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KNAYSI: Silence no longer

The University’s new initiatives to combat campus sexual assault are an encouraging break from tradition

Watching Teresa Sullivan take the podium at Convocation on August 24, I expected the standard welcome to our incoming first year and transfer students: a few class statistics, some reflections on the special responsibility of attending the University and encouragement to find ways to serve the University and the surrounding community. I was surprised, then, when she began speaking about sexual assault.

First year women, she noted, are particularly at risk. She spoke at length on the topic, citing statistics (for example, 50 percent of reported campus sexual assaults occur in the first three months of the school year) and introducing the new Hoos Got Your Back campaign, a bystander awareness program that joins student groups with local merchants.

This was the first ever mention of sexual violence in a University president’s Convocation Welcome address (last year’s was particularly routine), and such a break from tradition underscores recent attention to the issue. From President Obama’s national task force on sexual assault to outspoken criticism by students, the topic has received serious attention at all levels of authority. But this attitude was not always the case. Over the past two decades, sexual assault has often been ignored or even mocked. President Sullivan’s address to students last Sunday signifies a much more productive approach: serious attention coupled with productive, wide-ranging preventative action.

“I thought it was a bit dramatic,” said one friend about Ms. Sullivan’s mention of sexual violence. Shortly after, another friend criticized the new policy of designating University employees as “Confidential” or “Responsible,” with respect to student disclosures of sexual misconduct: “I’m a little worried that this whole thing is going too far,” she said.

I disagree with these offhanded criticisms, and they bring to mind some common attitudes toward sexual assault: namely, ignoring or ridiculing it. Let’s address the latter attitude first. Katie Roiphe, the author, journalist, and self-proclaimed feminist, is perhaps one of the most famous critics of sexual violence activism. Since 1993, when the author railed against “victim feminism” and mocked “Take Back the Night” speak-outs in the New York Times, Roiphe has exemplified such attitudes. Her nuanced but flawed argument — which downplays the prevalence of campus sexual assault while also ridiculing efforts to raise awareness for the issue — can hardly be considered a productive way to help the one in four college women who have survived rape or attempted rape (Roiphe also questions and mocks this statistic, too).

But for as much criticism as Roiphe’s position receives, ignoring sexual violence altogether is the more common attitude. This older position — surely a product of long-standing cultural taboos toward sex — has taken a major blow with sexual assault’s recent breakthrough in the national conversation.

Sullivan’s Convocation address seems to signify the start of a very productive year. In my inbox, I see the president’s email about our new sexual misconduct policies (complete with an extensive new website). On Grounds, I hear students speak openly and productively about reducing sexual violence. And on the Corner, I see restaurant employees wearing “Not on Our Grounds” sexual assault awareness t-shirts.

These initial policies, while promising, are only part of the solution to college sexual violence. The University — which is currently under federal investigation for allegedly mishandling a sexual misconduct case — has a poor track record in both prevention and punitive action. As the subsequent phases of the extensive “Not on Our Grounds” campaign roll out, students must keep the University accountable for meaningful policy change. The legal issues surrounding punishment for sexual assault make reform complicated but not impossible.

As we begin the new academic year, it remains to be seen whether these creative solutions will reduce sexual assault among University students. One point is certain: we’re better off without the ridicule or silence.

George Knaysi is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.knaysi@cavalierdaily.com.


Published September 2, 2014 in Opinion







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