The Barkley Forum Debates

Barkley Forum members Katie Duval (sophomore) and Camila Reed-Guevara (freshman) debate whether or not sexual assault prevention programs for women should be supported.

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In support of targeted sexual assault prevention programs for women

Sexual assault and rape are global epidemics. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a person is assaulted every 107 seconds in our country. Four-fifths of survivors report being assaulted by people that they knew. The gendered dynamic of these assaults should not be ignored.

Between 15 and 20 percent of women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their college careers. Nine out of 10 survivors of rape are women. Women are disproportionately impacted by sexual assault. This should be enough to force an open discussion about the cultural values that make women targets of sexual aggression but it is not. Sixty-eight percent of victims do not even report their assault to the police, and only two percent of assaulters spend time in prison. Waiting for cultural change means more assaults. More devastated lives. More women left feeling unsafe and unsupported.

So what is being done to address this problem? After an increase in federal government scrutiny in Title IX violations, colleges have changed their policies in order to combat sexual assault. Universities have instituted orientation activities during the first week(s) of school to educate people about sexual assault. As Emory students, we’ve participated in some of these activities during our own Orientation Week. Even with this effort, 60 Emory students were assaulted last year, according to Orientation Leaders.

We need to look to the roots of the problem. Sexual assault is trivialized because we live in a society infiltrated with “rape culture.” Rape culture, defined by Women Against Violence Against Women, is a set of values that causes society to shift blame to the survivors of sexual assault. Emilie Buchwald, author of “Transforming a Rape Culture,” writes that rape culture is “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression … It is a society where violence is seen as sexy.”

Understanding that rape is a gendered form of violence is essential to its defeat. Orientation exercises are beginning to slowly address the problems of gendered violence by teaching students these important issues, but they do nothing to pragmatically prevent the rapes from occurring in the near future. The risk of rape is significantly increased during the “red zone,” the period of the time between the beginning of the fall semester and Thanksgiving. First-year women are particularly vulnerable to assault because college presents opportunities for many men and women to experiment with alcohol for the first time, and many are far from home and have not established safe support networks.

Targeted education can protect women from sexual assault, especially during this “red zone.” According to Professor Antonia Abbey at Wayne State University, in 81 percent of on-campus rapes, both the survivor and the rapist had consumed alcohol. Knowing this fact can help women to avoid situations where a sexual assault is likely to occur. We need to expand programs to give women specific information about sexual assault and strategies to combat it. These particular programs would allow for voluntary participation by women who wish to learn techniques for sexual assault prevention. Women would learn about sexual assault on campus, where they are likely to happen and when. Part of the program would be about alcohol consumption and its use to facilitate sexual predation. Other sessions may focus on developing strategies to establish support networks for younger women.

Understanding dangerous situations and how to avoid them can help women avoid sexual assault. Some might think this is a form of victim blaming. However, this form of pragmatic intervention is the type of protection offered for other crimes: tourists are warned of pickpockets;  consumers are routinely warned of fraudulent business practices; cleary reports warn us when violence has happened in our community. However, we do not currently blame the victims of pickpocketing and fraud when our educational campaigns fail. There is no reason to believe we would have a different response to targeted sexual assault training.

And men should not be excluded from this discussion. Similar programs should be instituted to actively educate men. Not only should they understand the clear, affirmative forms of consent, they must understand how to police themselves so that they don’t make women uncomfortable. This kind of educational campaign can make it clear that the primary responsibility to prevent sexual assault resides with the brotherhood.
Unfortunately there is no magic bullet for this epidemic. It will take years to change our cultural norms and the power dynamics that produce sexual assault. We have an obligation to embrace short-term pragmatic reforms as we pursue interim and long-term societal change. Women must be provided tools to protect themselves.

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Against targeted sexual assault prevention programs for women

The first few weeks of each academic year are referred to as the “red zone” on college campuses because of the extremely high risk of a sexual assault occurring. The red zone mandates a need to immediately respond to the pervasive rape culture on and off our campus. However, there is disagreement and debates on the proper ways to respond. While many people point to binge drinking and frat parties as the culprit, these are simply scapegoats for a pervasive culture of violence that affects every aspect of our life. We should be extremely concerned instituting programs that identify all survivors of sexual assault as women and all perpetrators of sexual violence as men. That rhetorical move has the potential of encouraging us to understand violence as biological instead of social and risks placing the burden on survivors to address sexual assault.

Emory already provides prevention and support services through the Office of Health Promotion (OHP) and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), which respond to students in crisis and educates all members on campus of the risks associated with alcohol consumption.

Shifting to programs that target women is the wrong move. Not only is this strategy demeaning, it blames survivors of sexual assault by claiming that their actions resulted in their attack. Holding survivors responsible for their own assaults can result in increased psychological trauma and discourage survivors from using the outstanding services on our campus that will help them cope. Sexual assault and rape are the only crimes that Emory will respond to in this manner. We don’t blame the victims of hate speech, theft or nonsexual assault for the violence perpetrated against them and make it their burden to prevent it from reoccurring.

While it is possible that programs attempting to educate women on how to avoid assault show some short-term results, it will be impossible to seriously address the culture behind these attacks once an institution has actively participated in blaming survivors.

This strategy ignores the underlying structure of violence by focusing primarily on the “sexual” aspect of the crime instead of the “violence.” Suggesting that survivors of sexual assault are responsible for their attack not only will cause additional psychological trauma, it may prevent survivors from reporting the attack. A Justice Department report indicates that “college women were more likely to seek counseling, drop a class or move residence than to seek criminal charges or disciplinary action by their university.” Victim blaming will exacerbate this phenomenon by telling women they are responsible for preventing assault. Why would they not be responsible for dealing with the aftermath?

In addition, institutions that blame survivors are also unlikely to believe survivors when they do come forward to report their assaults. The combination of a virulent rape culture and survivor-blaming will form a never-ending cycle in which rapists and attackers are never held responsible while survivors always are.

The assumption that only women should benefit from the suggested programs also lends itself to the notion that only men rape and only women are raped. This in itself is biological determinism and normalizes male violence. If sexual assault is a biologically determined male desire, men are excused from their responsibility to challenge the sexual violence. Can we really expect them to do what is not in their nature? We must oppose this rhetorical sleight of hand because it would reverse the small but meaningful gains we have made in this area. There is no hope for a future free of sexual assault if men are not actively engaged in resisting rape and our cultural norms that demean and devalue women.

Programs that instead focus on educating all students about consent can help to stop attacks by clarifying what is considered sexual assault. The OHP’s Respect Program is extremely promising because it sees sexual violence prevention as our collective responsibility. Instead of targeting women and blaming them for the scourge of violence that disproportionately impacts them, we should increase our support for Sexual Assault Prevention Advocates (SAPA), the Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) and Grads Against Violence (GAV).

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