I am no stranger to sexual harassment. My developing years were littered with various types of these experiences. The first kiss I had was with a drunk actor my family had adored, I was a victim of a game that involved the groping of middle school girls and I had playdates where boys would tie me down and touch me. As a result, from a young age, I came to understand how detrimental the lack of education about sexual assault could be.

As a survivor, I’ve noticed in the past several weeks how cautious and aware students are of specific acts of sexual harassment or assault. There is an elemental idea of what sexual assault is and how to prevent it on campus, such as making sure to travel in groups and to not take drinks that you have not poured yourself.

However, the biggest issue plaguing the freshmen class is the overall atmosphere of indifference. After a night out, I have heard several female students talk about how they were groped or forced to dance in a sexualized manner at a party and didn’t think twice about it. It made me realize that we associate college with sexual harassment by default. Our new experience of secondary education comes hand-in-hand with adverse risks. 

In our current political atmosphere, the prevalence of conversations about sexual assault, harrassment and rape has desensitized students toward the issue. While I am not stating that ongoing conversations have a negative effect on how we deal with sexual assault, the persistent use of it in media has made it seem hackneyed. It is no longer shocking to many students in terms of cases of college assaults, which is probably what is most disheartening. Consequently, this creates apathy towards victims of sexual assault, which can translate to a lack of urgency in the effort to rectify society’s perception of sexual assault as a “norm.”

It is crucial to clarify the term sexual assault before discussing the underlying issues behind it. The nonprofit organization Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network defines it as “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.” Consequently, anything from an unwanted touch to penetration falls under the umbrella of sexual assault. However, it seems as if in college, when we think of sexual assault we automatically think of rape. Sexual assault takes numerous forms and no one should feel the need to dismiss their story, regardless of where it is on the spectrum.

There is also a stigma around who predators can be. When conversations of rapists and attackers arise, people automatically turn to extreme instances. Rapists such as Brock Turner and Ted Bundy are the archetypes people believe to be predators, which creates a one-dimensional perception. It creates the idea that a predator is an abstract monster, because no one they know could potentially harm someone else. It makes rapists and assaulters a borderline intangible characters, when, in reality, anyone who violates the rules of consent by failing to receive an enthusiastic “yes” or “no” from a person in a sober mindset can become a predator. According to Planned Parenthood, consent is composed of the factors that it is freely given, informed, enthusiastic, specific and reversible. It is integral to note that someone can give consent but then change their mind, and the other party needs to respect that. The more we remove ourselves from the idea that we could hurt someone else, regardless of our intention, the more we create a bigger risk for ambiguity and harmful relationships.

While I acknowledge that there is no simple solution to the shallow mindset of the forms of sexual assault, and how it occurs, there are still steps the University and students can take to promote healthy relationships. I must note that the University does take actions to address this concept through Relationship Remix, a two-hour discussion all freshmen are required to take a month into their first semester. The session consists of discussion over personal values, identity, how to identify consent and proper use of contraception. And while it is a very comprehensive and thoughtful session, there needs to be further incentive for students to take the course to heart rather than with a grain of salt. Such as approaching these programs seriously, rather than advertising it like a bullet point to check off the school year checklist. 

This is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed in the community because, while many misconceptions may exist about sexual assault, many students have personal experience, either of their own or someone close to them, which can make it a difficult topic to tackle. In fact, Making Caring Common, a report lead by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, revealed in a national survey that 87 percent of 18 to 25 year old women reported they had been a victim of at least one form of sexual harassment.

While it may seem futile to discuss basic ideas such as consent and definitions of assault, these changes could be incredibly useful to a wide variety of students. Due to the large student population at the University, there is a plethora of diversity in regard to socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity, race, nationality and sexuality. It is dangerous to assume that every student holds the same definition of sexual assault and understanding of consent. Unifying the student body on a baseline of the same definitions of assault, safe relationships and consent during their first year of college will create student accountability. 

Preventative actions would rectify a blurry understanding of the various forms of sexual assault and, while it may not solve the issue of sexual assault altogether, it is a giant step toward a safer community. The Washington Post published an article stating the major cause of sexual assault is not alcohol abuse, but rather the aggressors. They argue that a major combatant to sexual assault is to implement education programs that teach bystander intervention, healthy masculinity, how to set boundaries and how to protect oneself from attacks. Education of bystander intervention and definition of consent was also mentioned in the Huffington Post as mediums to combat the numerous mishandled college sexual assault cases.

The education we receive now is the most recent lesson we will be taught as we go on with our lives. We are in a special position where this is likely the last time we will be sat down and prepared to build healthy relationships in order to avoid sexual assault, rape and harassment. 

Lastly, if you know anyone that is struggling with sexual violence in any form, please call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. 

Cheryn Hong can be reached at cherynh@umich.edu.

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