Re-thinking Sexual Violence on Campus

By Madeleine Andrew-Gee
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

Columbia University – New York City, New York

In the era of #MeToo, growing awareness of long-ignored injustices is being transformed into concrete solutions. Actions are already being proposed from the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund established to financially support survivors of workplace harassment, to calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on sexual violence, to the Power to the Polls campaign which is encouraging people to register to vote in order to use their voices as political power.

As this awareness grows, Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus”, writes of the #MeToo Movement. She states, “This moment of clarifying anger is particularly impressive given the recent lack of respect paid to another type of victim, one who dominated the news directly before Mr. Weinstein’s fall from grace: the college sexual assault victim”.

As a recent university graduate, writing about campus sexual violence hits close to home. By some accounts, 28% of female students, 12% of male students and 40% of gender non-conforming students have experienced sexual assault while in university. From my personal experience at a Canadian university, those numbers seem scarily accurate— if not an underestimation. Despite intense media scrutiny and repeated attempts by students and activists to try and initiate change, the crisis of sexual violence on campuses continues. Reporting systems remain bureaucratic and survivors can have a hard time accessing support. After decades of slow progress, it is time for new framing and new solutions.

Enter “The Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT)”, led by Jennifer S. Hirsch, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, and Claude Ann Mellins, Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University. Their project aims to look at the individual, but also at the interpersonal, community, cultural and institutional factors of sexual violence on campuses. At Columbia University, which has been rocked by several rounds of controversy around sexual violence, SHIFT is proposing nuanced evidence-based solutions to an age-old injustice.

SHIFT is, for starters, a research project. The project aims:

1) To understand the prevalence of sexual assault on campus

2) To understand the ecology of sexual assault by examining key individual, interpersonal/social, and contextual and institutional risk and protective factors associated with sexual violence and sexual health 

3) To work with key stakeholders to translate findings into interventions and policy

The project is rigorous in its methodology—through interviews, surveys and observation (researchers would go and take notes at local bars—a somewhat controversial approach) the SHIFT team aims to compile the most comprehensive picture of how sexual violence happens. One portion of the research included a ‘daily diary’ component, where students were paid a dollar a day to fill out a survey on issues such as their stress-level, financial status, sexual activity and substance use. Of the project’s unique approach, Jia Tolentino writes in “Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?” “… no previous survey has so accurately reflected how sexual assault actually occurs in college—as an event embedded within the fabric of everyday life, which both perpetrator and victim understand based on their background, their habits, their state of mind”.

Sexual assault on campuses is not a new phenomenon. At Columbia alone, controversy around the administration’s handling of sexual assault cases goes back to at least 1977. A group of students and professors, led by Ann Olivarius, sued the school for lack of reporting procedure amid an environment that bred sexual harassment. Throughout the 1980s “Take Back the Night” marches were commonplace on campuses.

Historically, the issue of campus sexual assault has been treated as an “individual misbehaviour” by the perpetrator— but programs that work person-by-person aren’t usually very effective.  While it is important to recognize the individual responsibility on perpetrators of sexual violence, the team at Columbia believes that a broader approach is needed to effectively address this type of violence on campus.  SHIFT aims to reframe the epidemic of sexual violence on campus and address how this violence actually happens and what can be done to prevent it from happening.

Tolentino and Hirsch compare the SHIFT approach to the campaign to decrease drunk driving. Decades ago, drunk driving made up roughly 60% of traffic deaths. Since then, through a combination of new, targeted laws and community and educational programs, drunk driving deaths have significantly decreased.

Tolentino writes, “Hirsch and Mellins… are doggedly optimistic that there is, if not a single fix, a series of new solutions”. Like the drunk driving campaigns of the past decades, SHIFT proposes similar “speed bumps and check points that could decrease the level of harm”. This means a series of changes in the campus environment that give more consideration to how mental health and substance use factor into violence, more spaces on campus that feel safe and accessible to students, more programs at high-risk moments, especially services that are available at night. For example, making counselling services widely available may decrease the likelihood of a student finding other outlets, such as binge-drinking, that could raise their risk of experiencing sexual violence.

 The speed bumps and checkpoints put in place to decrease risk—the “ordinary” fixes that make campus life more inclusive and safe—will contribute to a change in culture on campus. There is no one experience of sexual violence, and therefore no one solution. Yet, SHIFT shows us that there are new ways to consider sexual assault on campus, as a broader problem that includes individual and institutional factors. By changing ‘small’ factors in campus life, we can better protect potential victims from the sexual violence that is all too common.