Rethinking How We Talk About Sexual Assault on Our Campuses

This past Tuesday, the students of the Claremont Colleges had the opportunity to attend an advanced screening of The Hunting Ground, a film that documents student advocacy across the nation to implement Title IX and bring justice to victims of sexual assault. While watching the film, I was struck by the mass of cases, noting that many of them contained similar stories and messages. Unfortunately, the ‘victim blaming followed by a refusal to prosecute the accused’ scenario seemed to be the prevalent trend.

This forced me to think of the friends that I have on campus who have been sexually assaulted and what could have been prevented if we, as a campus, had already worked to more effectively counter these horrific incidents. As a whole, we are improving. Our overall awareness has certainly increased. Notably, the student body now receives routine emails notifying us of incidents on campus, including the steps to take after a case of sexual misconduct or assault. 

In many bathrooms, there are hotline numbers and resources posted on stall doors. Additionally, the Title IX coordinator and student advocates continue to fight to make reporting and prosecuting easier on victims. In this way, we counter the number of cases that continue to be swept under the rug at schools like Amherst, Harvard, Columbia and Wesleyan. 

But what about the role of the friend or acquaintance in the aftermath, specifically in relation to the assailant? This is an equally important yet significantly under-explored responsibility.

On a micro-level—in our individual reactions—we still have a ways to go. I have never seen someone go so far as to blame the victim, though I am positive that it still occurs to some degree. Even so, many still possess the propensity to forgive the accused or turn their heads from the situation completely. I have friends whose roommates have hooked up with people that they know have been accused of misconduct in the past. More generally, many I’ve spoken to don’t know how they’d react if a friend of theirs was accused of sexual assault.

The fact is that there is a disconnect on our campuses. We can easily support someone who has been a victim, but we have no clue how to act toward someone who has been accused. The aggressor. The offender. The alleged assailant. How do we interact with these people? It’s inevitable that in many of these cases, we won’t know the person at all, but what happens when we do? 

If you have a friend who has been assaulted, I think you would at least know the basics of how to support them. If you witness an assault, you know to report it. Still, what is the “appropriate” or basically moral thing to do if you have a friend who has been accused of assault? Do you automatically believe they are guilty and cut them out of your life? Do you go on pretending nothing happened? Should you confront them about it and then evaluate from there? Once I began thinking about this facet of our sexual assault support culture on campus, I realized how unprepared I am.

We should also try to prevent sexual assault before it happens. To this end, Teal Dot trainings—which I highly recommend—are available to make bystander intervention on campus more effective. 

At the end of the day, it is not our responsibility to act as judge or jury. It is, however, our responsibility to ensure that victims and survivors feel safe and empowered. Most people agree that we need to think more about what is best for the victim rather than our own feelings about the situation.

Nonetheless, I think this is one aspect of our discussion on sexual assault that we are missing. If we want to be able to deal with sexual assault cases appropriately as a community, we need to think about all perspectives. Right now we seem to only ever focus on the victim. This focus has the potential to re-victimize that person. By not thinking about and discussing how to interact with people—potentially people to whom we are closewho have been incriminated in a case of sexual assault, we remain lost in how to best empower victims and create a safe campus for all. 

Isabel Wade CMC ’16 is an international relations major with a French dual (minor) hailing from the United States’ chilly northern neighbor. She recently returned from spending seven months in West Africa and hopes to go back soon.

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