Not Sweeping Sexual Assault Under the Rug

There has been a lot of media attention lately about universities sweeping rape/sexual assault under the proverbial rug.  I coordinate the Respect Program in Emory University’s Office of Health Promotion, and our mission is to engage the Emory community to prevent and respond to sexual assault and relationship violence. I want to address the nuances of not-sweeping-sexual-assault-under-the-rug from the three perspectives from which I work: advocate, health promotion professional, and administrator. Our approach must be comprehensive and attentive to the complexities of the issue. We must envision the campuses that we want, not just correct mistakes that have been made or ensure adherence to policy alone.

As an advocate, I work with students who have experienced interpersonal violence and advise and mentor our student advocacy group, Sexual Assault Peer Advocates.  In order to create a campus in which sexual assault is truly addressed, we must all learn how to support survivors.  We need to ask them what they want without making assumptions.  I work to help survivors feel safer and to have access to the same experience at Emory as students who have not experienced sexual assault. This is not my work alone.  All members of the Emory community can advocate for survivors by believing them, supporting them, knowing the resources available on campus, not telling “rape jokes” or perpetuating a culture that endorses violence, and including these issues in the university discourse on multiple levels.

As a health promotion professional and prevention educator, I think about proactive engagement and culture change. Supporting survivors is critical, but our vision in the Respect Program does not stop at the point of all survivors having support.  Our vision is an Emory community where all students “learn, work, play, and love*” without experiencing or fearing sexual assault or relationship violence.  To do this we must prioritize prevention—stopping sexual assault or abuse in a relationship BEFORE it happens.  We must provide education on multiple levels and promote a community that cares for and watches out for each other.  As the most sexual assault occurs during the first six weeks of the semester, we must take a layered approach that stresses early intervention and conversation.  WE must work for social justice, as oppression underlies violence and its acceptance.  Colleges and universities must work for culture change on all social and institutional levels. We must engage students as our partners and not just the individuals we serve when they are in crisis.

As an administrator, I look to the system and how it works.  I believe strongly that the students who are speaking out now have very legitimate complaints against and reactions to systems and how they were treated as a part of them. However, I do not believe that a systems response alone will end violence or truly provide support for survivors.  We must listen to these students who are gaining media attention and to the students on our campuses.  Student accounts highlight that they wanted to be listened to and wanted real support. They wanted to feel that what they experienced was taken seriously. They wanted to be seen as humans and students and not problems.  Having a comprehensive approach that includes proactive prevention does this.  It provides a university stance that sexual assault is not acceptable.

Investigation for sexual misconduct is an important facet of a comprehensive system but it is neither the only area we must stress nor is it prevention.  Engaging students and having professional staff dedicated specifically to engaging with these issues on multiple levels also helps us continually revise and update our processes.  We can have a great system on paper, and perpetrators of sexual assault will still remain on college campuses.  While we can advocate that students seek legal recourse, the broader criminal and civil legal systems will still rarely bring true “justice” to these students. There is one common denominator I have seen among students who have been forced to go through any particular process on a university campus—they did not feel they received the response they needed, they felt revictimized, and did not feel “justice” was served.  We must advocate for reform in these systems and for changing the broader culture. We know that these systems, even at their best, do not provide healing or end violence, so this cannot be our only means of addressing sexual assault.

Sometimes members of communities can feel that all sexual assaults that occur should be publicized or acted upon, but I believe strongly that we should balance community knowledge with the critical fact that survivors deserve to continue to live their lives without revictimization, retraumatization, or compromising their safety (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, financial). If we do not make those who have experienced sexual assault the center of our work, students will not tell us their experiences for fear of what we will do.  Survivors should have choices.  Forcing a particular option (such as a conduct process, a particular kind of counseling, withdrawing or being told to remain at an institution) takes that power away from them. After power and control is taken away from a survivor during an incident of violence, it is critical that any system on a college campus empowers survivors with options not a one-size-fits-all approach.  We must change campus culture to allow our processes to be effective for both support and accountability.

By working on multiple levels and having a comprehensive plan for our institutions, we can ensure that we are engaging both the science and the art of supporting students and working to create a culture shift toward a world free of sexual assault and interpersonal violence.  We can start on our campuses, and we can integrate protocol with proactivity and advocacy.  We must look beyond reacting to headlines to see for what our students are truly asking.  We can work to protect student confidentiality and rights without sweeping sexual assault and rape under the rug.

*Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. First International Conference on Health Promotion, Ottawa, 21 November 1986. Please contact LB atlauren.bernstein@emory.edu or 404.727.1514 for the full strategic plan for the Respect Program (2012-15)

Join the Conversation

Comments are closed.