Can a College Notorious for Sexual Assault Reform Itself?

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Yash Shevde. Photo courtesy NationSwell

Yash Shevde. Photo courtesy NationSwell

 

The night after Rolling Stone magazine’s since-retracted story “A Rape on Campus,” hit the web, bottles and cinder blocks were hurled through windows at the University of Virginia’s Phi Psi house , and its walls were tagged “UVA Center for Rape Studies.”

The following day, in a so-called Slut Walk, angry students marched past the frats on Rugby Road to the dean’s offices in Peabody Hall, chanting, “You can’t get away with this,” and, “One in four, let’s change the score”—a reference to a survey by the Association of American Universities which found that 23.1 percent of female college students experience sexual assault or misconduct while enrolled.

Even faculty members held their own Take Back the Party march, tracing a similar route.

“It’s shocking that it took an article by Rolling Stone in order to get this started,” Rita Dove, an English professor and former U.S. poet laureate, said in front of the Phi Psi house.

Dove’s comment spoke to the long-simmering outrage on campus, and the fact that almost a quarter of female UVA students experience sexual assault (a self-reported 2015 survey put the university’s exact number at 23.8 percent) marked an opening for an overdue conversation about what enabled rape to occur on school grounds, what could be done to limit further victimization, and [what] role that men should play in the discussion.

Hoos (a nickname for UVA community members) put forward new ideas for policies and programs to prevent future rapes and to shift the conversation from scandal to solutions. Several students called for a thorough review of Greek life, a more robust bystander intervention program and stricter punishments when assailants are found responsible for sexual misconduct.

Inter-Fraternity Council members offered to ban hard liquor, place sober brothers as monitors, and lock all downstairs bedrooms during social events.

On December 1, 2014 in a university address,  UVA President Teresa Sullivan applauded the recommendations and announced that many would be implemented. The move likely was also prompted by an announcement by the U.S. Department of Education Office Rights that UVA had been under investigation since 2011 for violating federal law in its handling of gender-based violence — putting the school under legal pressure to ensure it remained compliant with Title IX.

One year later, has the school make progress in improving its campus climate and reducing incidents of sexual assault?

Change on the ‘Grounds’

During four days in February, NationSwell visited the university, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 and is known as “Grounds” to its 15,700 undergrads, to investigate if there’s been a shift in student behavior that’s resulted in safer sexual interactions.

In interviews with 16 students (NationSwell reached out to several members of the UVA administration, but were denied requests for comment), a complicated portrait of the aftermath emerged.

Most agree that awareness and candid discussion about sexual assault increased and unified the campus. On the whole, Grounds now feels like a safer place. That’s not to say the problem’s solved: In 2014, according to federal data, Hoos reported 44 rapes to the university administration, a significant increase from 2012 (when 16 forcible sexual offenses were reported).

That spike could be considered a good sign — more survivors trust the university to handle the misconduct — but it is also hard proof that rape still occurs on campus. As school policies and initiatives aim to foster a safe environment, organizations like the all-male One in Four (its name a nod to the aforementioned sexual assault statistic) educate men and empower them to establish new norms about sexual violence against women, bringing welcome change to a community in need of it.

Before Hoos even start their freshman year, they receive education about nonconsensual sex through two mandatory online modules. But as soon as this official messaging ends and students arrive at their dorms, a different sense of accepted standards on drinking and hooking up can emerge. Those who are the most vocal about their weekend exploits can dominate the conversation, even if the majority is disgusted by the behavior — allowing a sexist norm to persist, says Alan Berkowitz, an independent consultant who advises colleges, the military and public health departments on preventing substance abuse and sexual assault.

“My research, which is called the social norms approach, shows that most men don’t think it’s okay,” Berkowitz said. “But most men don’t know that most [other] men [also] don’t think it’s okay.”

For more than a decade, One in Four has elevated the discussion about what men can do, either as bystanders who can prevent dangerous situations or as friends who can direct rape survivors to the appropriate professional support.

UVA’s chapter was founded by John Foubert, then a dean at the school and now an Oklahoma State University professor and president of the national One in Four network. In his opinion, there were few legal consequences for rapists and only by introducing social pressures — creating a new campus ethic that rejected the objectification of women’s bodies — could UVA’s culture begin to shift.

(The university came under fire from student activists for not expelling a single student found responsible for an alleged rape between 2004 and 2014; UVA has reversed course and “recently expelled students responsible for sexual misconduct,” a university spokesperson writes in an email to NationSwell.)

Re-Thinking Masculinity

The core component of One in Four’s work is a 45-minute presentation clarifying expectations for how women should be treated and addressing the role of masculinity in stopping campus rape.

The class is delivered more than 100 times a year to male groups, including freshman dorms, new classes of fraternity pledges and sports teams. Deviating from Foubert’s original methods, today’s group of 50 members places emphasis on dispelling the notion that false reporting of rape is a common occurrence.

One in Four is sticking with the message, “which is to trust survivors,” Yash Shevde, the group’s incoming president, says. “Our job is not to be an investigator.”

One in Four stresses that empathy is the crucial emotion necessary in preventing violence against classmates. At UVA, the presentation’s first exercise generally begins with asking the men in the room to close their eyes. The speaker presents a hypothetical scenario in which a close female relation — sister, girlfriend, best friend — tells the man she has been sexually violated. When the men open their eyes, the speaker briefly refers back to the statistic in the group’s name: chances are that a young woman close to them will experience some form of sexual violence, whether she tells them or not.

“But the group doesn’t dwell on the exact numbers, which vary from one survey to the next. “The debate about the statistic is useless,” Shevde says, “because it is still one too many.”

Grounded in that imagery — thinking about how actions affect a specific woman the man knows rather than someone abstract — the conversation touches on definitions of consent and checks in on the group’s norms, which have often never been discussed explicitly.

So, rather than delivering a preachy set of rules, One in Four uses indirect methods to get men talking about what is acceptable behavior. At fraternities, for example, they asked an incoming pledge class to rank actions on a continuum of acceptability, from flirting with someone you’ve just met to touching someone’s genitals without verbal consent, all the way to engaging in sex despite use of the word “no.”

Next, pledges are asked to delineate which behaviors are unacceptable and which count as sexual assault.

While the exercise seems simple, it gets the young men debating about their viewpoints in a new way. (“When the majority of men know that most other men share their discomfort, they are more likely to intervene,” explains Berkowitz.)

Listening for ‘Yes’

From there, One in Four’s presenters give a clear explanation of affirmative consent, stressing that students should strive to hear “yes,” Shevde says, rather than “no” since social pressures, physical intimidation or intoxication can prevent someone from verbalizing an objection, while still not giving consent.

On the surface, it appears that One in Four’s ultimate goal is to make it explicitly clear to rapists that they are alone in their behavior, that the man who treats women as objects for his sexual pleasure isn’t respected by his peers.

But that’s not exactly what the group is after. Knowing that only a very small number of men will commit sexual misconduct (6.4 percent are perpetrators), the organization doesn’t waste much time trying to ferret out the one potential rapist in the room with scare tactics, Shevde explains.

One in Four doesn’t preach down to the audience or explicitly say, Don’t sexually assault people! “We’re definitely looking at our male audiences as allies, not someone who has to be taught anything,” says Shevde.

Instead, the group trains men to be more thoughtful in all their actions, says Kevin Hare, the group’s vice president, as well as empowered to intervene when they see improper sexual advances, Shevde adds.

It’s difficult to measure One in Four’s success. Men may offer respectful discussion while Shevde is in the room, but how do they act that night? Looking for a correlation with reducing violence is even more difficult. Rape, as a crime, is severely underreported: nearly two out of every three sexual assaults — 65 percent — went unreported, according to 2012 findings by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. So a decline in the number of cases doesn’t necessarily mean fewer women are being assaulted on campus.

Anecdotally, several female first-years told NationSwell that campus generally feels safe. “After being put under such a spotlight, I figured [UVA] would be better than other places because [the school was] so heavily scrutinized,” says Elizabeth Fadl.

And a fourth-year student, Mark Lundy, said he could think of multiple times when he’s grabbed his buddies to separate a girl from a “sketchy” guy. He described the interventions as “a moral duty.” Maybe the situation just looked bad and nothing would have happened anyway, but at the same time, one wonders if Lundy’s small interaction might have prevented another rape on campus.

The problem with activism at the collegiate level is that students only have four years to make a difference before their work resets with a whole new crop of faces.

After such a turbulent year, One in Four learned that one-time responses aren’t effective and that the norms it is helping to establish can quickly be unmade. Which is why an ongoing effort — spearheaded by men themselves — is clearly so essential for UVA to triumph at reforming its campus ethos.

This is a slightly abridged version of an article published in NationSwell. The remainder of the three part series will be published in April and May. It was prepared as a Fellowship project by staff writer Chris Peak, a 2015-2016 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Network  Reporting Fellow. The full version is available HERE. Chris welcomes readers’ comments.

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