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Thursday January 20th

Editorial: Sexual assault allegations against Madison Cawthorn highlight broader issue

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., arrives on the House floor in the U.S. Capitol before being sworn in on Jan. 3, 2021, in Washington, D.C.,. Photo courtesy of Bill Clark/AFP via Getty Images.
Buy Photos Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., arrives on the House floor in the U.S. Capitol before being sworn in on Jan. 3, 2021, in Washington, D.C.,. Photo courtesy of Bill Clark/AFP via Getty Images.

Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault. 

Sexual assault is an epidemic plaguing college campuses across the country. Women at universities face a disproportionately high risk of assault and harassment, and UNC’s campus is no different

University administrations work tirelessly to keep these incidents out of the headlines, but the newly resurfaced sexual harassment allegations against N.C. Rep. Madison Cawthorn demonstrate how pervasive the issue of sexual assault is at our universities.

The 2020 election season brought many new names to politics — one being Cawthorn, a Republican from North Carolina’s 11th District. Recently, Cawthorn has sparked controversy on the national stage following multiple accusations of sexual harassment while he was a student at Patrick Henry College.  

Several people have come forward and recounted Cawthorn's "aggressive and misogynistic" behavior. In fact, his harassment was allegedly so severe that resident advisers at Patrick Henry College even warned students to avoid Cawthorn.

It may be tempting to view this behavior as an isolated incident, amplified by the political status of the perpetrator, but that is not the case. On college campuses across the country, people of all genders are victims of harassment and assault — and often have no recourse. University administrators, in an attempt to preserve their own reputations, are largely unwilling to uphold justice and punish offenders.

At UNC, 35 percent of undergraduate women are victims of sexual harassment, and more than a third are victims of sexual assault. Students seeking justice have been long met with resistance from UNC's administration, who refused to release disciplinary records related to sexual assault on campus.

With the issue amplified by fraternities and party culture on campus and an administration unwilling to provide redress for victims, the U.S. Department of Education found UNC in violation of Title IX in 2018. 

Since then, the administration has fought legal decisions that would require increased transparency about how it disciplines perpetrators of sexual assault. This battle persisted until the N.C. Supreme Court denied UNC’s appeal, requiring disciplinary records to be released. 

When we see such accusations against prominent — and often controversial — politicians, they are often weaponized in party politics. Claims of sexual harassment and assault being used as political tools make it difficult to take them seriously as threats to the well-being and safety of women everywhere.

Cawthorn is not the only political figure currently under fire for misconduct. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces calls to resign after several women accused him of harassment. No matter where these abuses are committed, women carry the burden and fear of being victims. The epidemic of sexual assault is not exclusively committed by people in power, and it pervades our campus community year after year. 

Nor is this issue specific to UNC’s campus. Nationwide, one in five women will experience sexual assault in college. Administrators face few incentives to correct injustices or reprimand perpetrators, perhaps out of fear that it would capture the public’s eye and impact admissions and alumni donations.

The responsibility has unfortunately fallen onto students to pressure the University to hold perpetrators accountable — but it should be the other way around.

The University has the power to lead the charge against sexual assault on campus, adequately punish perpetrators and create a safer campus community for its students. It has refused to do its part.

We must demand more from an administration that has swept sexual assault victims under the rug while attempting to protect the identities of perpetrators on campus.

Editor's note: A member of the Editorial Board is in a relationship with one of the women who has accused Rep. Madison Cawthorn of sexual harassment. The Board member did not contribute to this editorial.


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