Let’s Talk About College: A Look at Sexual Violence in Campus Culture

by Ally Manousos, Prevention Program Coordinator, Sexual Assault Crisis Team

It’s the time of year when high school seniors are cramming for tests, applying to colleges, and anxiously awaiting acceptance letters in the mail. They’re getting ready to embark on a new phase of their life, full of independence, growth, and learning. For anyone who has a loved one on this journey, they know there are plenty of mixed feelings; there’s excitement, nostalgia for their little one becoming an adult, and at the back of their mind (if not on the forefront of their thoughts) there is a small aching fear about everything that could possibly go wrong. Recent statistics show that 1 in 5 women will experience sexual violence while attending college. Considering the fact that sexual violence is a historically under-reported crime (so the stats may be higher than we realize), and that around 24 million people are enrolled in college in the United States, this is not a statistic we can take lightly.Featured image

Ending campus sexual violence has been at the forefront of many discussions in the media lately. With the establishment of the recent White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, this issue has gained national attention signaling positive change and action to improve the lives of many thousands of students. The Task Force is responsible for the new Campus SAVE Act, which holds colleges and universities more accountable than ever before when it comes to responding to sexual violence. This is great news because it is forcing colleges and universities to review their policies and ensure they are meeting the needs of victims who want to report. However, although stricter requirements from the administration may slowly help with reporting and adjudication, this is not solving the root of the problem- rape culture is rampant on college campuses nationwide. Rape culture is “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm. In a rape culture,both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable. However, much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change” (Emelie Buchwald, author of Transforming a Rape Culture).

Vanderbilt. Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress at Colombia. The controversy around the Rolling Stones’ article about the University of Virginia, “A Campus Rape”. These are just a few of many high profile cases of sexual violence in the last year. These are unique in that they have gained major media coverage, but the stories themselves can be witnessed on campuses across the country; they are not new or exceptional, and unfortunately, the stories are not all that surprising. They each illustrate how pervasive rape culture has become on college campuses, and how it has supported victim blaming and an environment in which it is actually more beneficial to not report instances of sexual violence.

Historically, when we think of addressing the problem of assault on campus, we think of a list of safety tips intended for girls to protect themselves (despite the fact that 1 in 16 men also become survivors of sexual violence while in college). Some of these tips include watching your drink so no one can tamper with it, making sure to always have a friend with you when you go out at night, and taking care to not wear anything too suggestive, especially if you’re planning to attend a party. Thankfully, we are finally seeing a (small) shift away from this idea that it is a young woman’s responsibility to not become a victim. President Obama recently rolled out a new campaign called “It’s On Us” to end campus sexual assault.

This is a short PSA from the campaign about taking on a role as an active bystander in situations where your actions could positively change the outcome of someone else’s night.

“It’s On Us aims to fundamentally shift the way we think about sexual assault, by inspiring everyone to see it as their responsibility to do something, big or small, to prevent it. The campaign reflects the belief that sexual assault isn’t just an issue involving a crime committed by a perpetrator against a victim, but one in which the rest of us also have a role to play. We are committed to creating an environment – be it a dorm room, a party, a bar or club, or the greater college campus – where sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported. This effort will support student-led efforts already underway across the country, and will focus particularly on motivating college men to get involved.” This is a very important shift in thinking about sexual assault (on campuses, and in our own communities) because it reinforces the idea that we all have a role to play in our communities, and each one of us helps shape what our community looks like.

The problem of sexual violence on college campuses is huge. There are many levels within the institutions and within society that need to be looked at and changed in order to start making progress in ending this problem. The “It’s On Us” campaign alone, or even the Campus SAVE Act and the Task Force, will not be enough to eliminate sexual violence (on college campuses or in our communities), but as you prepare your loved ones to go off to college (or as you get ready to make that journey yourself), it’s a helpful reminder that we all have the power to effect small changes, which may in turn create enough progress to help dismantle rape culture.