Letter to the Editor: What individual citizens can do to combat campus sexual assault

  1. Educate yourself about the dynamics of sexual assault
  2. Hold you and your peers accountable
  3. Know how to respond to a friend
  4. Continue working with the university response to these issue
  5. Don’t rape people

In last week’s DePaulia, students raised issues surrounding how the DePaul community is dealing with sexual assault. As a former rape victim advocate, a researcher on improving the response to sexual assault, and a faculty member of the DePaul community I care deeply about how these issues play out at DePaul. I’ve also seen that rape isn’t just an issue between the victim and the rapist. The broader community context—through it values, norms, policies, resources, organizations, and so on—can make a very real impact on the issue of rape, for the better or for the worse. The students’ letters underscore the importance of tangible action, now. So, how can each of us—students, faculty, staff, and administrators—as individual citizens of the DePaul community act to combat sexual assault?

Educate yourself about the dynamics of sexual assault. There are widespread myths about what “counts” as sexual assault, who it happens to and why. Students, faculty, staff, and administrators can deal with sexual assault effectively when they have an informed understanding of how it plays out for our students.

Hold your peers and yourself accountable to creating an atmosphere that is intolerant of sexual assault. How a community talks and acts with regards to issues of gender, consent, sexuality, and rape can influence the perpetration of sexual assault and the response to victims. Research on sexual assault perpetration reveals that a small minority of men commit sexual assault. However, those that do tend to hold misogynistic attitudes toward women and perceive that sexual assaulting women is normative and believe that their peers are supportive of that type of behavior. Actions and words that support the objectification of women, minimize the problem of rape, blame the victim rather than the perpetrator, and endorse the coercion of women contribute to a culture that is conducive to rape. When these actions occur and people stay silent, the minority of men who do rape may see that as an endorsement of those beliefs. Common examples on college campuses include making rape jokes, consuming media that treats women as sexual objects that are acted upon rather than people, saying that sexual assault is just women who regret consensual sex the night before, saying that women asked for it, or planning to get women drunk in order to have sex with them. When you see people blaming the victim, minimizing rape, and objectifying or coercing women, speak up about why those actions aren’t acceptable.

Know how to be supportive if this happens to another member of the DePaul community. Educate yourself about how you should response if someone discloses to you that they have been sexually assaulted. Refrain from suggesting that they may not have been sexually assaulted, that they should have done something to prevent the assault, or questioning the victim’s story of behavior. While this may be intended to protect them in the future, this can be very hurtful to victims, especially right after the assault. Instead listen, and let them know that you are sorry that this happened to them. Educate yourself about the resources that are available at DePaul (e.g., counseling, the campus judicial process, advocacy) and in the broader Chicago community (medical/forensic services, filing a report with the criminal justice system, rape crisis centers) and help them make an informed choice about which types of assistance they do and do not want. If you can, keep your conversation confidential so that they don’t have to worry about the story going around campus.

Continue working with the university response to sexual assault. DePaul students have been very active in the past two years in discussions of DePaul policies, resources, programs, and responses to sexual violence on campus. A university response to sexual assault will be most effective when it is informed by the people that are most affected by the issue. Students, faculty, and staff have an important perspective on how policies affect them and what resources, training, and education need to be in place for the community to be effective at preventing and responding to sexual assault. Keep sharing this feedback with the university leaders. Faculty, students, and staff also need to help take ownership over the solutions. Consider creating or joining a student organization or creating a committee that will help with efforts to educate the community and help take action to prevent and respond to sexual assault.

Don’t rape. While the broader community can help to create a climate that is intolerant of sexual assault, and create resources, programs, and policies that protect victims and hold rapists accountable, ultimately the responsibility to end rape lies in the hands of people who are committing sexual assault. Always get an enthusiastic yes from a sexual partner. Never assume that other actions (like how they are dressed, how they danced with you, being willing to go back to your place, the fact that you are dating, etc.) communicate that someone wants to have sex with you. Someone may be potentially interested in sexual activity, but ultimately decide that they don’t want to and that choice should always be respected. Check that they want to in the moment rather than making an assumption that could have serious consequences for both of you. If someone says no, I don’t want to, don’t keep touching them, hoping to change their mind and don’t take silence to mean consent. Sometimes people, especially women, “freeze up” and aren’t able to say no even when they don’t want to be touched. So, if you aren’t sure whether someone wants to engage in sexual activity—err on the side of caution and ask. Never use substances like date rape drugs or alcohol to lower someone’s ability to resist your sexual advances-that’s rape. Never sexually touch someone that is unconscious or asleep—that’s rape. If a person is too drunk to drive, they aren’t capable of saying no. If you are attracted to each other, it can wait until both people are sober and truly want sexual activity to happen. Always get an enthusiastic yes from a sexual partner.