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A New Top Priority for College Campuses: Why Your College Needs to Advocate for Survivors

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October 15, 2013

This weekend, my college lost an important part of our community with the passing of our Dean of Students, Bekki Lee.  Bekki was a kind and compassionate listener and activist and the epitome of an advocate for students.  As I sat down to brainstorm for my ChoiceWords post this week I couldn’t bring myself to leave her out.  This week’s post is in honor of Bekki Lee and the vital support she provided which enabled my peers to found the Scripps College Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault and her work to help end the proliferation of sexual violence that is too common on residential college campuses. 

College students as a group are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault because they’re comprised mostly of newly independent young people, many of whom don’t know that much about what sexual assault is and how to ask for consent.  We already know that sex education in American public high schools is nothing short of abysmal so many, if not most, college students arrive on campus with vague conceptions of assault as something having to do with strange men and dark alleyways.  But the reality is that around 95% of sexual assaults against women in college are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

Additionally, our cultural obsession with college party culture (see: this list) means that many new college students believe that sexual promiscuity, one-night stands, and the immediate sexualization of strangers are positive, normal, and even expected college behaviors.  For nervous and eager first-years arriving on campus hoping for the “college experience,” that may mean hesitancy to say no or to speak out about an assault because according to popular culture their experience was just an average college weekend.  Throw in the proliferation of alcohol on college campuses and not only does the likelihood of assault rise (half of sexual assaults against women in college involved alcohol) but victims who speak out are likely to suffer victim-blaming rhetoric that says that their choice to drink alcohol means their assault should have been expected.

Finally, when sexual assault does occur the victim may be faced with regularly facing their attacker as perpetrators and victims may live together in a residence hall, share classes, or just run into each other in the dining hall.

All of this means that college administrations need to take serious steps towards prioritizing the reduction of sexual assault on campus and improving the accessibility of resources for victims.  The most crucial step is education.  Colleges and universities must educate the entire student body on the realities of sexual assault and provide clear definitions of assault and consent.  Not only will this validate survivor experiences and empower people to speak up about their assault, but demystifying consent (consent must be verbal and enthusiastic and it is always necessary) will clearly define the steps necessary for consensual sexual activity and help put an end to perpetrators who are unaware that what they’re doing crosses a line.

A college campus is more than a collection of classrooms and students; it is a residential community full of young people invested in learning and coming together at a seminal moment in their lives.  Many of us come to a campus seeking guidance and support while navigating the complicated transition into adulthood.  It is up to colleges and universities to provide that support, to listen to students and learn their needs, and to consistently and fiercely advocate for survivors.  Only when students feel safe on their campus can they reach their full educational potential and benefit from all the amazing opportunities a residential college experience provides.

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