Believe survivors, change the culture: The importance of sexual assault awareness month

The Editorial Board

April is sexual assault awareness month and for Canisius students, this month means acknowledging where the campus has made progress and pondering how we could be better. Over the past few years, Canisius has made dramatic changes to how they handle sexual assault cases and how sexual and dating violence are talked about on campus. Like other college campuses, students have driven the conversation for change.

April is sexual assault awareness month and for Canisius students, this month means acknowledging where our campus has made progress in dealing with sexual assault and identifying the gaps where we need to do more.

Over the past few years, Canisius has made dramatic changes to how they handle sexual assault cases and how sexual and dating violence are talked about on campus. Like other college campuses, students have driven the conversation for change.

For many years, campus organizations have taken the lead on initiating educational programming about sexual assault and dating violence. The Student Programming Board has sponsored speakers, Women and Gender Studies Club have handed out teal ribbons and support pledges and To Write Love On Her Arms has helped create t-shirts to hang on campus showing support for survivors.

This year, the Sexual Assault Prevention Team, Step Up! Griffs, Women and Gender Studies Club and USA’s Public Health Committee have all been working to create comprehensive programming for April to increase awareness, offer valuable information for students and create a culture where victims are believed.

The programs include Take Back the Night on April 10 which will include a speaker from Crisis Services, informational tables and a vigil for survivors; a survivor support wall in Palisano’s intranet café to show support for survivors and allow survivors a place to put their stories and artwork, a self-defense workshop on April 19 in Palisano and the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes walk on April 30 to benefit Crisis Services and raise awareness for sexual assault.

These programs are necessary steps to moving towards eradicating sexual assault on campus.

It’s important for students and administrators to step up and acknowledge the problems that we are having on campus and country-wide. We cannot confidently claim that Canisius is not a place where sexual assault occurs. Just because it’s not featured as breaking news or being talked about in the hallways, doesn’t mean that in dorm rooms and off-campus housing, the women and men at Canisius aren’t ever assaulted. They are.

According to RAINN, 23 percent of undergraduate females experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. That’s nearly one fourth of women. When you factor in both genders and graduate students, that number is still 11 percent of students who are sexually assaulted.

Take a second and think of your orientation group, the people in your last classroom, the friends you made on your freshman year floor. Even if they’re not telling you, the people you know and are friends with are experiencing assault. It’s up to us to try and change that.

In order to do that, we need to raise awareness about the epidemic of rape on college campuses, make it as easy as possible for victims to report their rape and create a culture that believes and supports survivors on and off campus. Perhaps most importantly, we need to educate our students about consent. Because despite explanimation videos and Step Up! Griff presentations, our students still do not have a grasp on what consent looks like in realistic situations. Consent is difficult and it’s not as easy or simple as drinking tea. It requires active communication and a mature understanding about sex.

To start, if you need a refresher, this is how Canisius defines consent:

Affirmative Consent is a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent. The definition of consent does not vary based upon a participant’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. While not required by state or federal law, Canisius strongly recommends that students ask for and receive verbal consent before engaging in sexual activity. In addition,

  1. Consent to any sexual act or prior consensual sexual activity between or with any party does not necessarily constitute consent to any other sexual act.
  2. Consent is required regardless of whether the person initiating the act is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
  3. Consent may be initially given but withdrawn at any time.
  4. Consent cannot be given when a person is incapacitated, which occurs when an individual lacks the ability to knowingly choose to participate in sexual activity.  *Incapacitation may be caused by the lack of consciousness or being asleep, being involuntarily restrained, or if an individual otherwise cannot consent. Depending on the degree of intoxication, someone who is under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other intoxicants may be incapacitated and therefore unable to consent.
  5. Consent cannot be given when it is the result of any coercion, intimidation, force, or threat of harm.
  6. When consent is withdrawn or can no longer be given, sexual activity must stop.

Although the college has made progress in how our students think about sexual assault and consent, we aren’t done yet.

Beyond understanding consent at its bare-minimum, legal definition, it’s important that we as well-educated adults think how a culture that permits and accepts sexual violence came about in the first place. We live in a country that still depicts men as “hunters” trying to “score” at a party or club and thinks of women as “prey” that can be caught with drinks and compliments. Not only is this narrative dangerous to women, but it’s dangerous to men to continuously convince them that their value comes from how many women they sleep with.

We need to think more in-depth about the implications of our gender roles and question why we so often think of a woman as a commodity and men as the consumers.

It is these gender perceptions that create a culture that blames victims and dismisses survivors. Victims, often women, are criticized for their clothing choice, their B.A.C., and their previous sexual promiscuity. When someone does have the courage to come forward, they are often dismissed and labeled as crazy or dramatic. For too long have students assumed that women will lie about sexual assault for attention. This is rarely, if ever, the case.

Similar logic is applied when people make assumptions about what a perpetrator looks and acts like. Especially with male rapists, people imagine a typical “creepy guy” archetype that slips drugs in a girls drink or lurks around the corners of basement parties. But, more often than not, the rapist is someone the victim knows. It can be the athlete, a student leader, a straight-A student or someone’s significant other.

We need to create a student body that understands consent, is sexually competent and ready to intervene when they think something may be astray. We need to be men and women who are looking out for each other.

So, even though it’s uncomfortable and difficult to talk about, we here at The Griffin hope we will see you at some of the programming for this month. We have the power to stand in solidarity with survivors and change the culture, we just need to get out there and try.

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