Design by Opinion

Content note: This article contains mentions of sexual assault.

As incoming freshmen at the University of Michigan, many students grumbled about being required to complete an online course as a prerequisite for beginning the school year — namely, AlcoholEdu and Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates. A blurb from the University’s First Year Experience webpage explains that these programs are designed “to inform students about alcohol and sexual assault issues. The confidential, research-based courses provide students with accurate information in a non-judgmental tone and encourages students to consider their own decisions and those of their peers.” Taking the course was fairly straightforward and seemed rather educational; the program explains in great detail what is required for informed consent to be given. Likewise, it emphasizes that the aftereffects of being victimized by sexual violence are treatable and that support is available. As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I felt an overall satisfaction with the information that was provided, and I figured that other students felt similarly.

However, the effectiveness of the sexual assault prevention program on our campus fails to withstand more intense scrutiny. Despite the fact this program was required for every incoming Michigan student and thoroughly explained the concepts of sexual assault and consent, the University still experienced a spike in sexual misconduct cases from 2017 to 2019, ranging from stalking to rape. 

Moreover, the Office of Institutional Equity reported that violations, from intimate partner violence to sexual harassment, increased almost every year from 2014 to 2020, climbing from 134 violations to an astonishing 322 violations. Though this can be partially attributed to a culture shift on campus that has made it more comfortable for survivors to report instances of sexual violence, these numbers still stand as evidence that our required sexual violence prevention program is not functioning to the extent that it should. Had the program successfully deterred sexual violence from happening in the first place, there would be far fewer reports for instances of sexual violence on campus. 

These numbers are estimated to be even more alarming among women of marginalized identities, and cases involving non-white women are frequently underreported, especially on college campuses. Moreover, though Black women, Indigenous women, disabled women and LGBTQ+ women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, our school’s required prevention program still centers white, straight, able-bodied women in discussions about sexual assault. The institutional barriers that exist for marginalized communities within our country’s education and criminal justice systems evidently bleed into the supposed equitable reporting opportunities — and support systems — for survivors of color. 

An example of students of color disproportionately suffering from sexual exploitation on college campuses can be observed at our very own university. Serial sexual abuser Dr. Robert Anderson, who assaulted over 950 students during his time at the University, is said to have targeted Black male athletes more than any other identity group. Jamie White, a lawyer for approximately 40 of Anderson’s survivors, cited the students’ first-generation and lower socioeconomic statuses as factors that made them increasingly vulnerable to Anderson’s abuse. Many of these Black athletes risked losing their athletic scholarships that enabled them to attend the University if they came forward with abuse claims. This horrific pattern alone proves the necessity of transforming our sexual violence prevention program to better serve students from a variety of backgrounds and social identities.

Aside from how our current sexual violence prevention program is oriented around white, straight, able-bodied identities, these sorts of programs are ineffective at actually preventing assault from occurring. A study focused on the difficulty of analyzing the effectiveness of these programs describes how there is a “lack of outcome studies that evaluate the event to which interventions have been effective at decreasing the actual rates of sexual assault.” In other words, little to no studies surrounding sexual assault prevention programs on college campuses can present empirical data that evaluate the effectiveness of these programs or measure learning directly after these programs are taught. 

Our university is an example of this: it can present data that demonstrate that students did, in fact, learn the material they were taught, but it cannot present data to show the actual efficacy of its sexual violence prevention program in reducing assaults. While this is difficult to measure, our top-tier research institution with a $17 billion endowment should still work to do so, otherwise these programs risk standing as merely performative acts by the University.

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) at the University of Michigan is an organization on campus that is taking important strides to create an equitable, sexually-safe environment for Michigan students. SAPAC offers a variety of meaningful programs, including a Self-Care Workshop, which helps to develop healing and self-care plans for each unique student survivor after enduring sexual violence; Michigan Man Box, which “focuses on orienting [specifically male] participants to conversations around masculinity and social dynamics.” 

Furthermore, SAPAC’s Disclosure Workshop that teaches participants “the four steps to responding to a disclosure of sexual assault.” Moreover, SAPAC importantly works to be inclusive of students of all different backgrounds in discussions of sexual violence prevention and survivor support, whether it be religion, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, socioeconomic status or ability status. However, SAPAC’s vital work is quite limited due to the fact that only a few of their aforementioned baseline programs are actually required for students to take. If the University were to require students to take the courses tailored to their specific backgrounds, such as specifically requiring freshmen men to take Michigan Man Box, our campus could see a much larger reduction in sexual violence cases because it is tackling the problem at its root. 

Our University should highly consider not just making baseline sexual violence prevention courses mandatory to incoming freshmen, but also making them gender-specific to help students unlearn their specific socialized misconceptions about sex and consent. Though mixed-gender sexual assault prevention programs can have some positive outcomes, they are “generally found to be less effective than single-gender programs,” according to a study of eight literature reviews that examined the effectiveness of prevention programs on college campuses. The study found that, when programs are sex-specific, all-female programs effectively improve “rape attitudes, behavioral intent, rape awareness, and knowledge about sexual assault,” while all-male programs effectively improve “rape-related attitudes and rape empathy” while “reducing rape-supportive behaviors and rape myth acceptance.” 

The study further concluded that single-gender programs that focused on Greek life members yield higher success for reducing rates of sexual violence on college campuses because they target the specific falsehoods that are more widespread in these student organizations. Michigan’s current failure to reflect how gender and social groups learn different messages about sex and consent in our required sexual violence prevention program only serves to exacerbate the ineffectuality of these programs.

Emphasizing the role of intersectionality and power relations in the greater context of sexual violence can also help to enhance the efficacy of these programs, as SAPAC works to do in their non-required workshops. Intersectionality, as coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, considers how social identities intersect to form a person’s unique experience with sex-based discrimination. The importance of intersectionality in discussions of sexual violence cannot be undermined: without addressing how sexual violence affects people of diverse sexualities, races, ability statuses and gender identities differently, we cannot begin to dismantle the systems of power that allow for sexual violence to continue. 

As one research article noticed, “we often incorporate ‘power-evasive, identity-neutral’ content into [college] prevention programs, a strategy that emerged from efforts to highlight that people of all genders experience sexual violence and for the purposes of reducing men’s resistance in prevention efforts […] However, as sexual violence is rooted in power, interventions that assume equity in the ability to negotiate consent or intervene to disrupt abusive behavior may be insufficient to promote sustained reductions in sexual violence.” 

We should ask why our University is prioritizing the comfort of its students of dominant identities who typically perpetuate sexual violence rather than prioritizing the comfort of marginalized groups who are targeted in instances of sexual violence. Intersectionality is even more necessary to combatting the falsehoods upon which sexual violence against marginalized communities is based. For example, an intersectional approach to sexual violence would not only acknowledge that Black women are frequently victimized by sexual assault but would also educate college students about how Black women in the United States are stereotyped as hypersexual, promiscuous, and immoral and, consequently, they are less likely to be believed and taken seriously as survivors of sexual violence. With this intersectional understanding of Black women who are survivors of assault, we can then incorporate anti-racism into our sexual assault prevention programs to effectively deconstruct commonly-held beliefs upon which sexual violence toward black women is based. Only when we address the systemic root of disproportionate sexual violence toward all marginalized groups can we begin to reduce sexual violence at our predominantly white institution.

If not most importantly, our University must promote its restorative justice initiatives for student survivors who are interested in pursuing justice outside of the legal system. Restorative justice is an innovative response to crime that seeks to center the survivor on the path of healing while addressing the root causes of sexual violence. As one academic paper describes, restorative justice “involves a face-to-face meeting where victims express harm, the perpetrator accepts responsibility, and participants develop an accountability plan.” This, of course, happens with the full and informed consent of both the survivor and the assailant. By reaching an agreement about “how the harm or wrongdoing can be repaired and justice achieved,” survivors of sexual violence are granted the opportunity to reclaim their voice and power from the assailant — centering survivors in the healing process rather than taking the power out of the survivor’s hands in a criminal court of law.

While this concept can be hard to conceptualize within our punitive-justice-oriented country, many survivors of sexual violence — including myself — cannot find peace in simply putting an offender behind bars. The aftermath of assault doesn’t go away when the assailant is removed from society; I, for one, would take much greater comfort in knowing that I could not only air my grievances and harm to the assailant but could also be directly involved in the accountability process to ensure that my assailant understood that what they did was wrong. This, too, is backed by evidence: in a study of 100 minor felony cases — including sexual assault cases — that were redirected to restorative justice models, “Ninety-one percent of victim participants who completed the survey reported that they would participate in another conference, and an equal number (91%) stated that they would recommend the process to a friend.” What’s more, within the 12 months that the restorative justice program was in place, the assailants “were 44% less likely to get a new sustained charge than [those] who were processed through the juvenile legal system.”  

It is absolutely necessary that our university demonstrates initiative to better our sexual assault prevention programs by requiring courses tailored to a student’s unique identities, more thoroughly incorporating an intersectional lens and promoting its restorative justice program. We cannot afford to allow for the pervasiveness of sexual violence or rape culture to survive on our campus a second longer. If our administration can take this message to heart, they can begin working for student survivors in a way that is not only comprehensive but also specific to each survivor. 

Sophia Lehrbaum is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at