You asked us some important questions relating to sexual assault, relationships, and communication, and we found the experts to answer them. Our experts want to help you be able to communicate, gather information, and make decisions about these topics; it’s a fundamental step toward empowering yourself and your community. Scroll down to the questions below to find out what they have to say.
Ramsey Champagne, MA
Ramsey is the community advocate at a New England university’s sexual assault prevention and response office and a former educator, administrator of nonprofits, and yoga teacher. In the past, she worked at Casa Myrna, Boston’s largest domestic violence shelter and support organization, where she provided counseling to people impacted by interpersonal violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. As community advocate, she has the opportunity to sit with people as they unpack their belief systems in service of reducing the likelihood of causing identity-based harm.
Amanda Ayers, MPH
Amanda is the health educator at a New England University in the health promotion office. She received her Master of Public Health degree from Boston University in 2013 and has been working in higher education for over six years. Amanda is a certified Koru Mindfulness teacher and enjoys spreading skills and knowledge of mindfulness and meditation across her university campus.
Ariana is a fourth-year college student studying the history of science and women and gender studies. She loves learning about health and sexual assault prevention. Originally from Juneau, Alaska, she also loves hiking and other outdoor activities.
“Have campuses become safer for students regarding sexual assault over the past decade, and how can safety be improved?”
—Third-year undergraduate, Portland State University
This is a really important and nuanced question. It’s hard to answer whether or not campuses have become safer over the past decade because we have a limited data set and sexual assaults tend to be significantly underreported (this Atlantic article explains why in more detail).
The Association of American Universities (AAU) started tracking incidences of sexual violence in 2015. This is a more thorough survey than those that were used in the past, but we only have very recent data from it. Because the language used in these surveys has shifted pretty significantly in the past eight years, it’s difficult to make comparisons over time. Additionally, as RC said, it’s hard for campuses to recognize the full scope of what’s happening because sexual violence is underreported, especially among populations at the margins (e.g., people of color, undocumented students).
Here’s what recent studies have told us:
- Nearly 12 percent of all student respondents reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation during their university experience. Rates were highest among female undergraduates and transgender, gender non-conforming, and questioning students (AAU, 2015).
- The US Department of Justice (DOJ) released a 2013 report indicating that the rates of rape and sexual assault among 18- to 24-year-olds did not significantly change between 1997 and 2013.
- One in five women and one in sixteen men were targets of attempted or completed sexual assault while on college campuses (DOJ, 2007).
Change will happen when people—students, faculty, and administrators—come together and actively work to make our campuses safer and more supportive to survivors. This takes effort and sometimes requires reframing the way we think about our communities and their cultures, but it is possible. We can start by becoming aware of and acknowledging the reality of sexual assault on college campuses, talking about it more openly, and strategically advocating.
“When I think about the most effective way to reduce incidents of sexual assault on campuses, so much of it is about communication.” —AG
Having conversations with your peers about the structures and mentalities that allow sexual assault to exist is a great starting place. Build a stronger community by reminding each other about the importance of communicating with friends and romantic partners and continuing to hold yourselves accountable.
I love thinking about the variety of ways we can contribute to creating a community that is more accessible for all people. It helps me to use the Social Ecological Model (SEM), which shows how individuals and their well-being are impacted by the various spheres through which they move (including their relationships with themselves and with others, communities, and society) and how, in turn, they impact the well-being of those spheres. It can be hard to know how our behavior may have affected someone. Because of this, I find it helpful to consistently practice checking in with those around me.
Good communication can build shared understanding and more respectful relationships, making it less likely that we’ll experience harm
The more you try to check in with the people you’re interacting with, the easier it becomes. Eventually, it starts feeling less forced or awkward. Checking in, and checking in regularly, can give you a better sense of how your actions and words impact those around you. This can be as easy as using language like: “I want to make sure we’re on the same page…” or “How do you feel about…” It’s also important to be intentional about the language we use when interacting with our peers.
A key piece of relationship building is taking ownership when you realize that something you did hurt someone else, whether you meant it to or not.
If you found out that you hurt someone, it’s important to validate their feelings, even if at first you don’t know why your actions would have had the effect that they did. Then you can try to understand their experience and take ownership. Once you have a better sense of how something was interpreted, you can start working to make amends and incorporate their feedback. Bringing this back to sexual assault, it means acknowledging when or if you are in a position that allows you to exercise power over another person, and thinking about the ways this can affect the dynamic or the other person’s sense of comfort. Our hope is that people strive to consistently negotiate consent without expecting or demanding a particular response.
Accountability, your influence, and group expectations
Some other ways to help change campus culture include:
- Participating in conversations where you have social influence and access
- Modeling positive behavior for others (e.g., leading by example)
- Using your influence to help facilitate more equitable and comfortable environments for everyone
For example, if you’re a leader in a social group or organization, you may be able to help set group expectations about what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. This may look different for each group, but some examples include a zero-tolerance policy for rape jokes or for language that demeans others.
When thinking about the relationships and communities we’re involved in, reducing harm often involves creating systems of accountability and intentional group norms. For example, in your social spheres, think about the following:
- How do people hold each other accountable when someone does something that doesn’t align with group values?
- How supportive are others in the group when that happens?
- What are the group understandings (explicit and implicit) about what is and isn’t acceptable?
By starting with the little things we talked about earlier—like checking in and taking ownership—it becomes easier to have these conversations. Often, a clear discussion is great at setting norms and helping people feel empowered to carry them out.
This process can sound daunting, but by practicing clear and mutual communication, we each become more equipped to receive feedback, validate other people’s experience, take ownership for our part, and learn. All of this goes a surprisingly long way.
“It is my understanding that the government changed the definition of rape in recent years. What is rape? As a male, I am confused by the word as well as “sexual assault.” They seem to be used interchangeably.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, San Diego State University
Thanks so much for asking! First, I want to note that none of us are trained in the law, so we can’t give legal advice or counsel, but to my understanding, yes. In 2012, the DOJ updated its definition of forcible rape (which hadn’t changed since 1927 and was incredibly limited) to: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” That said, each state has its own legislation and unique language about what constitutes rape.
Title IX is the 1972 legislation that strives to ensure all students have equal access to education-related opportunities, regardless of their sex. Title IX is used by schools to guide how they deal with sexual assault and misconduct allegations on their campus. That legislation’s scope has been clarified and changed a number of times over the years and continues to be.
It’s also important to remember that each individual campus interprets Title IX differently and writes its own unique sexual assault policies and procedures. It can be worth spending some time familiarizing yourself with your school’s Title IX policy. It’s totally fair to be confused by the distinction between rape and sexual assault. Typically, sexual assault is used as more of an umbrella term such that all rapes can be defined as a type of sexual assault but that not all sexual assaults are rape.
The DOJ defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” As AG said, rape is therefore a form of sexual assault, but not all sexual assaults can be understood as rape.
This, though, does get complicated in our larger cultural context; often, the two terms are blurred, as you have noted. When talking about these topics on campus, students tend not to distinguish between the two categories.
I think, at the end of the day, the takeaway for me is that any type of sexual or physical interaction—or any interaction at all—should involve an ongoing negotiation of wantedness and consent.
Association of American Universities. (2015, September 3). AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct (2015). Retrieved from https://www.aau.edu/key-issues/aau-climate-survey-sexual-assault-and-sexual-misconduct-2015
Bedsider Birth Control Support Network. Retrieved from https://www.bedsider.org/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (April 27, 2014). STD & HIV screening recommendations. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/prevention/screeningreccs.htm
Ciolkowski, L. (2016, October 15). Rape culture syllabus. Retrieved from http://www.publicbooks.org/rape-culture-syllabus/
Human Rights Campaign. Glossary of terms. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms
Krebs, C. Lindquist, C., Warner, T., Fisher, B. et al. (2007, December). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Survey. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Policy. Retrieved from https://apps.rainn.org/policy/
Sexual Literacy. The column. Retrieved from http://www.sexual-literacy.com/
Sexual Literacy. Why sexual literacy. Retrieved from http://www.sexual-literacy.com/why-sexual-literacy/
Sinozich, S. & Langton, L.. (2014, December). Rape and sexual assault victimization among college-age females, 1995–2013. US Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsavcaf9513.pdf
United States Department of Education. (2017, September 22). Office for Civil Rights: Sex discrimination, policy guidance. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/frontpage/faq/rr/policyguidance/sex.html
US Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. (2017, June 16). Sexual assault. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/ovw/sexual-assault
US Department of Education. (2015, October 15). Title IX and sex discrimination. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html
Wong, A. (2016, January 26). The problem with data on campus sexual assault. Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/why-the-prevalence-of-campus-sexual-assault-is-so-hard-to-quantify/427002/