Assault awareness grows through discourse

A recent student protest at DePaul University elicited a campus-wide discussion about problems that often, according to the student newspaper’s website, “get pushed under the rug.” Anonymous students hung banners in the University’s Arts and Letters Building that spoke out against DePaul athletes’ “rape culture,” heightening awareness about unseen instances of sexual assault on campus. The DePaul student body’s positive response to the protest speaks to the problematic nature of this rape culture that often goes unnoticed or uncontrolled on college campuses.

DePaul is certainly not the first university to come under fire for keeping this kind of behavior a secret. A couple of years ago, St. Mary’s College freshman Lizzy Seeberg was sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player. Seeberg reported the crime, but after receiving threatening text messages from her attacker’s friends, she committed suicide out of fear for her life.

In a more recent case, Dartmouth University sophomore Parker Gilbert was acquitted a few months ago after being accused of raping a female classmate. Despite the woman’s testimony about the assault, Gilbert’s lawyer called the encounter nothing more than “clumsy, awkward, drunk college sex,” and the Dartmouth community’s response to her accusations was overwhelmingly negative.

So what is going on with this so-called college “rape culture?” Why would colleges and universities rather cover up these acts than address them head-on? In many ways, it is easier to pretend that sexual assault and rape do not exist, but doing so creates more problems than it solves. Pushing cases of rape and sexual assault “under the rug” is detrimental to everyone involved.

Then what can be done? DePaul sets a good example; college campuses need to facilitate open and honest discussions about these issues. More than that, though, rape and sexual assault prevention need to become a focus of campus policy. With the White House weighing in, this issue is certainly more timely – and more pressing – than ever.

Vice President Joe Biden has been doing a lot of work lately in addressing campus sexual assault. CBS News reports that after President Obama created the “White House Task Force to Protect College Students from Sexual Assault” in January, Vice President Biden turned his own focus to the issue. Last Tuesday, he launched the website, which provides information and resources for victims of sexual assault.

Further, the White House issued a PSA about sexual violence that features both Biden and President Obama along with famous actors like Daniel Craig and Benicio Del Toro that specifically addresses the men who perpetrate these crimes. While the focus of discussions about rape and sexual assault tends to be on women – whether it’s supporting female victims or blaming them – this kind of violence is a men’s issue, as well. Videos like this act as a great jumping off point for involving men in the discussion.

This is exactly what college campuses need to do. Rape and sexual assault are undeniable issues in college where people are in close proximity to each other and an unhealthy party culture is often facilitated and sustained. While dry campuses like St. Olaf attempt to undercut the problems that can stem from making poor choices under the influence of alcohol, these campuses usually do not stay “dry.” Thus, these problems persist.

How is St. Olaf addressing these issues? By talking about them. St. Olaf’s SARN Sexual Assault Resource Network creates a safe space for victims of sexual violence to talk about their experiences and holds events that raise campus awareness about these issues. For example, last month SARN hosted a Survival Panel during which victims of sexual violence shared their stories and hoped to change people’s perceptions about who to “blame” for sexual assault. The protest at DePaul could prove inspiring for victims of sexual violence who feel they are unable to let their voices be heard. Further, schools like St. Olaf who refuse to ignore these problems must keep advocating to change the landscape of campus sexual violence prevention around the country.

Nina Hagen ’15 is from St. Paul, Minn. She majors in English with a women’s and gender studies concentration.