Patience is wearing thin with sexual assault on college and university campuses.
It’s a problem that has persisted for decades, as long as young people have grappled with budding sexuality, unlimited access to alcohol and the unequal power dynamics between men and women in new and unfamiliar settings.
Sexual assault on college campuses is not a new issue by any means, but it’s been has been recently aired with the well-publicized suspensions of three football players at Appalachian State University in 2012. In May, the White House released a list of 55 institutions under investigation for their handling of sexual assault, including Guilford College in Greensboro and UNC-Chapel Hill. A group of student activists at Wake Forest University, mobilized initially by complaints of racial profiling and over-policing black student events, has also raised awareness about sexual assault in the context of excessive alcohol consumption at fraternity parties.
The cauldron of intersectional challenges surrounding race, sexual assault and alcohol is by no means unique to Wake. The latter two issues came into sharp focus with an explosive Rolling Stone exposé about a female student at the University of Virginia who was allegedly gang-raped at a fraternity party only to face institutional whitewashing.
“My initial reaction was numbness,” university President Teresa Sullivan said in a message to the campus community on Nov. 25. “But the numbness then turned to anger and a deep grief for the survivors. I want to make it perfectly clear to you and to the watching world that nothing is more important to me than the safety of our students — not our reputation, not our success, and not our history or our tradition.”
UVA should be applauded for suspending fraternity activity, requesting a criminal investigation by the Charlottesville police and undertaking an overhaul of university policies. Following UVA’s lead, other colleges and universities need to find the courage to acknowledge and address their shortcomings instead of guarding their reputation to minimize legal liability and ability to effectively raise money from alumni.
But the problem is also cultural. Many sexual assaults could be prevented through the intervention of bystanders, and the University of Kentucky and University of New Hampshire have shown commendable leadership in developing training to empower students to step in to protect their peers. Going even deeper, boys are conditioned to see their sexuality as a weapon, and girls to accommodate sexual aggression while contorting their personalities to meet male needs. As parents, we need to do something about that.
As a member of the Class of ’98 who entered Antioch College in 1994, I’m proud that my alma mater pioneered the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy that redefined the standards of consent. At the time it was mocked in a “Saturday Night Live” skit that included the memorable line: “May I elevate the level of sexual intimacy by feeling your buttocks?”
As a prospective college student, I wasn’t especially sensitized to issues of gender equity, but I also didn’t feel threatened by the policy. I do remember that the idea of obtaining affirmative consent at each level of intimacy seemed unorthodox at the time. At a summer party on the eve of my departure to Antioch, a boomer mother of one of my friends exclaimed that verbalized requests for consent would have ruined the spontaneity and mystique of her many sexual liaisons in college.
Far from being imposed by administration, the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy arose through the efforts of students, particularly a group called Womyn of Antioch that began campaigning against sexual violence on campus in 1990. By the time I arrived on campus in 1994, every incoming class received an extensive, peer-led orientation on the policy. What my peers and I quickly discovered is that frank discussion of sex in formal community discussions, social gatherings and between prospective romantic partners — far from discouraging sexual activity — actually has the opposite effect.
The policy was widely embraced by the student body. Much as we chose our residency halls from a menu of options that included substance-free or substance-tolerant and same-sex or mixed gender, our attitude towards sexuality was fairly open. Sexually active or abstinent, monogamous or multiple partners, gay or straight, all options were accorded equal respect, as I recall, and sometimes proved to be fluid as students’ explored their preferences and identities.
Though it’s still fairly controversial, the University of California system’s adoption of the affirmative-consent standard at the start of the current semester counts as a vindication of the then-radical position taken by Antioch College two decades ago.
State laws and administrative policies are catching up, but true change comes from students insisting on a campus culture free of sexual assault.