US campuses struggle with ways to prevent sexual assault

A protest at Stanford University aimed at raising awareness of sexual assault on campus in the wake of the widespread attention brought by a rape case at the university.
A protest at Stanford University aimed at raising awareness of sexual assault on campus in the wake of the widespread attention brought by a rape case at the university. PHOTO: REUTERS

Some require female freshies to take prevention courses; critics call for male students to be taught about consent

When my daughter Leah and her girlfriends were preparing to start college two years ago, the excitement we felt as parents was tempered with some anxiety when the Obama administration released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints.

As an incoming freshman at the University of Michigan, which was on the list, Leah was required to complete an online course on sexual assault prevention. She also attended an information session focused on healthy relationships that included an unsuccessful demonstration by peer educators of how to put a condom on a banana and a discussion about giving and receiving sexual consent.

But just a few weeks into her first semester, a student reported being sexually assaulted in the central quad on campus, and two young women she knew said they had been raped while on dates. (The University of Michigan treats specific cases of reported sexual misconduct confidentially, so it wouldn't confirm or deny the assaults happened.) In the ensuing two years, the national conversation about sexual assault on campuses has intensified, culminating recently in an enormous outcry over a sexual assault case at Stanford University. As a result, most colleges have increased their sexual assault prevention and education programmes. Mr Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the University of Michigan, for instance, said it continued to build and refine its approach.

It is still too early to measure the effect of these efforts. Some surveys show the number of incidents is on the rise. But is that because more assaults are happening, or because more women feel empowered to report them?

I asked several college-age women I know whether they thought the programmes in place at their schools were having an impact.

Ms Arielle Swedback, who will be a junior next year at the University of California, Berkeley (and is Leah's close friend), also completed an online course as an incoming freshman and attended a mandatory "Bear Pact" event on campus, which focused on how to intervene when a student sees someone in a potentially dangerous situation.

"I don't think it was effective," said Ms Swedback, who has covered the issue as a student journalist. "Freshman year, most of my female friends had been in situations where they felt unsafe or harassed, and a handful have had serious assault issues."

Leah is fearful enough of assault that she does not go to parties or social events alone. She recalled being out one Saturday night, "talking to a frat brother who is a friend of a friend. We were talking for maybe a minute and he put his hand up my shorts and said, 'Do you want to go home and bang?' I told him, 'Don't touch me,' and that he needed to have some respect for women... He laughed in my face".

Campus sexual assault is a complex problem, largely because of its ever-shifting definition. Drawing distinctions between rape, assault, sexual misconduct and genuine misunderstanding can be difficult. Frank conversations about responsibility are often bogged down by other concerns, like the use of politically correct language and fears of being perceived as blaming victims.

Ms Moriah Schindler, who will be a senior next year at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said she had been in situations she wouldn't consider assault but in which sexual activity was clearly expected simply because she was dancing or talking with men. She said she was frustrated with the constant objectification of women, herself included, on campus.

"It seems like the majority of guys I interact with expect a hook-up in the end," she said.

Mr Matt Kaiser, a lawyer whose Washington firm, KaiserDillon, has represented male college students accused of rape and sexual assault, said he had seen an increase in cases that didn't fit the definition of assault but that seemed instead to grow out of serious misunderstandings and miscommunication.

"Right now, schools are creating new norms for sex and sexual contact that may be better but aren't what people have known in the past," he said. "And men are following an unspoken set of rules that they have been following for decades, and, when a charge comes, men often feel blindsided."

Some of his clients believed they were involved in a consensual act of intimacy when suddenly something changed: It could be that the man became physical beyond the woman's comfort level, or that both parties were intoxicated and the next day the woman reported that she had been too drunk to give consent. "It's very hard to know where the line is drawn," Mr Kaiser said.

UC Berkeley said in an e-mail that prevention education was challenging because students come to college with views shaped by cultural and societal norms.

Experts acknowledge that innovative solutions are needed, but they say this requires data, of which there is very little. "It's only been in the last two years that we've seen a flush of federal funding available to drive research," said Ms Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Centre at the University of Michigan.

Some of the most innovative approaches so far rely on students to influence and teach their peers. The Green Dot programme, for example, was developed at the University of Kentucky in 2008 and has been adopted by other colleges and by some Kentucky high schools. It trains students to intervene and defuse potentially dangerous situations (the green dot symbolises the choice to stop violence).

It is one of the few programmes for which data exists. A five-year study evaluating its effectiveness in Kentucky high schools found a fall of more than 50 per cent in the frequency of sexual assaults by students at schools that had the training, against a slight rise in frequency at schools that did not. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed more than 100 studies of sexual violence prevention programmes and found that those like Green Dot had positive effects.

The Get Explicit 101 programme at the University of Oregon uses a "train the trainer" model: Students are trained to train other students to lead workshops. There is also a Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team of students who lead theatre-based prevention training during the school year. The university also set up a sexual violence prevention leadership board for fraternities and sororities. "We know from the research that having multiple approaches is essential to have any impact," said its director of sexual violence prevention and education Kerry Frazee.

To educate football players, Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, turned to someone they could relate to: Don McPherson, a Heisman Trophy runner-up from Syracuse University and a former NFL player who now works to prevent sexual and domestic violence.

The college's president, Mr Steven DiSalvo, said Mr McPherson proposed real-life situations for the players that usually involve alcohol and women, and then asks questions like: "At breakfast the next morning, what will your friends ask you?" Players offer answers such as "Did you hit it?" and "Did you smack it?" Mr McPherson then points out that they are objectifying a human being. "He asks them, 'Would you speak to your mother or sister this way?'," Mr DiSalvo said. "And that's really changed the conversation."

Mr Kaiser, however, said he was "deeply pessimistic" that current prevention education efforts would be able to counteract the messaging that students receive before they get to college. "We don't have meaningful sexual education in middle and high school, and I think what's filling the void for kids is porn," he said. "That is where they are getting information about gender roles and how courtship is supposed to work."

Few parents I spoke with had had specific, pre-college conversations with their children about sexual assault. But many described conversations at home about respecting and protecting others.

All said they had discussed safety with their daughters but not their sons, except for marriage and family therapist Esther Boykin, who is CEO of Group Therapy Associates outside Washington, DC. She said she had spoken with her son, who will be a college junior next year, because her work had put sexual assault and consent at the top of her mind. "About 75 per cent of my female clients had traumatic experiences in college, almost always sexual assault," she said.

Education around campus sexual assault is focused mostly on teaching young women to be vigilant, but that isn't helping young men, Ms Boykin said. "Education shouldn't be only prevention-focused, because then we don't teach boys what consent looks like. And for some boys that lack of education leads to very misguided assumptions," she said. "We have to start teaching boys and young men what to do instead of simply telling young women what not to do."

The University of Michigan has come to the same conclusion. It has shifted from education aimed at reducing risks, which its own research showed was unlikely to change student behaviour, to focusing more on increasing awareness about the need for consent. In the university's most recent campus climate survey, a majority of students said that in the previous year they had sought consent "all of the time or some of the time". That's far from a sea change, but it's a start.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'US campuses struggle with ways to prevent sexual assault'. Print Edition | Subscribe