[Content note: sexual assault]
I wasn’t really paying much attention to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault because I think that that kind of stuff makes a lot less of a difference than good old-fashioned grassroots activism, but I did pay attention when RAINN, an organization that I otherwise really respect the work of, sent the Task Force its recommendations, which ridiculously stated that we should stop blaming this whole “rape culture” thing and recognize that sexual assault is caused by individuals. Amanda Marcotte takes this down quite well here.
So when the Task Force released its first report recently, I decided to read it and see how useful it was and whether or not it followed RAINN’s lead in trivializing the role of culture and socialization in producing widespread sexual violence.
Here’s what the report gets right:
1. It acknowledges that schools have a strong incentive to avoid publicizing sexual assault statistics:
For colleges and universities, breaking the cycle of violence poses a unique challenge. When a school tries to tackle the problem – by acknowledging it, drawing attention to it, and encouraging survivors to report – it can start to look like a dangerous place. On the flip side, when a school ignores the problem or discourages reporting (either actively or by treating survivors without care), it can look safer. Add to this the competition for top students or a coveted spot on a college rankings list – and a school might think it can outshine its neighbor by keeping its problem in the shadows.
We have to change that dynamic.
The same thing happens with mental health, hazing in the Greek system, and basically any other problem faced by college campuses. It’s good that the Task Force seems to realize that universities aren’t exactly going to fix this problem out of the goodness of their hearts.
2. It acknowledges the importance of social norms about sexual assault.
Social norms research reveals that men often misperceive what other men think about this issue: they overestimate their peers’ acceptance of sexual assault and underestimate other men’s willingness to intervene when a woman is in trouble. And when men think their peers don’t object to abusive behavior, they are much less likely to step in and help.
This is part of the report’s recommendation for bystander intervention programs, which are a good first step but have a number of problems that I’ll discuss in the second section of this post. Notably, the report never uses the term “rape culture,” not even in this section, but that’s the sociological term for what it’s getting at here. People think that rape is okay and/or that certain things that are rape are not really rape and are therefore okay.
What this section doesn’t mention is that teaching people that sexual assault is unacceptable isn’t just important for getting people to step in when they see sexual assault (or harassment, or coercion) happening; it also helps prevent sexual assault directly. As has been pointed out numerous times, rapists rape because they think (well, they know) that they’re not going to face any consequences for it.
3. It emphasizes research and evidence-based prevention approaches.
According to the report, the CDC plans to convene a panel of “experts” (by which I hope it means researchers) on sexual assault prevention to discuss best practices that will then be put into place. And the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women plans to evaluate prevention programs used on campuses to get data on their effectiveness. The report also lists three universities that have committed to research projects about campus sexual assault, though it’s unclear whether or not they are receiving grants for the research.
4. It recommends that campuses provide confidential victim advocates to whom students can disclose sexual assault without having to initiate a formal investigation.
I know many people’s version of “feminism” is raking survivors over the coals for choosing not to report their assault to the authorities, but this is crucial. Contrary to popular belief, a survivor who has nowhere to go to discuss an assault that will not initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation will not go ahead and tell someone who will initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation; they may not tell anyone at all. And students who initially do not want to file an official report may decide to do so after receiving compassionate and trauma-informed support from a confidential professional. The Task Force’s report correctly emphasizes the importance of empowering survivors by letting them decide what happens after they disclose an assault rather than making that decision for them.
5. It discusses how trauma can impact survivors and how school officials should be trained to respond to it.
Some common victim responses (like not physically resisting or yelling for help) may seem counter-intuitive to those unfamiliar with sexual victimization. New research has also found that the trauma associated with rape or sexual assault can interfere with parts of the brain that control memory – and, as a result, a victim may have impaired verbal skills, short term memory loss, memory fragmentation, and delayed recall. This can make understanding what happened challenging.
Personal biases also come into play. Insensitive or judgmental comments – or questions that focus on a victim’s behavior (e.g., what she was wearing, her prior sexual history) rather than on the alleged perpetrator’s – can compound a victim’s distress.
Specialized training, thus, is crucial. School officials and investigators need to understand how sexual assault occurs, how it’s perpetrated, and how victims might naturally respond both during and after an assault.
Therefore, according to the report, the Justice Department plans to develop a training program to help school officials involved with sexual assault investigations understand trauma and sexual assault. And I hope that the bit about “questions that focus on a victim’s behavior” (or, what we call “victim blaming”) focuses not just on the fact that it’s hurtful, but that it’s unnecessary and counterproductive. Whether the victim was wearing a revealing dress or has had consensual sex with the rapist before has nothing to do with whether or not a sexual assault has occurred.
6. It puts all this info on a single website that students, university administrators, and anyone else who wants to know can access: notalone.gov.
Granted, I don’t know how many students are even going to realize this is a thing, but I’m still glad it’s a thing.
And now, here’s what the report could’ve done better:
1. Not using female pronouns for sexual assault survivors.
Although the report explicitly mentions male survivors several times, it often defaults to female pronouns. Why? This is so unnecessary and such an easy thing to fix. Just use “they.” Anybody who seriously has a problem with that grammar can deal with it easier than male and genderqueer survivors can deal with being erased.
2. Not treating campus sexual assault like it happens in a vacuum.
While I understand that this particular task force was created to address sexual assault on college campuses, it seems remiss not to mention that campus sexual violence doesn’t happen just because it’s a college campus. There are factors that make it more prevalent there, sure–alcohol use, the entitled attitude of many athletes and fraternity members, the close-knit social circles that make it difficult to accuse someone of sexual assault–but these factors also play out elsewhere. There’s a whole blog basically dedicated to showing how they play out in tech culture, for instance.
But it’s difficult to acknowledge this without using that dreaded term “rape culture.”
3. Specifying incentives for universities to complete the campus climate surveys.
As I mentioned earlier, the report points out that universities have a strong incentive not to do this, and that they will be provided with an evidence-based survey that they can use. The report also states that the task force will be looking at ways to legally compel universities to do it, but I wonder why they didn’t just include incentives for doing it voluntarily (perhaps distributing some of the grant money that way, for instance).
4. Implementing a simple way for those who are interested to keep track of the Task Force’s efforts.
Much of the report concerns future plans for research and implementation, and it mentions several times that updates will be posted on the NotAlone.gov site. However, looking over the site, there doesn’t seem to be a way to keep up to date on this. There’s no blog. There’s no “news” section. I actually take this pretty seriously because I do intend to follow these efforts, but I don’t know how besides watching the same blogs I always watch.
5. Less emphasis on bystander prevention or more caveats about it.
Okay, I get that this works in at least some cases. But first of all, bystander intervention asks students to expose themselves to danger by taking responsibility for another student’s choice to threaten, coerce, or assault someone. Men can intervene more safely than women, but 1) the programs target students of all genders; 2) even for men it’s not always safe; and 3) there won’t always be a male bystander. There won’t always be any bystander, in fact. In many campus sexual assault cases, the victim left willingly with the assailant because they did want some sort of sexual contact with them, but then the assailant presumed that to mean that they have a license to do whatever. (Because rape culture.)
I didn’t really see anything in the report about other prevention methods, such as teaching students what sexual assault actually is (contrary to popular belief, it need not involve both a penis and a vagina). To be fair to the task force, that section of the report emphasized the need for more research on prevention, so I’m not condemning this too strongly. It does seem (at least from what I’ve read of the research) that bystander intervention has been tested more than other types of prevention initiatives, and therefore there’s more evidence for it at this point in time.
6. Even more transparency.
In accordance with the Task Force’s recommendation, the Department of Education released a list of 55 universities currently under investigation for Title IX violations. However, all it gives are the names of the schools, not what they’re actually under investigation for (besides, well, violating Title IX). Maybe there are legal reasons why they can’t release even a very general statement about that, as it is, the list is not very useful. There are tons of schools on it. (And, incidentally, there are definitely a few that should be but aren’t. Before you pick a college to attend, you should definitely google its name + “sexual assault.”)
I guess it’ll take time to see whether or not this will be more than a purely symbolic gesture. I think it has the potential to be, at least insofar as universities carry out the recommendations. While I don’t have an extremely in-depth knowledge of how university administrations work, I’ve been involved with campus activism enough to know that there will be staff (and students) at many campuses who desperately want to see these ideas implemented, but they may not necessarily receive support from the upper-level administrators who can make it happen. It pains me when I see sexual assault prevention and health promotion staff get lambasted for “not doing enough” when they’re almost always trying to do everything they can with the limited power they’ve been given.
And the reason those upper-level administrators aren’t always supportive isn’t because they’re Evil or don’t care about sexual assault; they’re generally people with lots of types of privilege who can afford not to think about these things constantly like some of us do. But there’s limited time and money, and there’s a lot to be lost if you’re one of the first universities to publicly and loudly take a stand against campus sexual violence. There shouldn’t be, but there is, and I’m glad the Task Force is trying to address that.
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