Change of perspective needed to combat sexual assault at SLU


In late February, a Thursday at work started like many others. I arrived at my office, read email and Newslink while eating my breakfast and I completed an award application for my department. I recalled that I had just a few days to complete the Haven educational module, about which I had received a few emails reminding me to complete the university-wide required program. I grabbed a cup of coffee and settled in for the tutorial.

The reminder email promised that the module would “engage and assist [me] in creating and maintaining a healthy work and learning environment, as well as provide [me] with resources to address reports of sexual harassment and/or assault.”  For each topic presented, the module offered a short introduction, using examples of what might happen at the workplace. These are important topics – sexual assault, stalking, intimate partner violence and sexual harassment. As both a SLU alum and employee, I know members of our community who are victimized in each of these ways. Upon completion of the module, I received a message that read, “Thank you for taking the time to learn more about sexual assault, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, and stalking. Now you know how you can be a part of the solution in creating a safe, healthy community and preventing future violence.”

Of the two listed goals – to create safer communities and receive resources for addressing sexual assault and/or harassment – the module accomplished only the latter. I received resources to address reports of sexual harassment and/or assault (though, all resources listed for victims were nonprofits not associated with SLU). Its other goal remains unmet.

Three of the four examples took the perspective of the third party. A student experienced a sexual assault and tells you, her supervisor. A faculty member might be stalking a student, and the student tells you, his faculty advisor. You witness a colleague’s abuse by his intimate partner. The final scenario asks you to imagine being sexually harassed by a supervisor (a scenario most women don’t need to imagine – we have memories of many harassment experiences).

The prevalence of sexual violence in our society means that we cannot address this problem by assuming we are the victims or the third party. It requires that we view ourselves as the perpetrators of this violence. When, as Rebecca Solnit articulates in her essay “The Longest War,” one in five college women are raped; when more than 1,000 women are murdered by male partners annually; when a women is beaten by a man every 9 seconds; when the backlog of untested rape kits numbers over 400,000; when more than 50 women say they’ve been assaulted by one man and people still question the legitimacy of those claims, all of us create more violence.

I imagine most people do not consider themselves perpetrators of sexual violence. However, this violence is rooted in systematic injustices against women, and we all participate in that. Universities have predominantly male faculty and administrators. Women receive less compensation than men for their work and often are punished for taking maternity leave. Women do most of the unpaid work in the US, and this extends to unpaid work in the office. Men receive promotions at a faster rate than women.

How do these facts relate to sexual violence? To paraphrase “The Longest War,” groups of women do not gang rape a man after he has had too much to drink. Fewer women sexually harass men. Female athletes do not assault their male trainers. Am I saying that men at SLU do these specific things? No, I am not. What I am saying is that statistically, men commit acts of violence against women at an alarming rate. Putting equal power in the hands of women will lower incidents of sexual violence in our communities.

Further, if the university wants to prevent sexual violence, it must engage its community in meaningful dialogue about the causes of sexual violence. If members of the SLU community are concerned about stalking, let’s engage new students about building appropriate relationships and establishing healthy communication skills. If SLU wants to prevent sexual assault, it needs to focus resources on young men coming to the university. Every university student and administrator should read John Krakauer’s “Missoula” and watch the documentary “The Hunting Ground.” They should know what Title IX is (and what it is not). They should engage in sex education and consent workshops.

I recognize the importance of providing support to victims and knowing one’s role in reporting crimes on campus. Yet, reporting is the bare minimum the university can do (and must do to get federal dollars).  If SLU’s goal is to provide information on reporting requirements, I hope they continue to use the Haven education module. If SLU’s goal is to create a safer and more inclusive learning environment, it will need to lead its students in more meaningful dialogue while also creating a more equitable space for its employees, making it a priority to balance power within the university. I hope that the next time I receive an invitation to participate in required programming, it more directly addresses the causes and perpetuation of sexual violence in our communities.

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