek. In environments that so clearly favor perpetrators and not victims, a lower standard of evidence would encourage more victims to come forward as there would be a greater change they would actually be believed and treated with respect.

Additionally, opponents claimed that since the preponderance standard is enforced in cases involving race, religion, and ethnicity, it would logically also be applied to matters of sex discrimination.

However, the act remains landmark legislation in the movement to change national attitudes towards sexual assault. The components of the act that still remain with the act will be implemented starting in March of 2014, which also marks the 50th anniversary of the Kitty Genovese rape and murder. Kitty Genovese was a young woman who lived in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of New York who was raped and murdered right outside of her home on March 14, 1964. What drew so much attention to the case was that several people, the exact number of which is disputed, either heard or saw her attack and did nothing to stop the crime. Genovese was stabbed once and cried out for help; her attacker left the scene, but came back with a disguise and proceeded to rape and then murder her. [6] If action had been taken after her first attack, there is a good chance she would have survived.

The case clearly demonstrated the importance of bystander intervention and sexual assault prevention education. Clearly, teaching bystander intervention in schools and colleges is critical to stopping sexual violence, and the mandate in Campus SaVE that requires bystander intervention and prevention programs in colleges represents a huge step towards attaining safer campuses. Evaluation of previous sexual assault prevention programs have shown mixed results, but recent research has shown that programs conducted by student leaders in particular have been successful in increasing reporting and reducing sexual violence. Successful programs are generally student-led, focus on that causes of sexual violence on that specific campus, communicate skills to identify and reduce sexual violence, and attempt to change attitudes and behaviors towards sexual violence[7]. If properly implemented, this provision of the Campus SaVE Act could significantly reduce sexual violence on college campuses across the country and prevent the apathy that caused the March 14th, 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese and thousands of other rapes and murders than have occurred since.


[1] Seghetti, Lisa M., and Jerome P. Bjelopera. “http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/
R42499.pdf.” Congressional Research Service. N.p.: CRS Report for Congress,
2012. Congressional Research Service. Web. 10 June 2013.
<http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42499.pdf>.

[2] Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (Campus SaVE Act) Summary. Stetson Law,
n.d. Web. 10 June 2013. <http://www.law.stetson.edu/conferences/highered/
archive/media/SaVE%20Summary.pdf>.

[3] Ibid

[4] “Campus ‘Safety’ Bill Endangers Rape Prosecutions.” Women’s News.
womensenews.org, 17 May 2013. Web. 10 June 2013. <http://womensenews.org/
story/rape/120516/
campus-safety-bill-endangers-rape-prosecutions#.UbnrgfmsiSo>.

[5] Murphy, Wendy. “Using Title IX’s “Prompt and Equitable” Hearing
Requirements to Force Schools to Provide Fair Judicial Proceedings to
Redress Sexual Assault on Campus.” New England Law Review 40.1007 (2006):
n. pag. Print.

[6] Rasenberger, Jim. “Kitty, 40 Years Later.” New York Times [New York] 8 Feb.
2004: n. pag. New York Times. Web. 10 June 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/
2004/02/08/nyregion/kitty-40-years-later.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm>.

[7] Banyard, Victoria, Mary Moynihan, and Maria Crossman. “Reducing Sexual Violence
on Campus: The Role of Student Leaders as Empowered Bystanders.” Journal of
College Student Developement 50.4 (2009): 446-57. Project Muse. Web. 20
June 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/
journal_of_college_student_development/v050/50.4.banyard.pdf>.