When I was a graduate student, undergrad feminists were protesting Brown University’s egregious handling of sexual assault cases (e.g. assailants were allowed to be in the room and question the person who’d brought the charges, not blaming women for having been more “careful,” etc.). They wound up on the talk show circuit when they started writing the names of rapists on bathroom walls, which did pressure the university and led to some changes.
I guess I’d liked to think things have changed, but some recent events on my current campus have made me rethink this. On April 27, 2011, faculty, staff, and students at UO received a message from the University of Oregon Dean of Students Office concerning reports of women who might have been given a drug used to facilitate possible sexual assaults. Such reports are a cause for alarm for all members of the UO community and while publicizing the fact that these are taking place was a positive move, the language the Dean of Students Office used, and the steps they propose for prevention invokes an antiquated language of female responsibility for crime prevention, placing responsibility for crime prevention at the feet of female victims rather than the perpetrators themselves. Essentially, what the university was communicating was that in response to these crimes, young women must engage in behavior modification. Don’t leave your drink lying around, don’t accept drinks from other people, use the buddy system, don’t leave friends alone who appear to be intoxicated. Because if you don’t modify your behavior, you bear responsibility for what happens to you.
Not once did this letter suggest that the solution to sexual assaults of these kinds is to insist that male assailants and those who enable need to modify their behavior. If, as the letter suggested, these assaults were being planned ahead of time, it seems unlikely that they were the acts of isolated individuals. Men need to be encouraged to intervene in these situations. If you know that one of your brothers or teammates has purchased Rohypnol, GHB, Ecstasy, or Ketamine, it is YOUR responsibility to intervene. If you hear a male student bragging about these behaviors, it is your responsibility to report them. If you see a male student leaving a party with a clearly intoxicated woman, you need to intervene.
One of the reasons that sexual assaults on college campuses are so underreported involves victim blaming. An NIJ report on sexual assault on college campuses observed that “Campuses may unintentionally condone victimblaming by overemphasizing the victim’s responsibility to avoid sexual assault without balancing messages stressing the perpetrator’s responsibillity for committing a crime and strategies bystanders can use to intervene.”
We still have a lot of work to do around insisting that the key to eliminating sexual assault is to teach men about their responsibilities in fighting against sexual assaults of all kinds. Certainly, women need to know how to protect themselves, but to articulate prevention solely as the responsibility of young women is to reproduce a culture in which it’s the victims and not the perpetrators who are held accountable for crime prevention. The Dean of Students Office needs to clearly communicate procedures for reporting sexual assault (including the name and contact information for the University’s Title IX coordinator as well as information about his/her role on campus), intervention strategies for ALL bystanders (not just women and their friends); and what the punishment for sexual assault will be.