Sexual Assault on Campus

January 14, 2016

Columbia University, one of the many schools being investigated by the Department of Education Mike Steele/Flickr

For a number of years, the issue of campus sexual assault has been gracing the headlines. It’s not a new problem, but one that is receiving increased attention because of a large-scale investigation launched by the Department of Education into how hundreds of colleges (and some middle and high schools) are handling investigations of sexual assault on their campuses.

In July of this past year, the Huffington Post reported:

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating 124 colleges and universities and 40 elementary and secondary schools over how they have handled sexual assault among students.

As of July 22, the federal agency was conducting 140 investigations at 124 higher education institutions for possible violations of Title IX in their handling of sexual assault, according to information the Education Department provided to The Huffington Post. Meanwhile, 41 similar investigations are taking place at 40 local K-12 schools and school districts.

There are reports of mishandling of sexual assault cases, disciplinary procedures that amount to slaps on the wrist for perpetrators, and hesitation to involve law enforcement, often because of concerns over the impact on institutional reputation.

As these investigations move forward, groups are also experimenting with new tools to prevent campus sexual assaults, including mandatory trainings that teach consent.

A recent New York Times article explored some of these efforts at campus education.

But in real life — and, ever more frequently, on college campuses — what constitutes consent is wildly more complicated. Sometimes one person initiates; other times it’s both; still other times it’s hard to tell. Sometimes one party wants to engage in part of the sex act but not all of it; other times a person may consent to doing one thing at one moment, only to withdraw that consent as the thing actually begins to happen.

The challenge is that it’s not totally clear whether improving understanding and use of the principles of consent will actually change the sexual assault landscape. The article continues:

No, most rape is not the result of a misunderstanding. To the contrary, one-fourth to two-thirds of rapists are serial attackers, studies show. And yet how we understand consent has been at the core of a number of recent rape cases, and it is a focus of a growing field of study. When it comes to young people today, and college, and hooking up, and drinking, and rape culture, and consent, there’s enough confusion that the services of people like Mr. Kalin are in high demand.

Kalin, the founder of Party for Consent, the program detailed in this article, started the work when he was a sophomore at Colby College. There are a number of men working as leaders in this field, particularly when it comes to talking to other men about sexual assault.

Michael Kimmel, whom The Atlantic deemed the “Bro Whisperer” in their February 2015 article, is another leading male voice. A sociologist with a focus on studying masculinity, Kimmel had this to say to The Atlantic about preventing rape:

He also argues that antirape efforts need to speak more directly to men than they have in the past. For one thing, he says, it helps if a big man on campus is the one leading a rape-prevention crusade. One of the founding members of the long-running Harvard Men Against Rape group, for example, was a popular football player, and Jonathan Kalin was a well-liked basketball star at Colby. Deploying humor doesn’t hurt, either. Kimmel praises a campaign that has put splash guards proclaiming “You hold the power to stop rape in your hand” in urinals at various universities.

Of course women have also been taking the lead for decades in addressing this issue, with long-time organizing of Take Back the Night events on college campuses, and pushing back against the same violations that the Department of Education is now investigating.

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