Addressing Sexual Assault on College Campuses

April 08, 2009

One course I am taking as part of my master’s in international media and conflict resolution is Communication and Social Change. This hands-on course provides students practical skills through the planning and implementation of a social change (social marketing) campaign over the course of one semester. The issue we chose to focus on for the semester was sexual assault on the university campus.

Almost immediately, the class split into two camps: those who loved the idea and those who loathed it (or at least had their doubts). The next two hours of that first class were filled with heated debate about victims and perpetrators, reporting and promoting empowerment. Coming back the next week, I noticed that the students had thinned out. Looking over the roster, I realized six students had dropped the course, all of them women. From 25 we were down to 19. With the remaining students, we divided ourselves into four groups, with each responsible for a different aspect of the campaign: digital media, video, communications, and public engagement. In an attempt to learn something new, I stuck myself in the video production group responsible for filming and editing the video component of the campaign.

The students in the class spent weeks learning tricks of the trade from media experts and debating the value of reaching potential victims versus potential perpetrators, addressing undergraduates versus graduates, promoting positive relationships or encouraging assault reporting. We decided to promote healthy relationships, encouraging open dialogue and explicit consent.

While I think this class is teaching invaluable skills in an innovative and relevant way, I have come to a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding sexual assault on college campuses and the difficulties that come with preventive campaigns. For example, because the sexual assault issue is plagued by low incident reporting rates, it is easy to dismiss the problem; in essence higher reporting might look to an outsider like higher occurrences of sexual assault.

A 2008–09 AAUW Community Action Grant program called Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER) is battling the issue of sexual assault on university campuses nationwide. According to the SAFER website, “SAFER is a national nonprofit organization committed to empowering students to hold colleges accountable for sexual assault in their on- and off-campus communities.” One of the initiatives started by SAFER, and supported through the Community Action Grant, is a database of university policies on sexual assault. School policies as well as commentary about positive and negative aspects of the policies can be found in the database. The goal of this project is to raise awareness of what makes a good policy and which schools are implementing good policies.

The home page of the SAFER website tells an illustrative and sadly common story of a college freshman who was raped and who then approaches the dean of students about the incident, only to be asked accusatory questions and ultimately dismissed. In working on this campaign, I have heard similar stories about victims on college campuses being unsure where to turn, public safety officials showing no sensitivity to the issue, and authorities taking little action. Before these issues even come into play, potential victims face many other barriers, including an uncertainty of what sexual assault is, an unwillingness to report an acquaintance to the authorities, and/or a refusal to personally face the facts of what happened.

Now that Sexual Assault Awareness Month is here, we are in the final stages of creating our campaign, which is called “The Yes Campaign.” The videos have been shot and edited, the website (and all its social marketing components) is up and running, and the press kits are being sent out. As my class prepares for the big launch of the campaign, I am continually reminded of the challenges of addressing sexual assault on college campuses and the importance of looking to forward-thinking organizations such as SAFER if we hope to make a difference in fighting sexual assault on our college campus.

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By:   |   April 08, 2009


  1. Deborah says:

    I am the survivor of a sexual assault of the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, LA back in 1977. It was a life changing event.

    The assault took place in broad daylight, so it seemed fairly obvious that the attackers feared little. And the assault was not random.

    Not only were the authorities unresponsive, the back lash I received from my own mother for going to the police, another story, carries on to this very day.

    At that time, I knew that there was a high incidence of rape on and around the campus and had been urging women to report it and prosecute where possible. Law enforcements’ approach ensured that very few would ever see it through to prosecution. I found out why and how with my own.

    After all of these years, I feel compelled to point out that there is still a bias against women in many parts of the country no matter the veneer and PC words utilized.

    There is a professorship named for father at the law school at LSU and one or two named for my uncle. I believe that still opens some doors though I may have to wedge a foot in them once they are, people are squeamish regarding this topic. I would be curious to see if they have changed their reporting practices for DOJ statistics.

    Deborah Daniels

  2. September 2009, SAFER dedicated to training and mentoring to college students who want to change how their college prevents and responds to sexual assault is part of an online contest to win $10,000. The contest is entirely voter-determined, and we need your help to get the most votes! The $10,000 prize will go directly to an exciting new project, currently underway, that includes vastly expanding and improving our College Sexual Assault Policies Database and launching our online student resource library. This will take only a few minutes of your time, is completely free, and will not result in spam but it will mean so much to us. To vote, please visit this link:

    When you click on the ‘VOTE’ button, it ask you to login/register. Include your name, email address, and a password. Ideablob will send you an email to confirm your registration – this is a very important step in the process, so please make sure you fully register. After you confirm, click on the above link one more time. Then ‘VOTE’ for our idea! Thanks!

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