Addressing Sexual Assault on College CampusesApril 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.