Ending sexual violence on varsity campuses

The Daily Vox recently asked women and men students at UCT about sexual harassment and anti-sexual harassment policies on campus, and the responses are both dismaying and altogether unsurprising. While victim blaming, exclusion, and disenfranchisement figured throughout, objectification was mentioned more, and by both women and men, than any other aspect. What really comes across is the absence of any reference to varsity structures, to admin or courses or faculty or anything institutional. Students are making it up as they go along, and that is not good enough.


So, what is to be done?

The United States and Canada are also “discovering,” yet again, that college campuses are rife with sexual violence. A recent survey of current and recent college students in the United States found that twenty percent of women and five percent of men reported being sexually assaulted either by physical force or while incapacitated, “but the circle of victims on the nation’s campuses is probably even larger.” Of those assaulted: 57% of the women knew their assailant very well or fairly well. 71% told someone about the violence, and 59% did not tell the police or college authorities. “Was anyone held responsible or punished for the incident?” To this, 89% answered, No.

Equally interesting and sobering are the factors not associated: large vs. small schools; private vs. public; family’s social class; studying more vs. less often; attending worship services; mostly living on vs. off campus.

Alcohol consumption and so-called Greek life, meaning sororities and fraternities, figured prominently. Many university administrators, desperate for a simple solution to a complex of forces, they pass ill-conceived plans based on an alcohol-and-fraternity magic bullet. For example, also last week, the University of Missouri considered banning women from fraternity parties between 10 pm and 3 am. This idea was roundly criticized. It ignores sexual violence against men. It “protects” women by restricting only their movement, thereby punishing women for violence against women. And it grossly and perniciously misreads the map and substance of sexual violence.

So, what does make sense?

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study, “Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women,” which reported on the impact of a four-stage program in reducing the risk of sexual violence on campus. The first stage, assessment, develops critical, problem-strategies. The second stage, acknowledgment, accelerated acknowledging the danger and resisting verbal coercion. The third stage, action, focused on resistance and self-defense. The fourth stage, sexuality and relations, provided “a context to explore … sexual attitudes, values, and desires and to develop strategies for sexual communication.”

The end goal is not every woman wearing a chainmail suit of armor. Rather it is autonomy, exploration, and understanding. The end goal is education. The study confirmed what you already know. Brochures don’t work. One-off sessions don’t work, nor do singular, simple solutions. Only a fully thought out curriculum might actually reduce the risk of sexual violence. It would take commitment, investment, and research. Where’s that investment?

Where are the institutional investments to end sexual violence on South African varsity campuses? Or are they content, as their sister organisations in the United States and Canada, to aspire to the commanding heights of first tier research status, and ignore, or better paper over, the real issues at hand? The Canadian study claims to show that real programs have real impact, but some wonder if it doesn’t continue the trend of putting all the weight on women’s shoulders.  What do you think? What would you want campus administrators to know and to do?

Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg writes at Women In and Beyond the Global and at Africa Is a Country, and is Director of the Women’s Studies Program at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

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About rapecrisisblog

We have a vision of a South Africa in which rape survivors suffer no secondary trauma, and are supported throughout their interaction with the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Our mission is to promote an end to violence against women, specifically rape, and to assist women to achieve their right to live free from violence. Rape Crisis Cape Town seeks to achieve its mission through counselling and training of women, thereby reducing the trauma experienced by rape survivors, and encouraging reporting of rape and the conviction of rapists.

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