A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education talked of a new peer initiative springing up on campuses. True, you can’t stop university students from drinking and you can’t stop them from having sex. But maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to make some inroads to protect intoxicated young women (who are most at risk) from sexual assault.
According to the article:
Hanging out, drinking, and hooking up are for many students just a part of life in college. They’re also a common backdrop for sexual assault. As many as four in five campus assaults involve drinking, studies have found. Plenty of those cases hinge on whether a woman was drunk or incapacitated, and therefore unable to give consent.
Messages about preventing sexual assault now come at students from many directions: campus and federal officials, the news media, their peers. And what students are hearing has started to influence their behavior. They’re paying more attention, and they’re looking out for one another.
The initiative is a response to Obama’s “It’s on us” campaign, asking people to look out for people in risky situations. It’s taken an interesting form on campuses, and one reason it’s so interesting to me is that fraternities and athletes on school teams are two of the groups who are most active.
What are they doing to make a difference? At Union College, a campus initiative is training team members about how to intervene:
“I knew we had an opportunity with our hockey team,” says Jim McLaughlin, the athletic director. The team attended a half-day workshop in September on bystander intervention. Next in line are the women’s hockey team and the men’s and women’s basketball and swim teams.
“We are tough, bold women, and we would have the confidence to step into a bad situation,” says Christine Valente, captain of the women’s hockey team.
What’s great about this is that it’s opened up an important conversation about consent and also about masculinity:
Organizers are holding workshops with sports teams, fraternities, and sororities. But they don’t preach or try to give students all the answers. On a recent Thursday evening, the men’s lacrosse team packed into a dorm’s common area, where the group’s presenters, all women, tried to draw the athletes out. What does consent mean? How does sexual assault affect men? How do stereotypes of masculinity play into the problem?
“You should have consent before you go out and party and get drunk, instead of waking up the next day and regretting it,” one player said. “As a team, I want to win a national championship,” offered another. “I don’t want another player going out and touching a woman who doesn’t want to be touched and undermining our success.” Every time someone spoke up, the women tossed out packets of Sweet Tarts or Reese’s Pieces.
After such presentations, students sometimes approach members of the consent group, says Ms. Han, to say they’ve been applying its lessons. “I was having sex,” a student might report, “and I asked for consent!”
We’ve had our own conversation about consent here in Canada recently. I alluded to it briefly in my Mine all Mine post where I talked about how getting active gave me a new sense of being in my body. There, I called it confident ownership.
That’s another reason why I think athletes are in a good position to have some influence in this area. At Union, they’re involving not just the men’s teams, but also the women’s teams. As the captain of the women’s hockey team said, they’re “tough, bold women” with confidence.
As Caitlin from Fit and Feminist said earlier this week in her post on confidence, her athletic achievements (her awesomeness really does know no bounds — she’s unstoppable!) has translated into something she never had before: she believes in herself.
So women who are athletes can play an important role in changing the culture of risk. It’s a fine line, of course, between giving women tools that empower them, on the one hand, and blaming them when those tools fail them, on the other. It’s realistic, of course, to want to protect ourselves. At Union, the women
they do two things to keep themselves and their friends safe from sexual assault. They never walk alone after dark, and they go to parties in groups. Some also bring their own alcohol—keeping their drinks covered and close at hand. Campus safety officers taught three self-defense classes this fall, and the Theta Delta Chi fraternity offered to buy women a new kind of nail polish that is supposed to change colors to detect the presence of common date-rape drugs.
It’s fantastic that these campus initiatives don’t stop there. There’s a great “tipsheet” for preventing sexual assault that made the rounds a few years ago. It turns our usual suggestions about what women can do to keep themselves safe into suggestions for perpetrators instead. For example:
1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.
2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!
3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!
4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.
5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!
What these campus initiatives are getting right is that they are involving everyone. That’s what’s required for a culture change. Traditionally, sport (particularly men’s varsity sports) has been (and is) a sexist domain with a bad track record for treating women respectfully. It’s encouraging to see an initiative the takes advantage of the leadership potential of athletes on campuses and redefines the values we have come to associate with sports teams.
I hope to see more of this, including on my own campus where issues of date rape and sexual assault among the students need to be high on our list of priorities, and conversations about consent and respect need to stay on our radar even though our radio host scandal has fallen out of the news.