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DN Editorial: Victims no more

Sexually assaulted on campus, courageous women now speak out.

IN THE past week, more has been said about sexual assaults on college women than probably at any time in history.

The White House released new measures from a federal task force on the issue, the New York Times featured a front-page story and discussions lit up national TV talk shows, tweets, web posts and many column inches.

But one photograph says it all, one photograph that explains why we're now confronting the scandalous reality that, according to one study, one in five college women has been raped, their complaints ignored and covered up by their schools.

The photograph that appeared in the New York Times shows Vice President Joseph Biden at a White House podium with a young woman named Madeleine Smith discussing the report of the White House Task Force on campus assault.

Smith is speaking on behalf of women like herself - raped and ignored, betrayed first by their assailants and then by their alma maters. In Smith's case, that would be Harvard.

Once upon a time, we'd have called Smith a "victim" - in the unlikely event that she ever would have identified herself and the crime in public. Now, she and others call themselves "survivors," and Smith stands at a podium next to the vice president of the United States.

It's impossible to minimize the significance of that photo, of the fact that courageous young women have stepped forward to challenge the campus policies that ignore the safety of women and force the country to pay attention.

It's quite stunning. We're literally watching young women dismantle a stigma and chisel a change of attitudes into our culture.

Women who - not very long ago - felt shame and guilt and blamed themselves; women who were blamed by society for having invited the rape; women who had their names and identities concealed to spare them public censure and ridicule and a ruined reputation; women who now tell their stories, give their names and show their faces to demand change.

Thanks to them, 55 colleges across the country are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for allegedly bungling campus rapes and violating Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination.

Among them, regionally, are Temple, Penn State, Swarthmore and Franklin & Marshall. Nationally, the list includes some of the most prestigious universities in the world: Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, UC Berkeley, Tufts.

The scope of the problem would seem unthinkable had we not already undergone a national tutorial about the extent to which respected institutions will protect themselves, no matter the cost in human suffering. That includes the Sandusky affair at Penn State, the priest-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, the sexual-assault scandal in the military.

While we absorb the fact that our hallowed halls of academia may be guilty of the same behavior, we should also be deeply grateful to the young women across this country who brought the issue and their ordeal out of the shadows.