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Combatting sexual assault on college campuses from the inside out

(Patrick Kline/ Amherst Wire)

(Patrick Kline/ Amherst Wire)

Patrick Kline

(Patrick Kline/ Amherst Wire)

Patrick Kline

Patrick Kline

(Patrick Kline/ Amherst Wire)

Combatting sexual assault on college campuses from the inside out

The Importance of Creating Realistic Prevention Campaigns

December 6, 2019

Haley Mason’s parents were a little worried about her safety as she packed up to leave for college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst back in August. “Especially my mom,” she said.” But I did come up to school with four of my closest guy friends, which helped a little. I have people in my corner to look out for me.”  

Mason’s mom was right to worry. The initial few months of a freshman woman’s college experience is known as the “red zone,” or the most likely time in which she’ll experience sexual assault. According to Rape Abuse and Incest National Network,  more than half of college sexual assaults take place between August to November, but they say the next several years are also especially dangerous. Women are most likely to be sexually assaulted between the ages 18 and 24.

Because of these daunting statistics surrounding college students, universities around the country have been creating proactive prevention campaigns. Student participation in these campaigns is vital in changing social behavior and mindsets on sexual assault. It’s one thing to hang a poster about consent, but another to hold your peers accountable when it really matters. UMass starts educating students before they step onto campus.

Mason can attest to that early action, because, like all incoming freshmen, she had to complete “Your Intervention Strategies” prior to her first semester at UMass. The online workshop was created by the UMass’ Center for Women and Community and educates students on healthy relationships and consensual sex in a variety of probable situations.

“I think it was good that it showed both boys and girls in real scenarios…because they don’t know how it is,” Mason said referring to her male peers and how they view sexual assault.

YIS also emphasizes bystander intervention, and the redirection of dangerous situations.

“If my friends are too drunk, I usually just take them home, get them water and sit with them until they are O.K. If something is happening at a house party, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, let’s go to the bathroom or upstairs,’ just to get away from the situation,” Mason said. 

Bystander intervention is a phrase frequently used by the Northwest Massachusetts District Attorney’s office. They work with groups like the CWC to educate students with relatable examples of how to intervene in situations and properly ask for consent.

According to Northwestern District Attorney’s Director of Domestic Violence and Adult Sexual Assault Programs, Mary A. Kociela, “We wanted students to know that sometimes, even if you just sense something’s happening, there’s ways to distract someone and change the circumstance, Kociela said. You can make a difference really easily.”

She explained that perspective is important in tackling this issue.

“I think a lot of it is attitude. It’s 2019. You’d like to think that incoming freshman guys are going to have a greater understanding of women’s equality and not fall into thinking that women are just sexual objects and that it is just O.K, but we’re not there,” Kociela said. She also says that young women also need to be, “up front and honest, to even talk about what you want in a relationship.” The goal is to teach young people to communicate about what they want in a relationship and to respect one another’s boundaries.

“That ‘no’ means no, and that ‘no’ doesn’t mean maybe,” she said.

But how do we get this point across? Should students actually start filling out formally documented contracts while they’re having fun at a party, as some universities have suggested?

Ideas like that, as well as the public service announcements and posters strewn all over campus telling you to straight up ask for and give consent, don’t always reflect what actually happens today in college social scenes. Students say they come off blatantly awkward and downright unrealistic.

 “I think sometimes people are afraid they are going to kill the mood,” Mason said.

 Kociela and her team tried to prevent these uncomfortable scenarios in their campaigns. They wanted their content to be pragmatic to undergraduates.

“We also wanted it to be student driven,” Kociela said, who admits she’s out of touch with college campuses. “We didn’t want it to be like, ‘Ooh here we are, professionals, doing the work.’

To combat that, they created working student groups on each campus in the area. Kociela’s team crafted scripts for their campaigns and shared them with these groups. They then adapted them based on the feedback, like switching out some terms for more commonly used words.

“We weren’t using the language that was familiar, it was more of what we thought people would say,” Kociela explained.

Making sexual assault education more reality-based for college students includes mentioning substance use, a common occurrence on campuses. Kociela acknowledged this and loved the idea of consent coasters in bars. This idea stems from the “Coasters for consent” campaign that sexual assault awareness nonprofit, Voices of Hope, started in 2017. 

Voices of Hope was founded in 2015 by Kristine Irwin, a rape survivor from Pennsylvania who was raped in college at 19. She now works to end sexual violence. 

The coasters she came up with bring up consent in a light way and can spark conversation about it. They say things like, “There are no blurred lines when it comes to consent,” and, “If you want to be my lover, you gotta get my consent.” They have been adopted by several bars around Pittsburgh where Irwin resides, but have also received national attention.

But, Resident Assistant in Washington Hall at UMass, Dan Dimitrov, says consent contracts may not be the most productive idea. “It’s something I don’t see happening… Imagine being at a bar and you’re like, ‘Yo can you sign this for me before I talk to you’… I think socially it would be weird.” But he finds the consent coasters to be a more approachable alternative. “Worst case scenario…like what? Someone’s going to laugh at you? Or it’ll just be funny, like it might cause conversation. But best case scenario it can actually help. There’s no losing there, either some person is going to be a little bit embarrassed or it helps someone from being sexually assaulted.”

Kociela says that simply spreading awareness in that type of way could be beneficial. 

“Does it make a difference or not? I don’t know, but if you’re seeing it in a bar, and then you’re seeing it in the bathroom on a poster, and then you get that tutorial when you’re coming on campus, and then your [resident assistant] mentions it…the more the messaging is there, the more it does start to become the norm,” she said.

Students and communities have a long way to go in instilling efficient and beneficial means of education and awareness within each other to prevent dangerous behavior. Despite the work that has been done, the numbers of sexual assault cases are high. The UMass Amherst Annual Security Report records show that reported rapes have increased from previous years. Student feedback on what is working and what is not, is imperative in making more realistic and effective prevention campaigns going forward.

Email Katherine Kelley at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @katkelley26.

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