March Forth to Respect Women

Sign from Rally for Gender Equality in Bushnell Park, April 2012.

State Rep. Hewett made a corny joke, which some imaginative individuals construed as a sexual reference. Both the intern to whom the comment was directed, and Matt Fleury of the Connecticut Science Center, have said they were unaware of any controversial remark until it was reported on by the news. The politician apologized, the intern accepted the apology, and a rational person would expect this to be the end of story. Yet days later, in what seems more like character assassination than true concern about respect for females, there remain those who feel Hewett will not have made amends until he resigns.

Like the outrage over the Onion’s recent tweet, the outrage over Hewett’s remarks is not about respecting females. It can’t even be called outrage. Armchair activism has been reduced to 140 character spurts of reactionary anger, often not based on any context.

While this rage is blowing up on Twitter and Facebook, attention spans have been whittled down so far that few can digest the actual widespread violence against women.

In January, Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services (CONNSACS) released its 2012 Campus Report Card. The organization surveyed 21 four-year and four two-year higher education institutions in Connecticut last summer. Anything lower than an ‘A’ grade should be unacceptable, but with marks ranging from A-F, this report card was still received as, at most critical, “mixed” by reporters.

According to CONNSACS, “up to one in four women experience unwanted sexual intercourse while attending college in the United States” and “one in twelve college men admit to acts that meet the legal definition of rape.” Regardless of what grades our state’s colleges and universities earned on this report card, sexual assault and rape continue to impact the women on campuses throughout Connecticut.

The survey sought information on whether or not schools had clear definitions of sexual assault, along with where this information was posted. Some institutions do not have an option for reporting these crimes anonymously; there is no consistency across the State community colleges and four-year universities. Some institutions even have time limits for reporting assaults.

Among all colleges and universities in Connecticut, there was wide variation in how these institutions informally deal with sexual assaults. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy, for instance, will relocate the victim or change the victim’s class, but has no policy for relocating the offender. Other institutions have some mixture, while still others have no recorded way of informally addressing such situations.

For the category of “Mandatory sexual assault education for student members of Greek Life,” the four-year colleges and universities in Connecticut earned an ‘F’. Anyone who has spent time on local campuses knows there remains at least one fraternity that has been dubbed by students as the “rape house.”

In these times, receiving public backlash often leads to backpedaling, as seen everywhere from Facebook when it tries to change its Terms of Service, to politicians who reverse their stance depending on how the wind is blowing that day.  On certain college campuses, it is no different. Attempts to revise the general policies of fraternities and sororities are typically met with opposition.

Campus-wide sexual assault education is always needed, but should not replace a Greek Life-specific requirement. When one hears former Connecticut college and university students speak about their experiences, such a mandate is demystified. Think about hazing that involves every frat member having sex with the same young woman. Think about “brothers” covering for each others’ sexual assaults. Think about occasions when fraternity members have turned on each other with physical brutality to retaliate for sexual assaults and harassment that will never be reported to the proper authorities. Preventing this particular brand of sexual assault serves the more enlightened individuals involved in Greek Life who want to distance themselves from the negative stereotypes that have been generated by otherwise unchecked aggression. Groupthink is something that needs to be addressed separately from the education given to a broader audience.

According to CONNSACS, “90% of women who are sexually assaulted on campus know the person who sexually assaulted them.” With this kind of data, it seems that rape prevention education that focused on handing out whistles and pointing women in the direction of blue lights would be a thing of the past. In its report, CONNSACS writes:

Many campus programs focus on risk reduction strategies such as watching your drink, using the buddy system, and learning self‐defense techniques.  Risk reduction strategies focus on the ways that women
can ward off possible sexual assaults and often reinforce victim blaming, rather than focusing on the
perpetrators of sexual violence and their behaviors.  Prevention strategies focus on stopping the
perpetration of sexual violence before it occurs and reinforce offender accountability.

In short, these institutions should be teaching that the way to prevent rape is by not raping.

When it comes to mandatory sexual assault education for first year students, colleges and universities in state received a ‘B’. Though better than a failing grade, not all colleges require Residential Life to run sexual assault programs. Another obvious flaw here is that the first-year programs do not reach those students transferring after the first year from an institution where such education is not provided. If that education is required only for students living on campus, it does not include those who change their status from that of commuter to resident at a later date. Would it make sense to revisit this education every year for residential students?

While the schools received an ‘A’ for requiring Residential Life staff to receive sexual assault education,  they only pulled a ‘D’ for mandated sexual assault training for Campus Response Team or Sexual Assault Response Team members. Having a CRT/SART received a mere lukewarm ‘C’. Those responsible for sanctions — the Judicial Hearing Board members — may also have lacked in that mandatory sexual assault training component. Training for campus police is another item that earned colleges and universities a ‘C’. In other words, the person who often acts as a First Responder — the Residential Advisor — has great training, but the survivors’ ongoing needs might not be met depending on which campus he or she is on.

Rape and sexual assault are notoriously under-reported crimes. CONNSACS writes that “forty two percent of college women who are sexually assaulted tell no one about the assault.” The organization states that an “estimated five percent of all sexual assaults are reported to the police.” When a victim feels that reporting this crime may not result in anything but the pain of reliving it, what motivation does (usually) she have to speak out?

A ‘C’ — adequate — may be acceptable for a student’s Basket Weaving course, but when it comes to matters of safety, law enforcement, justice, and healing, we have to ask ourselves why we are not compelled to rage against mediocrity. This matters at least as much as a satirist’s or politician’s failed joke.

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