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.