As she explains her involvement as a One Act peer educator, a role that involves teaching students about how to prevent sexual assaults, University of North Carolina junior Grace Stafford’s eyes light up and exude passion for the topic.
Stafford, who is majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies as well as Quantitative Biology, became a peer educator as a requirement for a class in her major at first, but soon developed an excitement about combatting the issue through One Act.
“Learning about all the factors that go into sexual assault, the warning signs that lead up to it and the systemic oppression and what we can do to defend and prevent it got me really excited about One Act,” says Stafford.
Students with a personal tie or a strong ideological conviction towards the issue like Stafford are active within One Act and other sexual assault programs, joining advocacy groups and attending events about the issue.
However, the problem for sexual assault support and advocacy groups revolves around engaging the majority of the student population, who do not have a particularly strong connection to the issue, to learn how to prevent sexual violence.
“How do we make the movement for sexual assault prevention fun? How do we make people want to come to it?” asks John Kalin in a 2013 TedxColbyCollege speech on the issue.
Kalin, a junior philosophy major at Colby College at the time, speaks about the lack of voluntary engagement with sexual assault prevention programs by the majority of students on college campuses.
“Despite the power and advocacy of Take Back the Night (a sexual assault prevention event), it wasn’t a measure of prevention because everyone at the event was already extremely passionate and engaged in the movement,” says Kalin.
Due to the uncomfortable and emotional nature of discussing sexual assault, prevention groups are figuring out ways to reach audiences that might not otherwise seek out sexual assault prevention training.
At the University of North Carolina, one such program is a branch of the One Act training called One Act for Greeks. The program mandates every new fraternity member to go through a three-hour training session led by One Act Peer Educators.
“The One Act for Greeks training is tailored more towards the people in these communities on how to intervene more in scenarios involving drinking and the risks associated with that,” said Stafford.
Another way One Act tries to incorporate more students is through more relaxed, open events around campus, especially targeting incoming freshmen who might not know what they want to do yet.
“We host events… throughout the fall semester. Sometimes these are fun and engaging social media campaigns, and sometimes they’re opportunities to eat a doughnut and speak with a Peer Educator about consent,” said Nicole Feehan.
Feehan, who is in her first year as a Sexual Violence Prevention Program Manager at the UNC Office of Student Wellness, recognizes the need to repeatedly expose the student body to these issues.
“We recommend that violence prevention resembles a tiered approach in which students are exposed to different information at different time points during their four years at the university,” said Feehan.
Part of the reason people hesitate to engage in sexual violence prevention training has to do with the negative essence of the subject and its harsh nature. The topic is seen as too serious, resulting in a lack of engagement.
One key to changing this stigma revolves around changing the tactics used to educate people about the issues, installing a sense of positivity and outlining several clear steps people can take to prevent it.
“Lots of people can’t fathom how someone could do something like this and that results in a lot of ‘can’ts.’ We have to tell people, ‘here are the things you can’t do, but also here are the things you can do,’” said John Kalin.
Kalin’s advice follows a trend of making discussions less serious so people feel more comfortable talking and learning about it in an open environment, as well as giving students concrete, preventative steps they can implement.
Resources like Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest sexual assault helpline, also offer tips about concrete actions bystanders can take to reduce the risk of an assault occurring.
RAINN offers four steps to preventing sexual assault on their national website, which include creating a distraction, asking direct questions, referring to authority and enlisting others to help.
In the long run, Feehan and other members of the One Act program have a very clear vision for how they want to alter perceptions and actions on UNC’s campus.
“The goal is to empower every member of the Carolina Community to become active bystanders, establishing a norm that violence is not tolerated at Carolina,” said Feehan.
Establishing such a norm requires participation from a large majority of the student body, and continuing to find new ways to engage and educate students without close ties to the issue is the challenge that One Act and other such organizations have taken on.
As John Kalin explains, “we must captivate people’s attention, then have them explain their ‘Why’s’, which hits their emotions and creates their own reasons to be passionate about this movement.”