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Sexual exploitation cannot be tolerated on a rural campus — or anywhere

Τhe Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed to support survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. The bill has always been bipartisan and was strengthened and reauthorized many times — until the Trump administration.

St. John's University Church, Collegeville
St. John's University Church, Collegeville

Students at all-male St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., located in a bucolic setting about 75 miles from Minneapolis, allegedly held a sex competition. According to local reports, the young men organized a contest. The goal was to see who could total the most points by engaging in certain sexual acts with specific students at the nearby women’s institution, the College of St. Benedict.

The reports noted that after becoming aware of the contest, St. John’s administrators held a mandatory meeting with the suspected perpetrators, who were residents on campus, and an outside consultant was hired.

I expected that the announcement of this heinous activity would be followed by days of letters to various editors excoriating the male students’ behavior and urging support for the targeted women; public statements from St. John’s University leaders decrying the sexual exploitation and highlighting their efforts to end impunity for such egregious behavior; and opinion pieces by editorial staffs about yet more evidence of systemic misogyny that must be eliminated.

What I saw was — silence.

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An office for women’s leadership and some concerned students at St. Ben’s organized a demonstration when the news broke. A few hundred students showed up — out of a combined student body of nearly 3,200. Only 10% of the students felt this was important enough to protest?

Women are exploited, objectified, sexualized and dehumanized. Donald Trump’s words in 2005, recorded and shared widely in 2016,  captured many men’s attitude toward women: “Grab ’em by the pussy.”

It is shocking, but not surprising, that this attitude often escalates from discrimination, exploitation and violence to death — even in bucolic Minnesota.

  • 684,000 Minnesota women will be raped, stalked or experience violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
  • In 2020, nearly 70,000 victims received services from domestic violence agencies in Minnesota.
  • 440 incidents of sexual assault were reported at Minnesota colleges in 2020. At least 74 people were sexually assaulted in 2019 at Carleton College and St. Olaf College, located in scenic Northfield.
  • From 1989-2018, 523 women in Minnesota were killed by their intimate partners. About half of those murders occurred in the metro area and half in greater Minnesota (Violence Free Minnesota). In 2020 at least 22 people were killed due to domestic violence in Minnesota.

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According to Statista, nearly 90% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. For many reasons, most of these assaults are not reported. If they are reported, many of the accused are not prosecuted. Only about 6% of the prosecutions result in convictions.

A St. Ben’s protester carried a rally sign that read, “#Grab Them by the Patriarchy.” I suggest the following grabs.

VAWA. Nearly 30  years ago, a landmark law called the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed to support survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. The bill has always been bipartisan and it has been strengthened and reauthorized many times — until the Trump administration. It expired in 2018, the first time since it was originally adopted in 1994. It expired because Republicans blocked it in the Senate.

It has now been reauthorized by the House, with 29 Republicans joining Democrats in a vote of 244-172. It hasn’t gone anywhere in the Senate.

This is heartbreaking — and yet another piece of the picture. VAWA was the first major federal legislation aimed at stopping violence against women. It provided billions of dollars for lifesaving programs. Rates of domestic violence declined by more than 50% between 1993 and 2008 after VAWA became law, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

CEDAW. In 1989, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW (see-daw). There are only six countries on the planet that haven’t ratified it: Sudan, Somalia, Palau, Tonga — and the United States.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
There is a nationwide movement to encourage cities to support CEDAW. To date, Minnesota has the second-most cities in the U.S. with CEDAW resolutions: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Edina, Red Wing, Richfield and Northfield. Bringing CEDAW to municipalities raises awareness about discrimination against women at local levels and empowers city leaders to implement change. It also means that someday, when the time is favorable, someone in the U.S. Senate will advocate for CEDAW passage because millions of people have shown their support in cities throughout the country.

Sexual assault at a global level. Sexual assault and exploitation are not unique, of course, to Collegeville. In 1998, Jean-Paul Akayesu became the first person in the world to be convicted of genocide, even though genocide was codified as a crime half a century earlier. What had he done to deserve this most heinous charge? Akayesu was found guilty of rape during Rwanda’s genocide, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda labeled rape as a crime of genocide. Akayesu did not perpetrate a single rape himself, but he encouraged, abettee nd facilitated rapes by others.

Following on this precedent, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia then convicted three men of crimes against humanity for rape, specifically for organizing and maintaining a system of infamous “rape camps” in Bosnia.

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These are landmark cases in international human rights law: affirming women’s rights to be free from sexual violence and sexual exploitation anywhere and everywhere.

We cannot, we must not tolerate sexual exploitation locally or globally.


World Without Genocide will hold a webinar on Wed., Dec. 15, 7 to 9 p.m. CT, on “Birth, Sex, and Abuse: Women and Children under Nazi Rule.” Register by Dec. 14 at The event is open to the public. $10 general public, $5 students and seniors, free to Mitchell Hamline students, $25 for Minnesota lawyers for 2.0 Elimination of Bias credits. “Clock hours” for teachers, nurses and social workers.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and an adjunct professor of law.