Finding Simple Solutions to Complexity of Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Meet Sally and Johnny. Sally and Johnny are classmates at a local university in your area. One day after class, Johnny asks Sally if she’d like to go to a party with him. Having a crush on Johnny, Sally says yes. Once at the party, they have a few drinks and Johnny asks Sally to come home with her – she accepts with innocence.

They start kissing, which leads to other actions. Sally pulls back to tell him she only feels comfortable with kissing. He responds, “I thought you liked me. I won’t tell anyone, it’s just sex.” She responds, “No, I told you what I was comfortable with.”

But he didn’t stop.

This is a classic example of sexual assault and harassment on college campuses. This is a story told nationally, with different characters and settings. However, the central narrative is the same.

At the beginning of 2017, more than 200 colleges and universities had investigations pending regarding their handling of sexual violence reports, records the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Current systems of dealing with sexual misconduct and allegations of sexual assault on campuses seem mediocre, at best. At a period in their lives where these students are exploring their identities – sexually and otherwise – they are being simultaneously trapped with the faulty legal and ethical boundaries built by university policies.

Natalie Spiert, an educator on sexual assault prevention and resource for victims at the Ohio State University, advocates how sex education can break cycles of sexual assault.

The narrative about Sally and Johnny comes from her TEDTalk on Columbus College’s campus. Sally and Johnny are a prime example of the “disconnect among our youth,” where the driving reason for sexual assault is the “lack of knowledge and understanding of what healthy sexual activity means” combined “with a fear of sexual rejection and misconception of communication with partners,” Spiert said.

There are thousands of things that go on in the daily life of a college student on their campuses and in their homes. But what is the biggest stressor of college student’s lives? Is it paying off student loans? Getting a job after college? Spiert states that, according to research, the number one stressor is being sexually assaulted, and the number two stressor is being accused of sexual assault.

Spiert is tackling the conversation among many sexual rights advocates: Where are kids being taught sex education? She said that most students are getting their sexual knowledge from pornography or social media.

“That is where women who say ‘No’ don’t actually mean ‘No,” Spiert said. “That is where fulfillment is the only thing that matters. Sally thinks ‘no’ has no meaning. She thinks that because she likes him, she’s supposed to have sex with him. She doesn’t identify it as sexual assault, because she didn’t physically fight him. They are friends.”

Spiert proposes that part of the solution of ending sexual assault on campuses stems from introducing sex education earlier, say in middle schools and high schools. By focusing on understanding human anatomy and how our bodies respond to stimulus, and on discussions of masculinity and sexual roles in society, we are then able to find new ways to support students if they are sexually assaulted.

John Kalin, a junior philosophy major at Colby College and president of Male Athletes Against Violence, agrees.

In his TEDTalk to Colby College students, he defines the lines between advocacy and prevention, where finding accountability and building awareness reign over any one specific action.

As a current student, he explains that a powerful question on campuses right now is, “How do we make preventing sexual assault cool?”.

Kalin argues that response rates are higher for actions students can control right in front of them. So, regarding sexual assault prevention on campuses, students have to increase audience participation by “changing expectations, which looks different on every campus,” he said.

While it may look different on campuses, there is an underlying systematic problem with how universities are addressing sexual assault allegations and cases.

It could be due to poor sexual education or not having enough advocates for positive prevention, or it could also be a larger, systematic problem.

Shreena Thakore, the co-founder of an organization invested on bridging the gap between academia and activism regarding sexual assault, shared her story of solving the problem of unwanted sexual encounters in a TEDTalk titled, “It matters WHY you think rape is wrong.”

Thakore studies human responses to the question of why sexual assault occurs and why it is wrong. Is it a violation of gender norms? Or gender-based boundaries? Or cultural boundaries?

And if these are the questions we ask, we respond with gender policing, behavior policing, and culture policing, respectively. Yet, these all fall short because they just view sexual assault as being “wrong” due to the actions of the assailant.

“If you think that rape is wrong for the wrong reasons, you are part of the problem,” Thakore said. “Rape is not about sex. Rape is the symptom of a larger social disease, that is produced by systems.”

Preventing unwanted sexual encounters, sexual assault, and sexual harassment is not an impossible feat. It is a feat being strangled by university systems and policies. For each person, it means tackling questions of understanding, empowerment, and action, and simply having conversations with people like Sally and Johnny.

“We need to talk about sex. If we can, students won’t feel intimidated about sexual consent,” Spiert said. “They’ll have a context to apply knowledge they learned earlier and opportunities to have questions answered.”

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