If The Oswegonian is any indication, reports of sexual assault are on the rise in the college community—from trespassing to harassment and from groping to assault. Newspaper accounts of several recent incidents suggest we have already surpassed the number of incidents reported in all of 2013, at least according to the Jeanne Clery/Personal Safety report that the College released on Sept. 30.
As faculty advisers to the Women’s Center and as present and past Directors of the Women’s Studies Program, we echo The Oswegonian’s Sept. 11 call for some clarification about whether those alleged to have committed crimes remain on campus. The College’s lack of transparency is usually attributed to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). But area news outlets have already disclosed the identities and charges that are being brought against Nicholas Kerber and Charles Fofie. The Oswegonian tells us that, in the meantime, on-campus hearings are being organized by Student Affairs and Compliance. The editorials and reporting make clear students’ desire to be better informed regarding campus policies and procedures in this regard.
This heightened awareness among students about sexual assaults on and off campus comes in concert with President Obama’s “It’s On Us” Sexual Assault Prevention Campaign and Governor Cuomo’s recent directive to SUNY campuses to overhaul policies relevant to sexual assault, including adopting a “yes means yes” standard of consent. Here on campus, the Student Association unanimously adopted a resolution on Sept. 30 supporting the “It’s On Us” campaign. The campus also welcomes a victim support advocate from Services to Aid Families (SAF). The advocate will be on campus on Fridays in order to meet with students, and other changes are under discussion in order to more effectively deal with sexual assault in the campus community.
And yet we need to remind ourselves that all of this is taking place in a larger national context that, still, too often sees sexual assault and violence as overblown, the result of nothing more than, in George Will’s words, “this sea of hormones and alcohol,” where, to his mind, “victimhood [is] a coveted status.” His is not a lone voice as any simple search on “campus sexual assault” on the web will reveal. In this climate, it is not surprising that those victimized are expected to shoulder the burden for the harm done to them. Too often we hear that alcohol is the culprit in sexual assault, a position that absolves perpetrators of having violated others’ boundaries. From this skewed perspective, rape is really just an error of judgment or a hazy misunderstanding. It is in such a cultural context that our college and others are embarking upon making, hopefully, significant change in the prevention, investigation, and adjudication of cases of sexual assault. We must ensure that professionals tasked with responding to charges of sexual assault and especially the lay people involved in Student Conduct and Compliance hearings are not predisposed to exculpate perpetrators and reassign blame to survivors. If it is, as President Obama proposes, “on us” to end sexual assault, then we must pledge to strike this kind of bias across campus.
Let’s start with the college’s Clery Report which includes an entire section, entitled, “How to Avoid Unwanted Sexual Contact.” Take number 5, which suggests that we “Accept the idea that [we] may have to make noise, yell, physically defend [ourselves], or be rude to remove [ourselves] from a possible bad situation.” To paraphrase, politeness can get you raped—so stop it! To that impolite end, we call on the college to provide a protocol for how to avoid perpetrating rape. But if that cannot yet be thought through, then we call on the college, at least, to be more transparent: invite widespread input into the policies and changes that are being considered and devised. Then develop multiple strategies for keeping the campus community informed and educated. Too often students feel as if they don’t know what is happening on campus, that they find out about alleged perpetrators in their midst from other news sources, not from campus administration. Students, as well as the rest of the campus community, should be invited to be a meaningful part of discussions about preventing and reporting cases of sexual assault.
If we’re going to take pledges, let’s pledge to take an inventory of past practices and pledge to consider the impact of dominant discourse regarding sexual assault on campus. Let’s pledge to commit resources to challenge those assumptions, practices, and habits that support rape culture. Let’s pledge to include as many voices as possible in discussions regarding sexual assault. Let’s pledge to raise true awareness and to find ways to communicate in a transparent fashion even as we honor privacy and promote the well-being of survivors. For the sake of future generations of students at Oswego State and to honor those survivors among our alumni, let’s pledge to never have to take another one of these pledges again.
– Mary McCune and Maureen Curtin