Usually I use this blog as a way to talk about my life outside of school and work: my pursuits in triathlon, travel, training, cooking, eating, etc. But I had to write an opinion piece for a grad school intervention project I’m working on about sexual assault on college campuses and I wanted to share it on here.
Many people who read this probably don’t know that I currently work in violence and sexual assault prevention by teaching workshops on bullying and abusive relationships with 6th and 8th graders, and will soon be leading discussions on sexual consent and healthy relationships with suspended high school students through my internship with a local women’s center.
This post, as is in the title, is meant to try to add to the conversation around sexual assault on college campuses, which is an epidemic that has as much to do with the binge drinking and double standard hookup culture as it does with most campuses failure to respond to rape allegations with due and fair process. I argue for changing the campus environment to one where sexual assault doesn’t occur because it is normal for friends and peers to intervene and prevent an unwanted assault from occurring. If you want to know more about bystander intervention, there are some good resources on the Not Alone website. Please read, share if you want, and discuss in a respectful and fruitful way.
Adding to the conversation: Sexual assault prevention on college campuses
Recently too many universities have made national news because of their botched responses to allegations of sexual assault on their campuses. What if we added more to the story, to what universities can be doing to prevent sexual assault on their campuses?
Six months ago the White House released a report prepared by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and launched a website with resources called Not Alone. Just last month the recommendations from the White House were put into action in the new Violence Against Women Act amendments to the Clery Act. The Clery Act requires universities to publish an Annual Security Report (ASR) about crimes and safety on campuses, including those involving sexual assault. The new amendments require all universities to have policy statements for sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking and requires that policies must include: programs for new students and employees, ongoing prevention education programs, and procedures to be followed when an incident occurs.
Sexual assault response is only one aspect of the new policy requirements, the other components involve prevention of sexual assault on campus. Yes, responding to sexual assault is extremely important and new policies should make reporting guidelines more clear-cut and less traumatic for survivors of assault. Jed Rubenfeld points out many problems with current policies in his Nov. 16th New York Times opinion piece “Mishandling Rape,” where he illuminates that “nationwide, the Department of Justice states that about 35 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police in 2013” whereas “because of low arrest and conviction rates, lack of confidentiality, and fear they won’t be believed, only a miniscule percentage of college women who are raped – perhaps only 5 percent or less – report the assault to the police.” This is appalling and the way universities go about responding to allegations of rape and sexual assault has to change, but on the other side of the issue, preventing sexual assault should be seen as just as important.
Bystander intervention education is the type of prevention program emphasized in the White House Report. According to the Not Alone website: “the biggest and most consistent impacts of bystander training are on attitudes, including confidence as a bystander, intent to take action, and perceived benefits of action.” Additionally “students have also shown decreases in belief in rape myths and increases in knowledge” about sexual assault through bystander intervention training. By equipping individuals with knowledge and skills around sexual violence, they gain confidence in their ability to prevent sexual assaults from occurring. The current research about the effectiveness of these programs mostly centers on two proven programs for middle and high school students and there needs to be more importance placed on researching the effectiveness of programs created for university students.
At my current institution, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there is a lot of great work being done in sexual violence prevention on campus but not much of it has been highlighted in the media compared to what has been reported about the university’s responses to cases of assault. Last year the university launched the website Safe@UNC to link students with resources and policies on interpersonal violence and prevention. UNC Student Wellness has a comprehensive bystander intervention training called One Act that now trains 500 students a year, including all IFC fraternities through its One Act for Greeks training. While this is incredible progress given the resources and trained personnel required for this program, it is still a small fraction since UNC Chapel Hill has nearly 18,000 undergraduate students.
Currently all incoming first years are required to complete an online training called Haven before they can register for classes, but this module only takes 45 minutes to complete, (I completed the online training voluntarily as a graduate student.) This is not a long enough or comprehensive enough program to effectively train bystanders. An in-person, interactive, and skill based training like One-Act should be required for all incoming first years in all universities that truly want to change the campus environment into a place where preventing sexual assault is the norm. In order to do this, resources must be allocated to make prevention of violence in a university setting a priority. The way we talk about addressing sexual assault also needs to expand, where ideas about prevention and intervention are emphasized just as much as our response, because that is the only way we can begin to change the university climate.