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Preventing sexual assault

Most of the discussion about sexual assault these past months has focused on response. The bulk of the administration's reform package concentrated on the Sexual Assault Board and its procedures while feature articles in The Hook and The Cavalier Daily have personalized the aftermath of alleged assault. Yet, no matter how just and supportive the response mechanisms, nothing is a substitute for preventing these compromising situations in the first place.

Prevention is inextricably linked to education, and it does not end at the water's edge -- prevention is not simply, "don't rape people." Prevention requires a holistic approach that ensures every individual is cognizant of his or her behavior and the influences which affect it and the behavior of those around them. The first step in this process is hammering home the message that sexual assault happens, and it's not uncommon.

First-year orientation offers the best opportunity to inculcate this knowledge and keep it with a class as it moves through the University. Coming from high schools where sexual assault is not normally acknowledged, much less discussed, it can be hard to accept that such acts occur. The concept of acquaintance rape is like a foreign language: Who could ever engage in sex with a woman who is passed out? Who could do that? How could that possibly happen?

Listening to survivors' choked stories at the Take Back the Night vigil is the single most powerful method through which to personalize and internalize the gravity of sexual assault. It is, however, logistically implausible to put every first year through face-to-face interaction with survivors; as NOW vice president Rachel Vogus affirmed in an interview, being an open survivor and speaking about it is unimaginably difficult. That said, the current treatment of sexual assault during orientation is utterly inadequate. Grounds for Discussion, while kitschy and amusing, does not offer the inescapable understanding of how an interaction between two normal, Joe- and Jane-students can go horribly awry.

Excellent programs already exist, such as presentations by One in Four and workshops given to every fraternity. Vogus said there is no need to "reinvent the wheel," but that there does not exist a blending of the best parts of these programs that is accessible and engaging to first years.

Consent training is integral to these successful education efforts, especially in light of the new "sexual misconduct" offense. Students must comprehend both that consent is not simply the absence of "no" and that it is not socially unacceptable nor a mood-killer to communicate affirmative consent. Instead of drilling the 11 common-sense Standards of Conduct into first-years' heads or any number of the other inane orientation programs, there could be productive and lasting discussion of the problems which are bred in a totally new environment.

Indeed, the social aspects of prevention are often underappreciated. So long as it remains frowned upon to interfere in a man or woman's pursuit of a partner regardless of either parties' level of inebriation, bad situations will continue to arise. Similarly, the lack of social outrage and ostracizing of men and women who brag of their questionable conduct perpetuates social mores in which such activities can continue.

Prevention of sexual assault is as hard to achieve as it is important. Efforts must be made to meet students where they are, to help them not only grasp the severity of the issue but turn that knowledge into a daily ethic. We have lived through the days when rape was silent; never again can we close our mouths.


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