It’s a Step in the Right Direction
A little over two years ago, President Barack Obama launched the “It’s On Us” initiative to combat sexual assault on college campuses. Since then, according to the White House Fact Sheet, over 300 schools have adopted the campaign, hosting more than 650 awareness events. Additionally, almost 220,000 people have taken the pledge “to recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault, to identify situations in which sexual assault may occur, to intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given and to create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.” While Obama’s attempt at spreading awareness and positive support hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially here at the U, sexual assault is still a major concern for college and university students around the nation. At this point, any initiative adopted to help put an end to rape culture is something I’m willing to encourage. The more talk, awareness, intervention and support we have, the better.
“Rape culture” is a term that surfaced in the 1970s after feminists found it necessary to point out a wrongful trend in society’s outlook on unwanted sexual advances towards women. Rape culture refers to society’s tendency to blame victims of sexual assault for the crimes committed against them, belittling their experiences and making it difficult for them to come forward and receive serious help, empathy and attempts at righting a tragic wrong. But how can a woman feel ok about coming forward, when sexual assault is so commonplace that one in five females in college are raped, and when only a fraction of the 12 percent of reported cases end with some level of justice? It’s discouraging, to say the least.
College campuses are perfect hosts for sexual assault, which is why targeting them with the Obama Administration’s “It’s On Us” campaign makes so much sense. College students are often single and on their own when they experiment, date, drink, party and sometimes abandon their discretion. Campuses are melting pots of cultural identities, which means you have a complex mix of sexual backgrounds, ideas and expectations. Inner city athletes who might have been exposed to sex and drugs at young ages, now find themselves in close proximity with conservative women from small towns where a kiss on the porch was all a guy was going to get at the end of a third date. When men from sexual backgrounds where the lines of consent were always blurred face more reserved women, it may be more likely for signals to be misread and consent to be dismissed, and women may not know how to handle themselves when up against sexually aggressive and experienced men who aren’t used to being turned down. Although these are generalizations, they’re also common situations which, along with others, may lead to some form of sexual assault. It seems that, while we support and appreciate diversity within a university, we also need to understand that sexual expectations vary from person to person. Taking the time to adopt an initiative that generates a common understanding of the rights and wrongs of sexual advances and actions makes sense for all universities, which is what the “It’s On Us” campaign has positively attempted to do.
In addition to its good intentions, the “It’s On Us” campaign, because of its federal upbringing, has shown quite a bit of leverage – probably more so than smaller college-wide initiatives. It has the funds and the ability to receive widespread coverage, and it can draw in well-known and respected celebrities as ambassadors and sponsors, like Lady Gaga, who are in their own right powerful figures spreading the word easily and vastly, and have generally, great influence over people to join the fight.
As of now, it’s possible that the “It’s On Us” campaign will cease after Obama hands over his executive powers. He’s made a great attempt to expand awareness and action against sexual assault in college, and I am a firm believer that any attempt at uniting students against sexual assault is worthwhile, whether that be through “It’s On Us” or Westminster’s newly adopted “Start By Believing” campaign. Each and every attempt at hastening the end to sexual assault is worthwhile and no college’s legitimate effort to make its campus safer for students should go unappreciated or unacknowledged.
Change Begins by Believing
On Oct. 24, the U launched its 2016 It’s On Us campaign aimed at preventing sexual assault on campus. Sponsored by ASUU, the campaign is an effort to encourage students to gain a better understanding of sexual assault and violence and to do something about it when it occurs.
More specifically, students pledge to: “Recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault”; “Identify situations where sexual assault may occur”; “Intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given”; “ Create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.’”
While each pledge is important, there is still something not explicitly addressed: that sexual assault victims are rarely believed when they come forward. This fact makes all of these pledge conditions secondary; if victims aren’t taken seriously, what good is an abstract definition of consent going to do? Although well-intentioned and a clear step in the right direction, the “It’s On Us” campaign misses the mark by not explicitly asking students to believe victims when they speak out.
Unlike the victims of any other violent crimes, evidence indicates that those who experience sexual assault are rarely, if ever, given the benefit of the doubt. On the contrary, their allegations are often met with intense scrutiny and disbelief, as well as accusations that maybe they did something to prompt a sexual encounter. This is true at the interpersonal level and equally true at the institutional level. Victims rarely find condolence or support from friends; they are usually met with rebuttals such as “Are you sure you don’t just regret having sex?” or “I know the person you’re accusing. They would never do that.” The police are rarely any more sympathetic. When a BYU student reported an alleged assault earlier this year, the Utah County sheriff’s deputy, Edwin Randolph, said that her allegations were “bull crap” and accused her of wanting to “screw up [the suspect’s] life.”
The evidence that victims don’t feel safe coming forward is not just anecdotal. Researchers at the U recently conducted a survey entitled “Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault 2016” that looked at the experiences and attitudes of students regarding sexual assault. The survey found that only five percent of students who had been assaulted reported it to the University. Why so few reports? Embarrassment, for one. More than 43 percent of victims who didn’t seek help said that they were too ashamed to do so. Even more troubling, over 56 percent said that they didn’t think their assault was serious enough to report.
The biggest takeaway from this research is not that more resources need to be available or that bystanders need to intervene when they see an assault happening. It is that we, as a school and society, need to believe before we dismiss. Rape culture has become so deeply indoctrinating that victims don’t even believe themselves when they are assaulted. This is unacceptable.
Others have recognized this systemic disbelief and are fighting against it. In September, Westminster College launched its “Start By Believing” campaign to do just this: to encourage students, faculty and community members to support and believe victims. Tiffany Perry is a student at Westminster and president of Tipping Point, a student club aimed at tackling issues surrounding sexual assault. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, she said she wants victims to feel comfortable coming forward with their stories. “This campaign is a call to action for more than just legislators, policymakers and law enforcement,” Perry said. “This is a call to action to every student, friend or member of the community that when someone discloses to you that they have been sexually assaulted, that you will support them.”
It is heartwarming to see ASUU and university administrators making strides to raise awareness surrounding sexual assault. “It’s On Us” is a noble, necessary and important campaign that will undoubtedly make the U a more safe and welcoming place for students. Students and faculty should understand consent, intervene when an assault takes place and create an environment where sexual assault is absolutely intolerable. But most importantly, victims need to be embraced and accepted when they reach out for help. The U should follow in the footsteps of Westminster, because it all begins with believing.