Dear What Can I Do to Prevent Sexual Assault?

Dear Ms. Scholar, I recently watched The Hunting Ground at a conference and was profoundly disturbed. I was especially appalled by the statistics it reported about sexual assault on college campuses. What can I do to make a difference?

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Ms. Scholar at work

Dear What Can I Do? I recently watched this documentary too and, likewise, was appalled. This is not a film for the faint of heart. [Trigger warning!] The Hunting Ground presents a series of statistics about the prevalence of sexual assault on campus (they argued one in five), and asserted that universities do not act to protect their female – and male – students from sexual assault. Further, the film’s producers strongly argued that universities do not respond effectively to reports of sexual assault. In fact, the film concluded that universities are motivated to silence sexual assault survivors to protect their star athletes and the university’s reputation.

Yoffe (2015) argued that the case made in The Hunting Ground was problematic in a number of ways. She concluded that the statistics have been overstated and poor conviction rates are the result of a myriad of other factors: “In the majority of these instances the accuser either asked the school not to investigate, became uncooperative, or could not identify the accused. In the remainder of cases, the accused withdrew from school” (para. 6). Further, some universities are, in fact, bending over backwards to investigate and prosecute sexual assault. Case in point: the Vanderbilt University gang rape case, where the university itself identified the crime and pursued the case (Warren, 2015). There are resources available on my own and many other campuses to prevent and respond to rape. There are people at all levels – faculty, staff, students, administrators – who believe and support those who come forward describing being assaulted or harassed.

Nonetheless, Ms. Scholar believes that even one sexual assault is too many. Even one person failing to believe someone’s report of an assault is too many. Even one case – like that of the Stanford swimmer (Fantz, 2016) – is too many.

It is likely that there are universities at both extremes: universities that offer little beyond lip service and that indeed turn a blind eye, as well as those that are proactive in training, preventing, and advocating for victims when a rape does occur. Most universities are probably somewhere in between, wanting to protect students, but not always doing so as effectively as they could.

Ms. Scholar’s university asks all faculty to include a statement about Title IX and the Clery Act in our syllabi. The intent is good, but this statement is written in a difficult to decode legalese and talks only about our obligations and requirements. It is likely that few students actually read it. Because Ms. Scholar takes preventing and responding to sexual assault seriously, she tags the required statement with the following:

Bottom line: If someone hurts you, there are people who will listen to and help you. If you are able to do so, come talk to me after class or during my office hours. If you can’t, send me an email. I will support you and help you get the support you need in whatever ways I can. I care. Clarion University cares.

The Hunting Ground described systemic problems in the culture of universities around the US. Will a syllabus statement be enough? Probably not. Ms. Scholar thinks that such a statement is a good first step, but will be most effective when it signals an authentic commitment to making our university a violence-free campus, where words are followed by active engagement.

What else can we do? Ms. Scholar has a colleague at a sister institution who also recently saw The Hunting Ground. He now intends to talk with his students on the very first day of class about how to set up a respectful classroom environment, one that abhors sexual violence in all its forms. Faculty members can serve as allies to students who’ve experienced any form of sexual violence. Throughout the semester, in whatever courses we teach, we can discuss healthy communication styles and relationships – and label and challenge unhealthy ones. Faculty can talk about alcohol and its role in sexual assaults, as well as how all students, women and men, can reduce the likelihood of sexual assault. Faculty can assign films, speakers, and events that explore these issues and get involved in bringing such opportunities to campus.

Faculty can also encourage students to serve as allies. Rather than only lecturing on sexual violence, faculty can encourage students to discuss readings about sexual assault and the range of related issues. They can give students opportunities to become further engaged with these issues (e.g., Walk a Mile). Students can raise awareness in a variety of effective ways: they can become involved with Vagina Monologues or A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer, advocate for legislative and societal change, and advocate for and support each other. So can we.

We should be aware of problems, but we should also avoid creating a police state focused on fear, one where we treat each other only as potential perpetrators and victims. Instead, together we can create a respectful environment that is supportive of all of us.

What are we already doing? Quite a bit. What more can we do? Quite a lot. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot to do.

References

Fantz, A. (2016). Outrage over 6-month sentence for Brock Turner in Stanford rape case. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/06/us/sexual-assault-brock-turner-stanford/

Warren, L. (2015). Vanderbilt ‘rape victim’ vomits in court as football player, 20, testifies that he has no memory of assaulting her. Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2926988/Vanderbilt-rape-case-defendant-No-memory-assault.html

Yoffe, E. (2015). The Hunting Ground: The failures of a new documentary about rape on college campuses. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2015/02/the_hunting_ground_a_campus_rape_documentary_that_fails_to_provide_a_full.html


If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com

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