Sexual Assault Epidemic on Campus

founder of better-brave

I started my interviews with a peer. I had originally scheduled the call with her to talk about what excited me about this class, but as the call went on, it became clear that this should count as my first interview, as both of us have had personal experiences with the problem as students and as women in the workplace. Right now, she runs a company that she founded that helps women seek assistance outside of HR to report sexual harassment claims. In her experience, HR has failed to help her because their jobs were to protect the company’s interest… which actually meant protecting C-level executives with issues rather than female employees. For that reason, she was able to provide specific insights into the culture that causes sexual assault. During the interview, she mentioned that she feels that the cultural part of the problem has two poles: One pole is that systems of privilege and power can easily be abused and used to harm others. The other part of the problem was that many of the perpetrators are just truly ignorant to the fact that they are causing others harm. They literally have no idea that they are causing others harm. She cites how she led workshops at many workplaces… in these workshops, she would make sure to say that her educational space was a “safe space” for all genders to ask all questions. Many men came forward in the meeting admitting they didn’t know or understand the #metoo movement. Others admitted they have no idea what is appropriate and what isn’t, and that they don’t know how to read body cues. Others felt they were good men, but would make ignorant remarks like “I don’t understand why I should have to learn to use a different pronoun for a transgendered person” without realizing how hurtful they were being. In her perspective, the problem is “masculinity” and how it is man-ufactured by society as a role. She thinks that men are being unconsciously trained to enact masculinity in a particular way, and simultaneously we are training women to enact femininity in a particular way. This cultural coding results in both masculine “power” trips that abuse those who occupy feminine roles, and also ignorant reifications of what they take to be “obvious reality”…. To her, prevention lies in education and disassembling these structural privilages afforded to men.


Title 9 Officer at Harvard

The next interview I conducted was with a Title 9 officer at Harvard. Her interview was incredibly rich with insights of both the history of how Harvard, an elite institution with tons of money and resources, chose to design a particular set of support structures and the rationale behind them. In this paragraph I couldn’t possibly do the conversation justice, she was fantastically helpful! As a listener, it became clear that Harvard is *crushing it* in terms of the recourses they are providing to victims. There are so many kinds of resources, that a victim can kind of “choose their own adventure” for what they want to do about what happened to them. There’s title 9 for people who want justice in a judicial sense. There are support networks for people who want therapy and a variety of modalities so you can choose what therapy you need. Immediately, it became clear that perhaps support for victims or better police weren’t the answers for how to make more improvements for the issue… harvard was doing an excellent job in terms of both those things! The real thing that is harder to change is the cultural aspect of the problem—otherwise, you can only improve the response after the crime is committed and add security measures that make it harder to commit the crime, both of which are being addressed by Harvard’s massive amount of resources. And it’s not clear if the resources for victims or crime preventions or the policy is even having an impact at all. She cites how there were always resources for women, but it wasn’t until recently that Title 9 became this institutional “power” on campus that has created and enacted a policy that all students, faculty, and staff must obey. She says the main role is to hold and possess a definition of what sexual harassment is. We talked about how enacting institutional power around defining sexual harassment has huge benefits, it is hard to tell what effect it will have on the university. She mentioned that despite having a great system to report the assault, it is still so stigmatizing to do it, that many never get to use those fabulous resources. For example, a grad student that is assaulted by the most big-name professor in their field may never be able to come forward about it because of the power dynamics. nShe mentioned that there was a survey of the problem of sexual harassment on campus in 2015, and there will be a new one conducted this year that will be able to show if there has been an improvement.

I was fascinated by how she described how the different parts of the institution came together. There were many smaller organizations that all worked at the problem from different angles. She attended Harvard and was part of the student advocate group. now, as an officer in title 9, she maintains a connection with this student group so that they can, as she says, “keep each other honest.” the student group advocates for the students and helps to voice complaints that then filter back through the title 9 office and thus shape policy. She was also able to outline how there were multiple places on campus where education happens. She cited a group called OASPR who is responsible for cultural programming and changes like education about “affirmative consent”. Interestingly, this is not the cultural value enforced by the policy in title nine, which uses the language of “unwanted sexual conduct.” I asked her why this is, and she said that it was a choice to use “unwanted sexual conduct” because it is more nuanced for judiciary reasons and is more specific. This suddenly elucidated something to me: “affirmative consent” is a cultural education message because it is trying to re-educate both women and men at the same time… it tells women that “hey, you should be more upfront about what you want and need, because you have been trained to enact *passivity* as a part of your role as a female, which means that you might fail to communicate that you do not want someone’s sexual advances, and possess the inaccurate belief that you have to just endure it because that’s what it means to be a woman”. and it tells men “hey, you should listen to the subtle and obvious body cues of others because you have been trained to be *active* and often that means you neglect to pay attention to what other people are feeling and thinking and instead focus on how you can get what you want; there’s no reason to villainize you for that because it’s how you’ve been trained, but, seriously, start paying attention to this.” Among others, she pointed me to learn more about a specific person whose entire role is to be a safe space for men who believe they may have harmed someone to go and talk about what happened and learn from their mistakes. I was floored when I heard that this is a resource that is actually available on campus—that was exactly what tammy was asking for.

Staff Psychologist specializing in Victims of Sexual Misconduct  at Stanford

after such an interesting conversation with the title 9 officer at Harvard, I thought it would be interesting to do a “comparative anthropology/structural analysis” of how the same institution is composed at another school. Being an alum of Stanford (I was class of 2017) I remembered a lot of the institutions and how they were set up and was able to quickly get in touch with someone at Stanford. Although I had contacted the title 9 office, I was put in touch with someone who occupied a very different institutional role than the woman I spoke with at Harvard. As I learned from her, not all schools have the same “designed eco-system” of support and institutional measures made to combat sexual assault. The woman I spoke to at Harvard often used critical theory terms and structural analysis in order to speak about the problem. Yet something different was happening with the woman I talked to at Stanford. Her role was in the CST group, which is based in the health services group on campus. She was a psychologist primarily and spoke about the problem from a very social sciences angle. She was fascinated by different statistics than the title 9 officer. She readily admitted that Stanford has one of the highest rates of sexual assault. She also reported an interesting statistic: while on-campus women of the same age, comparatively to off-campus women of the same age, are less likely to experience sexual assault… on-campus men, comparatively to off-campus men of the same age, are more likely to experience sexual assault. We talked for a while about these stats and what story they might be telling. Both of us settled on “woah. this problem is really gnarly and weird” at the end of exploring several possible meanings. I have come away thinking that this is the problem with social sciences: they can provide data that show us what the reality currently is, but they cannot tell us the solution or how to be. You have to run “experiments” of ways to build a social reality and use social science data to map causality. Ultimately, in terms of causality, she thinks that there are so many levels to this issue: institutional, cultural and individual. In her mind, part of the problem is that we live in a culture that glorifies sex and gives it esteem and privilege and power to men who have it and to women to wield their desirability as a weapon. And yet at the same time that our culture glorifies this and uses sex as a status symbol, our culture fails to teach us enough about what’s going on for people to “get” the big picture of what is happening. Sex education for my entire generation, she says, was most likely porn; which is basically like trying to get an education about astrology by watching Star Wars. She talked about how alcohol is not truly causal… because it has many uses. It might cause people to make dumb choices that don’t reflect their sober beliefs… it might also be weaponized against women by men who want to, as she said, “have sex at all costs.” She says that both happen, and that’s why alcohol regulation is so complicated and is an incomplete solution because it doesn’t radically solve the issue. Being a clinical psychologist, she also talked about how students in college are still adolescents, and that might account for why they make “immature and dumb decisions”. That kind of claim makes me think about “boys will be boys” and made me question her rhetoric and if she was implicitly putting the blame on women for not protecting themselves from a dangerous reality by making that claim. She also mentioned that

She also mentioned that if you look at studies from 20 years ago, we’re seeing the same rates of sexual assault… which really brings up a deeper question of the efficacy of these systems and how they’re set up. From her perspective as a psychologist, the judicial systems are ultimately not helpful at preventing crime. She says that just recently a group called SERA has begun to release a bunch of very powerful and effective pedagogical cultural programming sessions, but its too soon to know if they will be effective. Hearing from her, I was extremely surprised to hear that even though it feels like I have been there so recently, Stanford’s resources have grown exponentially even during the time I was there. As I found out, a lot of the most key and progressive resources weren’t even available until after I had already left!

I was also surprised to see that Harvard and Stanford have somewhat similar structures in terms of the services they provide. They have the title 9 office which is in charge of policy and institutional/recourses-type help (like being placed in a new dorm or requesting a restraining order from a classmate who assaulted them). There’s also a group that deals with cultural programming. and beyond that, there are student-oriented groups. At Stanford, they have title 9 which also does investigations. they have CST which does a private and confidential consultation, SERA which does cultural programming. Despite their similarities, which I brought up in the interview, The psychologist insisted that there are many ways of doing things. For example, she says that Princeton has a distributed model in which there are confidential resources in each department, which all feed into the centralized title 9 system. This all reminded me a little bit of Bruno Latour’s argument about the modern constitution. I was fascinated at how we divide up the structural institutions that deal with a problem that is so multi-faceted. Where we draw the lines of responsibility is super fascinating. In both interviews, they brought up about how important messaging is—it tells students what kind of resources they will receive.

closing thoughts

In reading between these two interviews, I came to realize that there have always been resources for victims and there have always been cops. Now, there are more people to help these victims, but that doesn’t reduce the rate of the crime (or rather, in 2019 Spring we will know if the increases in resources at Harvard and Stanford have had an impact on the rate of the crime). I asked all three “What areas are you not working on that you wish you could?/if you had magic powers, what would you do to address the issue?” and all three mentioned that cultural change as being the area of most opportunity for causing change, but due to their institutional roles, they couldn’t really take part in that part of the change. That was where they drew the boundary line… but that was for the benefit of the whole system, surprisingly! in providing clinical, psychological and judicial systems independent from dogma or belief, they couldn’t be threatened by any groups’ beliefs. We can all agree that rape is a crime and that it needs to be treated as one…  even if in private you insist that your frat brother Joe who hooked up with a sleeping girl at that college party to make his brothers laugh is a “truly good guy”. The cultural issue seems to be centered in gendered privilege structures, and this applies both to cases of “ignorant abuses of power” as well as tyrannical abuses of power. Part of the problem is rooted in a culture that teaches men to be active and neglect the wants and needs of others, which encourages them to use their privilege to blindly hurt others. Another part of the problem is that we train women to be passive—making them think they can’t stand up and demand what they want.

What will happen if we start training men to be gentle as the most “desirable and powerful” form of masculinity? What will happen if we start training women to be Brave and courageous, and prove to men that these are desirable, admirable, even sexy qualities? in doing so, we’d be educating men to disassemble their structural privilege. wait. that’s going to be SUPER hard. Why? because the privilege is what benefits them… so why would they ever be incentivized to decrease what benefits them??? 

That’s the kind of stuff that this woman wants to know.





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