OPINION: Scripps Professor Vanessa Tyson gives a new framework for understanding sexual assault

Graphic by Ugen Yonten

Content Warning: Sexual Assault

Like many of my peers at the Claremont Colleges, I was intrigued, but not surprised, to learn that one of our own professors had joined the ever-growing list of women accusing a man in the spotlight of sexual assault.

On Feb. 6, Vanessa Tyson, a politics professor at Scripps College, publicly accused Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexually assaulting her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

Tyson, who is currently spending a fellowship year at Stanford University, spoke at a Stanford symposium entitled “Betrayal and Courage in the Age of #MeToo” Feb. 12. She argued that the #MeToo movement has helped unearth an “epidemic of abuse previously detailed in statistics but not public accusations.”

In other words, the movement has made it increasingly difficult for the public to continue pushing sexual abuse under the rug.  

Tyson has illuminated a new framework for understanding sexual assault by asserting that it is both an epidemic and a public health issue. If this language stays in the forefront of the national consciousness, it will provide a concrete place to begin reconstructing our systems for dealing with sexual violence and taking definitive action.

The #MeToo movement has allowed us to see sexual assault as a widespread issue. Sexual assault is rooted in structures of power and oppression, which we must consciously undo to get to the root of the issue.

Governmental and private institutions must view this issue as what it is — an epidemic — to kickstart meaningful change. If we listen to Tyson’s words, we can begin to impose these changes at the 5Cs.

Looking beyond our Claremont bubble, one in three women and one in six men in the U.S. experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports. Many victims experience fear, anxiety and depression, as well as difficulties in social adjustment and impaired sexual functioning, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

In a 2017 article by the Boston University School of Public Health, Sandro Galea argues that the goals of public health and social justice are intrinsically linked. Both aim to rid the world of inequalities that affect mental health and physical safety, and both aim to improve the conditions in which people live and work.

Galea writes that when it comes to making social change regarding sexual assault, the most effective way to do so is by “reckoning with perpetrators and identifying humane and evidence-informed ways to ensure that they do no further harm.”

Trained specialists are one necessary step toward prevention of sexual assault and violence when it comes to working with perpetrators. While keeping in mind that many of these offenders are highly manipulative, specialists agree that the best option for perpetrators is a confrontative group treatment.

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A study published in October 2014 found that a sense of camaraderie and psychosocial support among coed military units directly resulted in decreased rates of sexual harassment and assault.

On a small scale, we can use Tyson’s words and this research to take another look at our frameworks for handling sexual assault at the 5Cs.

We do a good job creating an environment of camaraderie. At orientation, we take preventative steps to teach about consent and the environments that contribute to sexual assault. However, this is not enough.

There should be programs throughout students’ first-year year for transfer students that continue lessons about consent and toxic masculinity. Ideally, these would be led by trained staff separate from each school’s student-led advocates for survivors of sexual assault programs.

Another thing to consider is that we provide support for survivors through our advocates programs, but we do not provide rehabilitation for perpetrators. This could be done with one-on-one therapy sessions in lieu of filing a police report and taking the perpetrator to court.

The wishes of a survivor should always be the first priority, but this program would be a good option for those who do not wish to take legal action but fear their abuser might harm someone else. The program could be optional or mandatory depending on the case and per the survivor’s request.

Tyson’s time in the spotlight pointed the way to a path forward, but ultimately it was just a small part of a big issue that has not received sufficient news coverage. Considering sexual assault an epidemic sets the foundation for change, but it is only the beginning of this long journey.

Julia Szabo PZ ’21 is a gender studies and media studies major from Boston, Massachusetts. She enjoys rating dining halls based on the quality of their chocolate chip cookies.

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