From the Daily: A crisis of ignorance

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published September 23, 2014

Sexual assault on college campuses is enabled by a multitude of influences, but cultural perceptions of women and sex undoubtedly have a significant effect. While ill-intent may play an undeniable role in many sexual assaults, ignorance and societal factors are equally at work, if not more influential. Educating university students and faculty about sexual assault may not directly help survivors, but creating a foundation of knowledge and compassion could potentially prevent these awful crimes from happening in the first place.

According to the controversial first report published April 2014 by Not Alone, published April 2014, a White House Task Force created by President Barack Obama in an attempt to address sexual assault on college campuses, approximately one in five women ranging from freshmen to seniors indicated that they had been sexually assaulted at some time during their college experience. Despite typical critiques of data sampling, each one of these responses indicate an individual scarred by the traumatic experience of sexual assault who felt the need to share this information for a greater good.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has their hands full investigating 78 universities charged with mishandling sexual assault cases on their campuses, including the University of Michigan. In a study conducted by the Air Force Academy in 2003, female students who came forward to talk about their experiences described the problem of sexual assault as “widespread and the product of a culture hostile toward women.”

Advocates for Human Rights and The First World Report on Violence and Health indicate that sexual assault seems to correlate with social conditions — societies that honor male physical aggressiveness, entitlement and dominance generally have higher numbers of sexual assault. Further exploration of sexual roles of the “male aggressor” and the “demure female” finds that “No” is seen as a kind of obstacle that the male must overcome because he is “not convinced she means it.”

This kind of aggression is unfortunately well known on the college party scene. In this regard, the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center notes on their website, “Alcohol use may raise certain expectations about gender under the influence of alcohol. Men/masculine individuals may feel as though they are expected to be sexually/physically aggressive, and may also ascribe to discourse about the sexual availability of women/feminine individuals who drink.”

Faced with the facts that nearly one in five women will be sexually assaulted during college, that 78 universities are under federal investigation for mishandling of sexual assault cases, and our culture is primed with male sexual entitlement and the objectification of women, it’s not a question of should the University do something to stop this alarming trend; it’s what are the fastest and most effective means of preventing sexual assault on our campus?

If society does deserve some blame for these sexual abuses, then part of the problem must lie in how students think of and understand it. A 2010 study by The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at the University of Indiana found 10.9 percent of survey respondents don’t consider it “having sex” if there’s no ejaculation, 29 and 27.1 percent don’t consider performing or receiving oral sex to be sex, respectively, and 55.1 percent don’t consider touching or manually stimulating a partner’s genitals to be sex either, indicating that many sex-related crimes may be attributed to ignorance. These blurred or misguided definitions of what constitutes a sex act may lead to sexual assault if the offender doesn’t consider certain acts to be “real” sex.

The legal definition of sexual assault generally refers to any unwanted sexual activity. The 2010 study’s findings point toward a societal failure to adequately educate people about sex and therefore sexual assault. Current sex education briefly explains what sex is and the different ways to have sex while thoroughly covering sexually transmitted diseases. Sexual abuse, however, is often not covered or simply skimmed over, making it appear less important.

A more productive route would be to educate students from a young age, eventually developing a working knowledge of sex and its potential for abuse as students come of age. Confronting this issue head-on would force students to consider the seriousness of sexual assault as much as, if not more than, the other risks of sex. However, changes made for younger generations still leaves the current student body without any immediate confrontation with issues surrounding sex and sexual assault. To compensate for this, the University should lead the way by addressing problematic cultural norms and educating students about sexual rights.

It’s unreasonable and unrealistic to place all responsibility for student safety on the University, but the school clearly cares about the well-being of its students and can do more to protect them. This begins with educating and engaging the student body in a continuous discussion about sex and consent. It’s important to combat complex problems like sexual assault at the source in order to cut down on its recurrence — preventing a tragedy is always better than having to deliver post-trauma care.

Currently, the University offers Haven — an online course for incoming students to complete the summer before freshman year — and Relationship Remix, a 90-minute program covering approaches toward healthy relationships at the beginning of freshman year. Both of these programs are described as required, but are not seriously enforced.

The logical aim for the University should be to implement a mini-course that is required for all incoming students. This course may model the current Race and Ethnicity Requirement in its mandatory and academic nature, or just a more in-depth orientation type course similar to AlcoholEdu that includes a regular discussion component. This requirement should apply to all students and take place during freshman year to address the issue as a preventative measure, instead of retroactively.

The class, more far-reaching than current protocol, allows for time to discuss the factors contributing to sexual assault, as well as the definition of consent, the effects of misogyny in our daily lives, how to step in as a bystander and methods of practicing safe sex. Engaging student conversation is key, as merely presenting a slew of facts and numbers through a computer screen can hardly be expected to elicit any real empathy from students.

Of course, the implementation and extension of a complete course takes time and isn’t immediately feasible. Possible intermediary solutions include comprehensive online courses or non-academic weekly courses taught in the dorms in a comfortable setting. The University should explore its potential to truly engage students and illustrate the significance of consent. Michigan has the capacity to play a key role in the protection of — and awareness among — its students and faculty.

Gender roles and sex are shaped by societal norms, and the effect this has on student perception of sex and women cannot be understated. Combating sexual crimes means addressing ignorance, and the University has an opportunity now to lead the way in sexual education and prevent rape and assault on campus.