Proposed Bill Aimed at Campus Sexual Assault

Taylor Rapalyea
March 21, 2016

Sexual assault on college campuses is in the spotlight, and education models have shifted to go further than just training vulnerable students.

Sexual assault education has long focused on “minimizing risk,” or teaching potential victims to stay out of harm’s way. But these days, the focus is on “bystander intervention,” and engaging men to be part of the solution.

This change, reflected on local college campuses, has culminated in the affirmative consent bill, which the legislation’s higher education committee supported earlier in March. The bill would make every campus adopt an “affirmative consent” policy, which means getting clear agreement before engaging in sexual activity, and implement corresponding educational programming.

Beth Hamilton, director of prevention and programs at the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said the focus on bystander intervention comes as sexual assault and sexism become part of a larger national conversation.

“What risk reduction really does is it essentially tells you are responsible for warding off this inevitable sexual violence,” Hamilton said. She said it pains her to see certain aspects of traditional sexual assault education, such as Rape Aggression Defense classes, used today, because she said it puts the responsibility on victims.

“We know that you can’t make victims responsible for sexual violence that they’re not perpetrating,” she said.

At Yale, the expulsion of the men’s basketball captain, Jack Montague, over an alleged sexual assault has put the issue at the forefront of students’ minds. Lucía Baca, a Yale undergraduate, and communications and consent educator, said Montague’s case has brought to light persistent attitudes regarding sexual assault and sexism on the Yale campus.

“It’s become increasingly clear that, in spite of Yale’s better efforts, many students still don’t get it,” she said.

Baca said some students think the Associations of American University’s sexual assault survey numbers are inflated, and that internal university proceedings for Title IX violations should be eliminated.

Baca said Yale’s education models go beyond minimizing risk — the CCEs put on freshmen and sophomore workshops every year. The former is about the myth of miscommunication, or the idea that sexual assault happens because consent is misunderstood. The latter is about bystander intervention, and encouraging students to look out for one another.

“Far from putting the onus on would-be ‘victims’ of sexual assault, it emphasizes our shared responsibility as a community to uphold the values of sexual respect and enthusiastic consent,” said Baca.

The Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence is conducting surveys on two Connecticut college campuses — Northwestern Connecticut Community College in Winsted, and the University of Bridgeport — to determine the effectiveness of their educational program “Where Do You Stand,” which seeks to engage men and give them the tools they need to intervene when witnessing sexual violence.

The program gives male students tools to intervene in instances of sexism and homophobia, ways to engage other men in conversations about the harm in sexual violence, and ways to challenge men and media that support rape culture.

This approach does more than just teach people to intervene in the case of an active assault, said Hamilton. It also helps combat a culture of glorifying violence against women. Elizabeth Conklin, UConn’s Title IX coordinator, said her university’s educational approach also tried to tackle the underlying culture of sexism.

“A lot of focus has been on sexual violence for obvious reasons, but there are less severe forms that can still have a disruptive experience on a student’s educational experience,” Conklin said.

The Alliance’s surveys are distributed to men before and after training sessions, and — in some cases — months after the training, to determine if the students have had the opportunity to implement their skills.

Education is important, but it’s the culture that really has to change, Baca said.

“We must also shift the underlying cultural norms that enable, and even encourage, sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual violence,” Baca said.

Erica Peryga, dean of students at Post University in Waterbury, said the university works with an affirmative consent policy and does regular bystander intervention training. But she said there’s no such thing as over-educating.

“I think we can always do more, not only as a university but also as an overall community across the country with bystander intervention,” Peryga said.