Ending Sexual Violence on Campus

beerLet me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

If my language seems blunt, it is because of the history of blaming victims, usually women, for “wearing that dress” or “drinking too much.” It saddles victims with guilt and mitigates the responsibility of the perpetrator, both in court and in the public eye. Men often use strategies of “getting her drunk” as an approach to sexual exploitation. There is no excuse for any of this, and frankly, as a male, I think that far from demonstrating virility, it is a demonstration of a kind of emotional, if not physical, impotence.

All this said, The Chronicle of Higher Education raised what I think is a key barrier to at least reducing sexual violence on campuses in an article titled, “Why Campuses Can’t Talk About Alcohol When It Comes to Sexual Assault.”  Why, you may ask, can’t we talk about alcohol even though at least half the sexual assaults that occur (and many go unreported) involve alcohol use by both parties? What it comes down to is that even attempts to educate about this in terms of safety and prevention, particularly with women, can be perceived as “blaming the victim.”

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

However, public safety officers often warn students at universities in urban environments about the dangers of crime and various safety practices from using campus escort services to avoiding walking alone in certain areas after certain times to locking doors and windows. If a crime against persons or property occurs, have these public safety officers been guilty of “blaming the victim”? No. Does any of this mitigate the responsibility of the person committing a crime against persons or property? No.

However, in the area of sexual assault, campus professionals tend to limit themselves to talking about “bystander intervention” and educating students about consent. I do think these can be important parts of a strategy to protect against sexual violence. My problem with this is in an alcohol-fueled atmosphere, will there be bystanders (designated bystanders?) whose judgment is unimpaired to intervene? And the giving and granting of consent involves sober judgment as well as restraint in the absence of consent–two things that tend to go out the window in an alcohol fueled atmosphere. What is even more insidious is that in most alcohol-related incidents of sexual assault, there is a greater likelihood that the parties do not know each other well.

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

Yet it seems that until we find a way to talk with students candidly about alcohol in a way that educates for risk-reduction (including the risk to perpetrators of carrying a sexual offender status through life) without blaming victims, I don’t believe we will make a real dent in the incidence of sexual violence on university campuses. Sexual predators will intentionally use alcohol to perpetrate rape. Other perpetrators will simply make bad decisions and may end up with a criminal record they carry through life. And victims, even in the most accepting and supportive atmospheres, will carry the wounds of these encounters.

I’ve spent a career in collegiate ministry working with students. This is one of the most disturbing aspects of student life. In our work we seek to educate both men and women in the meaning of persons, including our sexuality, and the qualities of respect, responsibility, and restraint in the use of alcohol and the expression of our sexuality that leads to rich and joyful relationships and campus life. Sadly, we also sometimes deal with the victims of sexual violence, or even those simply bearing the scars of alcohol fueled hookups. And I get the “no-blame” thing. Victims blame themselves enough as it is. They need hope and support that life can begin anew.

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

I just hope for the day where we don’t have to say this as much.

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