University of Pennsylvania Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dozens of women and men alike read an account of a rape on Tuesday in a room typically reserved for press conferences called by Philadelphia’s top officials. Participants took turns reading the 13-page victim impact statement written by a woman whose story made national headlines when the man convicted of sexually assaulting her — Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer — was sentenced to spend just six months in prison.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym helped organize the event. Other city officials and council members were there. Readers were brought to tears.

Which begs a question: Is there anything city officials can actually do to address the response to sexual violence on campuses here in Philadelphia, home to more than a dozen colleges?

The problem

Colleges and universities are required to report crime on their campuses to the federal government every year, and make it available to the public. We looked through the most recently filed crime reports — in this case, they’re from 2014 — for major schools within city limits.

There wasn’t an obvious outlier. St. Joe’s had the highest sex offense rate of the colleges in 2014, but that number correlates with just 12 sex offenses — far below the estimated number that probably occurred.

Here’s a look at the data from each school:

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(Note: Other Philadelphia colleges not on this graph didn’t report any sex offenses between 2012 and 2014.)

The issue with these numbers is that they’re by no means comprehensive. They’re likely not even close.

Studies show some 20 percent of female college students say they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact while there. Separately, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates less than 5 percent of victims of sexual violence report the assault or assaults to law enforcement.

At Penn, where students have battled over the rights of accused rapists, one in four women say they’ve been sexually assaulted. That’s well over the 19 sexual assaults the school reported that took place in 2014. Here’s what the school reported in 2013 and 2014 (after the feds changed reporting requirements):

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Temple’s faced similar criticism. It was one of dozens of schools to be listed by the federal Department of Education as being under investigation for potential violations of Title IX, a federal civil right that prohibits sexual discrimination in higher education. Three complaints were filed against Temple — one in 2013, one in 2014 and one in 2015. However, rates of sex offenses at Temple were less than five per every 10,000 students for the last three years. Here’s what the school reported over the last three years:

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And these numbers are higher than they used to be. The reporting of sexual violence on college campuses has skyrocketed in recent years as awareness has increased, and reports made at Penn and Drexel have more than doubled since 2008. Experts often say these increases can be a good thing, as it could indicate a more positive culture for reporting instances of sexual assault on campuses.

‘Yes Means Yes’ and the city’s role

Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement Nina Ahmad said during the reading that the city’s new Commission on Women will look into the backlog of untested rape kits in Philadelphia, which currently stands at about 1,300 — the highest in Pennsylvania.

Beyond that, there’s little from a policy perspective the city can do when it comes to preventing or responding to sexual violence on the city’s college campuses. Last year, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown called for hearings on the city’s colleges instituting a policy of “Yes Means Yes,” a standard that requires affirmative consent prior to sexual contact.

“Perceived lack of resistance — unconsciousness or inebriation — otherwise meaning being drunk — is no longer a viable defense for an accused attacker,” Reynolds Brown said during the hearing. “It can be argued that our current system is rigged. Many would argue it is rigged to protect the attacker and blame, embarrass or discredit the victim.”

During the hearing, most local schools reported they already operated that way. They also argued there’s little the city could do to require colleges within its boundaries adopt the standard anyway.

Instead, a requirement for colleges to adopt “Yes Means Yes” would likely have to come from the state government and would only apply to schools that receive state funding, as happened in California. Advocates for the rights of the accused have argued the standard is unconstitutional and violates a person’s right to due process. (Find information about the colleges’ current policies here.)

State Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat from West Philly who ran for mayor last year, introduced a bill in September that would require colleges that receive state funding adopt a “Yes Means Yes” policy and teach all students the standard. The bill hasn’t moved out of committee.

Here’s a full transcript of last year’s “Yes Means Yes” hearing before City Council’s Committee on Education:

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Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.