Monday, February 24, 2014

Addressing the Campus Rape Culture in the US

Trigger Warning: this blog entry refers to sexual assault on college and university campuses.

Unpleasant topics should not always be avoided. Ask any college or university president or provost what her or his top concerns are, and chances are that the top five will include sexual violence. That's because one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college and the spotlight is being turned on colleges in a serious way. Two weeks ago, the University of Virginia hosted a conference on this topic; one month ago the White House launched a new initiative to reduce sexual assault on campuses. Numerous colleges and universities face sexual assault investigations under Title IX, and a new law, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, is going into effect this year. Every college and university that receives federal funding -- including all those with students receiving Pell grants -- is now required to provide ongoing prevention and awareness campaigns for students and faculty. They are coming soon to colleges and universities near you.

One might object that this problem has nothing to do with women in astronomy. I wish it were otherwise but astronomers are victims of sexual violence, too. And even if you are not a survivor and are not employed by or studying at a college or university that is struggling with this issue, most likely you attended one. You may be a supervisor wondering what to do if a subordinate or student comes to you with a sexual assault or harassment complaint. Or you may simply be a bystander wondering where this is all going.

Recently, students at my university have spoken up in a series of letters in the campus newspaper, including one with the provocative title SEXUAL ASSAULT AT MIT: Addressing rape culture at the Institute. Our president wrote a letter to the campus community. Anonymous responses to the student letters show a disconcerting combination of support and ridicule.

Instead of denying that a problem exists or blaming the survivors, let us educate ourselves and plan how to respond to that dreadful moment when a student, co-worker, or friend tells us that she or he has been sexually assaulted. (Males can be survivors too, and sexual assault obviously is not limited to heterosexual pairs.) All universities receiving federal funding have designated Title IX coordinators who can advise you. Many universities have medical staff who are first responders and advocates in cases of sexual assault, and whose services are free and confidential.

To reduce the incidence of sexual assault, universities also educate students about the importance of consent for sexual conduct, and the consequences that drug and alcohol use may have for consent. A recent New York Times article gives something to ponder. For further information, I encourage you to attend the CSWA's town hall on Addressing Sexual Violence on College Campuses during the 224th AAS Meeting (Tuesday, June 3 at 12:45), during which representatives from the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center will discuss how community awareness can be instrumental in creating change.  BARCC has also produced a useful tip sheet on sexual violence prevention for faculty and staff.


Anonymous said...

As a surviver of rape on a college campus, this part of the MIT opinion piece really resonated with me:
"Instead of placing the onus of preventing rape on the potential perpetrators — men in 9 out of 10 rape situations — people often tell women what to do to prevent assault: they should drink less, not walk around late at night, carry a whistle or pepper spray, not wear something so “provocative”, or should not “lead a guy on.” For instance, many women who attend a party together will have pre-determined rules and signs for each other if they are in a potentially dangerous situation. But rarely, if ever, do men have any agreed-upon rules to ensure that their peers are not committing assault. The onus continues to be placed on potential victims to ensure their own safety, while little action is taken to teach people to not commit rape — the glaring fallacy of that logic is the assumption that rape is inevitable. But rape — like misogyny, racism, and homophobia — is not inevitable."

I wish that more people would be careful about consent when engaging in sexual activity with a new partner for the first time. Make sure that your partner is comfortable and consenting to what you are doing. Do not engage in sexual activity for the first time when one or both of you is intoxicated. Ask permission before doing something, or better yet, establish boundaries before getting into a sexual situation. We should be doing this to protect our partners and ourselves.

Anonymous said...

"I wish it were otherwise but astronomers are victims of sexual violence, too."

And I wish it were otherwise, but astronomers are also the perpetrators of sexual violence. My story (all women have one) took place at an REU program and involved another REU student.

College students (well, everyone, but college students are the topic of the moment) need to be made aware of the idea of consent culture, which revolves around enthusiastic consent: without enthusiastic consent, it's assault. If the person's asleep, passed out, or "convincible", they're not giving you enthusiastic consent so it's assault. It doesn't matter if they're a stranger, someone you know, someone you've been flirting with, or even a spouse of decades, if they're not giving you enthusiastic consent that's a big problem.

I agree with the previous commenters remarks on the MIT piece and party codes. Women typically agree that they'll make sure they all get home safe and alone; why don't men do this too?