Sexual assault on college campuses and institutional initiatives to combat it

By: Simone Harstead, student at Beloit College

Last fall, the Association of American Universities conducted a national survey of 150,000 students from 27 colleges and found that 27.2 percent of women on college campuses are victims of unwanted sexual contact. 13.5% of respondents experienced unwanted penetration, attempted penetration, or forced oral sex.

This has been a longstanding problem and one that has only recently been addressed, but few numbers reported have been as high as those in the study. At some schools, such as Yale and the University of Michigan, the rates of sexual assault against women are above 34%.

A main concern of the study is the 19% response rate, a percentage that is particularly low. This has led some critics to claim that only those who have experienced sexual assault would answer, creating a problem for advocates. Another criticism is that what some may deem as sexual assault, such as light touching, is not universally agreed upon, and that the numbers are inflating the actual problem because of it.

Even if underreporting is present, one cannot deny the legitimacy of this problem that has become entrenched in our culture. Regardless of the number of college or university sexual assaults, the issue is severe and should not be trivialized.

Recently, there has been an unprecedented national pushback on campus sexual assault and an increase in media coverage. Under the Obama Administration, the first ever White House task force on college sexual assault was created, and therefore indicated the severity of the problem. Campuses are beginning to address sexual assault more to reflect the needs of their students and communities.

I go to school in Wisconsin, where there are many new initiatives to combat the rampant sexual assault on campuses. UW-Madison, a state university nearby, was one of the schools that participated in the survey.  They reported that 27.6% of women undergraduates experienced sexual assault while attending the institution. A large and significant component of sexual assault on their campus is alcohol. Women reported that in 76.1% of penetration by force incidents, the offender had been drinking alcohol.

In the past few years, UW-Madison has taken steps to combat this issue. Since last fall, a prevention program required for undergraduates titled “Tonight” addresses sexual assault, consent, and dating violence. Most recently, the university police department started a campaign, “Don’t Be That Guy,” focusing on the fact that perpetrators of rape and sexual assault are most usually people that know the victim and not the stereotypical serial rapist in the bushes. The campaign also urges students who know perpetrators to speak out and be an ally instead of silently condoning sexual assault.

Many other areas and schools have been responding to the presence of sexual assault. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a Take Back the Night event was organized by students after a fraternity was suspended for slipping date rape drugs into drinks at a party. At Marquette University, various fraternities have been warned after reports of sexual misconduct and were required to undergo training through student misconduct channels. Many universities have included freshman initiatives, like UW-Madison, that outline consent and the sexual activity policy on campus.

After researching other universities, I became interested in the institution I attend, Beloit College. National conversations about sexual assault at small colleges are rare, and with a student body of 1,400, Beloit will most likely not be involved in nationwide surveys. Because the statistics aren’t as shocking or the school as well-known, the media is not as interested; however, sexual assault still happens everywhere. At my school, the topic has become ubiquitous and clearly something that needs to be addressed.

I spoke with Christina Klawitter, Beloit’s Dean of Students, about sexual assault on the campus. We looked into the most recent crime reports of the school, and there have not been more than nine rapes in a year in at least six years. Although that can appear to be a relatively low number, Klawitter expressed that in reality, it may be an underreported number and that she would rather see the numbers reported go up in order to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault and then be able to address the issue more effectively.

The Beloit College administration and community has put significant amounts of time and energy into combating this issue. About 20% of Klawitter’s time is dedicated to it, and she has helped with many new projects. She is currently teaching a class that I am enrolled in, What is sex for?, with the intention of analyzing the idea of a healthy sexuality and how we navigate it in college. Additionally, the Title IX Coordinator and Task force have begun an initiative that offers a developmentally based curriculum that fosters students’ sense of sexual agency, examine the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault, increase bystander awareness, and create an environment that is more effective when faced with sexual assault.

Students have integrated their own ideas as well: Caitlin Paterson, an honors-term student at Beloit College, founded Men Against Sexual Violence, which creates an environment with less sexual assault through discourse, education, and events. Students organized Take Back the Night events, conversations on sexual assault, and held a lecture with Jackson Katz, a speaker who emphasizes the importance of  intervention by men as bystanders to assault. There are now many spheres within the college that not only publicize the fact that there is a problem on our campus, but also how to eradicate it.

The Association of American Universities’ reports are undoubtedly alarming, but they the potential generate meaningful responses in our communities. Through the initiatives at Beloit College, and other universities in Wisconsin and around the nation, there will hopefully be short-term and long-term change that helps make campuses, and communities, a safer place.

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