Trigger warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault
“Oh yeah, I was at a frat last night” — a decently typical way to begin a story — “and some dude shoved his hand down my pants.”
“Some dude — what?” I whipped around to stare at my friend, eyes wide. I was horrified, but not all that surprised.
“Yeah. Everyone was pretty drunk at the time, I was sober and just — the vibe was off. This dude started dancing with me and then he started to dance a little more… on me?” She posed it as a question. “So I, like, threw my elbow back but he just pulled me closer to him and put his hand down my jeans. It was gross.”
I didn’t know how to react. I told her I was sorry she had to go through that and asked if she had reported the incident. She hadn’t, even though she was well aware of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center’s resources (which you can find at the end of this article).
The nonchalance with which she told me her story makes me question why it is that we all seem so desensitized to sexual assault and whether sexual assault prevention resources are as accessible as they claim to be for University of Michigan students.
So I sat down with LSA senior Sophia Fortunato, the student co-coordinator of the Consent, Outreach and Relationship Education (CORE) team at SAPAC. She told me that SAPAC, within its four branches (CORE, Bystander Intervention and Community Engagement, Survivor Empowerment and Ally Support and Michigan Men) works on four separate levels. The intrapersonal level includes empowerment activities that encourage self love and continuing education. Interpersonal involves healthy relationship workshops and peer-to-peer communication. The cultural level deals with primary prevention education and bystander training. And last is institutional, involving campus-wide policy and the University’s response to sexual assault. This is the one level Fortunato feels is lacking and her sentiment is echoed in the University’s history addressing sexual assault claims.
“You can’t really go about trying to end any ‘-ism’ or any oppression without taking (all four levels) into consideration,” she said, adding that SAPAC’s reach across these levels is what gives her hope.
Then, with my friend’s story in mind, I asked Fortunato when students should reach out to SAPAC. She responded that “there is a lack of awareness regarding what SAPAC does and what resources are available,” but students are encouraged to reach out for “any personal concerns relating to sexual assault” including asking for advice, reporting sexual assault, learning about the volunteer programs or expressing concern for another person.
Lack of awareness and consequences are just two pieces of the puzzle that is normalizing sexual assault culture on college campuses. The power dynamics allowed by “sexual geography,” a term coined by authors Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan in their book Sexual Citizens referring to “places and spaces where people meet folks that they might be interested in romantically or sexually,” is another piece. One such example of normalization through sexual geography occurs at fraternity houses. Fortunato elaborates that at a fraternity “you are always stepping into — physically — a space controlled by (the) group of men (that live there). (And) that power dynamic and geography inherently creates implied norms about who is more entitled in that space and whose boundaries and consent aren’t as privileged.”
But when it comes to changing rape and party culture on campus, the answer doesn’t seem as obvious. During our interview, Fortunato emphasized the timeline SAPAC works within, stating that “by the time students come to college, they have been socializing for 18-20 years of their life” already, meaning how one interacts is “pretty locked in by the time they arrive on campus.” Now I, too, am a victim of the “Tea Consent” video of our collective youth, which taught the rather complex concept of consent by a two-minute animation. Even as someone who has since pursued further education on the subject, I wonder how effective primary prevention education can really be at the college level.
Perhaps it’s less about informational handouts and the four Cs of consent that one may or may not remember once blackout drunk, and more about denormalizing the “college life” which perpetuates the non-consensual behavior that plagues each and every campus. Or maybe prevention education must start at a far younger age, taking its place between Algebra 1 and Sex Ed. Or perhaps we must consider large scale policy change, forcing institutions to take responsibility for the profusion of sexual assault occurring under their watch, the disregard of which is now being brought to the forefront by Dr. Anderson’s victims and many other brave students who have shared their stories. Either way, it is clear that organizations such as SAPAC must be paired with campus reform in order to create real, lasting change in an ever-changing community such as the University of Michigan.
So as we invite the newest class of Wolverines to the University this fall, let’s focus on welcoming them into a community that prioritizes the sexual agency of every individual.
SAPAC Resources: (734) 764-7771
Make an Appointment: https://sapac.umich.edu/Appointment
Support Services: https://sapac.umich.edu/SupportServices
Reva Lalwani is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at email@example.com