Sophia Hartman, '23, by the Humanities Building on Stern Plaza

Sophia Hartman, '23

April 12, 2023

Romanticized notions of youth often belie an unpleasant truth: the increased risk of sexual violence facing girls and young women. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, college women ages 18-24 are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence, and women of the same age who are not enrolled in college are four times more likely. In her Jepson School of Leadership Studies honors thesis, Sophia Hartman, ’23, explores why this is so and what can be done to mitigate the risk.

The leadership studies major said her thesis comprises three parts: a study of U.S. age-of-consent laws adopted in the Progressive Era, circa 1900-1920; sexual violence on college campuses today; and developing better ways to prevent and respond to sexual violence. Dr. Lauren Henley serves as her faculty advisor.

“At the turn of the century, the age of consent for sexual intercourse was typically 10 to 12 years old,” Hartman said. “But as more young girls left the relative safety of their homes to work in factories, middle-class white women began a movement to raise the age of consent to protect them from predatory older men.

“Although the intention was caring and protective, the implementation of the new laws often led to greater policing and restrictions on people’s autonomy. It also often had racist overtones in its focus on protecting white girls’ purity.”

Hartman said she sees some parallels to the sexual violence that occurs on American college campuses today.

“Women are most vulnerable to sexual violence during their first year on campus,” she said. “Many are away from home for their first extended period of time and haven’t yet figured out the norms of college life or formed their support communities.”

But like the laws developed during the Progressive Era, many of the laws and measures universities use to address sexual predation are not terribly effective, the senior said.

“The majority of sexual violence cases are not reported, and of those reported, only two percent are based on false accusations,” Hartman said. “But because Title IX requires a certain standard of evidence to hold a perpetrator responsible, there is a significant gap between cases reported and those where a perpetrator is charged. This is extremely detrimental to survivors.

“Also, Title IX functions like a court system—it’s about punishment. The support measures offered often are not sufficient to meet the needs of the survivor.”

The third and final section of her thesis considers the value of focusing on care for survivors in any response to sexual violence.    

In addition to her research, Hartman takes an active role in addressing sexual violence. On campus, she is a peer sexual misconduct advisor, a Center for Awareness, Response, and Education communications assistant, and president of Spiders Against Sexual Assault and Violence. She completed her Jepson internship at a Richmond-area domestic violence and human trafficking shelter.

As a Jepson Scholar, she will pursue a Master of Science in evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation at the University of Oxford, starting this fall. There, she said she will continue to ask: “What do leaders need to do to effect the laws and structures that impact sexual violence and consent?”