News

Investigative Series, Part VI: Prevention and campus climate

Victims see a campus culture of perceived tolerance towards sexual assault crimes.

This is the sixth and final installment of a quarter-long series on sexual assault, the fifth of which was published on November 30. It can be found here

New student initiatives and ongoing administration efforts have established a solid base of sexual assault education and prevention at UChicago. However, citing problems both unique to the UChicago community and systemic to societal rape culture, a diverse array of community members have emphasized that there remains room for growth.

O-Week Initiatives

Sex Signals, a performance presented by Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) and Student Counseling Services (SCS), informs students about the importance, appearance, and function of consent during Orientation Week. Following the event, students attend a Chicago Life Meeting, “Uchoose,” led by a student Orientation leader and one of their Resident Assistants to discuss the issues posed by the presentation. Attendance is compulsory for all incoming students.

First-year Zoe Kauder Nalebuff said she felt that the meeting did not afford enough time to the issue. “The tone of the discussions felt very rushed; the RAs and orientation leader had far too much information to go through in a very short period of time,” she said.

“There was one peer response prompt that…claims something like, ‘he didn’t rape her; she’s such a slut.’ While the discussion was supposed to be focused on how the accuser being a ‘slut’ is not a justification for disbelieving a rape claim, the conversation ended up being on how you shouldn’t believe gossip. Before the moderators really had a chance to push the conversation the way the prompt was supposed to pan out, we had to move onto the next topic for time’s sake.”

First-year Phillip Crean took issue with the discussion’s narrow range of consent-exchange situations, claiming that the meeting placed too large an emphasis on hook-up culture.

“O-Week sexual consent presentations and discussions focused a lot on getting and giving sexual consent in extreme situations, primarily when someone is clearly drunk. While a worthwhile discussion, it avoided the more muddled grey area of sexual consent in more moderate (and more everyday) situations. I did not leave knowing more than before in that regard,” Crean said.

Existing and emerging education

Responding directly to this criticism, “Sex Week,” a new student initiative scheduled to launch fifth week of winter quarter 2013, will host an event to discuss consent in contexts other than heteronormative hook-up culture. The event Consent of all Flavors will emphasize consent as a dynamic process, and how it differs for different kinds of relationships.

“Usually, at least in the sort of orientation sexual assault context, you get a specific idea of what consent is. It’s a one-time transaction and the purpose of it is to make sure that assault doesn’t happen,” said fourth-year Lorca Sloan, one of the Consent of all Flavors panelists. “But it doesn’t approach consent as a dynamic process that happens within a relationship, and…it’s an ongoing process of communication.”

RSVP Peer Educators program offers workshops on acquaintance rape, rape culture, risk reduction, gender in the media, communication, and the role of alcohol and other drugs in sexual assault. These workshops are not mandatory, and are available upon request of housing or individual student groups. But according to fourth-year Amy Bianca Lara, the RSVP Peer Educator Coordinator, the student-led workshops have limited uptake and irregular exposure.

“I’ve been working at RSVP for three years, and I can say that only a handful of RHs are interested in having RSVP workshops done,” Lara said.

“I’d have to say that 60 percent of people don’t respond, of the other 40 percent people are interested, but there are scheduling conflicts, and other times we do the workshop…Even the people that get to have access to this information are only people in the housing system, which are really freshmen. But even then they have only a certain amount of students that actually go to house meetings.”

Jane, who preferred to remain anonymous, was sexually assaulted by her then-boyfriend and called for a more regular dialogue about consent. She said she wanted “greater and more constant education for asking for consent. We get it as a first-year, but my boyfriend was a fourth-year.”

One of RSVP’s more visible attempts to reach the broader campus community was last year’s poster campaign, which featured pictures of men or couples and brief scenarios, including the tagline, “My strength is not for hurting.” RSVP Director Vickie Sides explained some of the reasoning behind the posters, which were borrowed from a national campaign.

“That campaign specifically targeted men. And that was really important to us because we want to be very intentional about reaching men through our programming, recruiting men and speaking to them as audience members, not as potential perpetrators but engaging them, as partners against violence.”

Despite the poster campaign and other initiatives, an oft-cited concern from students is the perception of sexual assault as a crime that is largely invisible on campus. Fourth-year Patty Fernandez of Tea Time and Sex Chats and The Clothesline Project spoke to that lack of awareness, which she sees as intertwined with broad stereotypes about UChicago.

“There are a lot of people who seem to think that because we are UChicago students and we’re privileged and have money…and we’re mature, and less sexually aggressive, that that’s not something that happens on this campus, or to people who have come to this campus.”

The Clothesline Project, previously mentioned in the third installment of this series, is an art installation that features t-shirts decorated to represent anonymous stories of sexual assault. Through public artistic displays, the group hopes to pierce through the silence that shrouds sexual assault.

“We can’t be there to help you legally navigate something that happened last year or 10 years ago, but we can be there to help give you a voice. There are so many people that have not spoken because they feel like they can’t.”

Campus culture

One second-year student, who spoke to the Maroon on the condition of anonymity, named unsympathetic peer reactions as a factor in her decision to not pursue action against her rapist, who had assaulted her while she was intoxicated.

“The issue is a lot of the people who were with me that night don’t view it as rape. That’s the issue…They were like, well you were just drunk on the corner, you just had sex. Sex is sex.”

Fourth-year Molly Liu pointed to a limited understanding of rape within broader culture as the primary reason why she did not report an incident involving her then-boyfriend.

“Honestly, the thing that would’ve made the most difference is having the cultural framework that what had happened to me was rape…. This was someone that I knew and trusted, someone who purported to care about me. I was completely unprepared to categorize this incident as rape even though it was in retrospect very obviously rape.”

Sides also emphasized the broader context that transcends University or individual sexual crimes; in addition to workshops about consent and violence prevention, RSVP also offers programs on rape culture.

“We feel that it’s important to go a step further and say, ‘These are the reasons violence exists.’ We want to address the root causes of violence, such as inequity and unequal access to power. We take a broader social justice approach to eliminating violence, and specifically gender-based violence.”

Speaking about UChicago’s ongoing efforts toward education and prevention, Sides offered a vision of the climate that RSVP works toward.

“We strive to create an environment that is supportive and empowering to those that have been impacted by sexual violence, either directly or indirectly. We also understand that if we get it right, we communicate the message to potential violators that those offending behaviors will not be tolerated here.”

But as of right now, many victims equate a lack of dialogue, an effect that is unique to sexual assault cases, with a perceived tolerance of the crime. The community intolerance of violators that Sides cites is sometimes lacking in survivors’ experiences, reflecting an oft-mentioned unwillingness to label the crime as rape and its perpetrators as rapists. The previously cited second-year victim reflected on responses to her account of being raped.

“Everyone was just like, ‘I’m sorry that happened,’ but apparently it’s just, like, a thing that happens, and it shouldn’t be a thing that happens.”

The Maroon is committed to achieving as thorough knowledge as possible of all aspects of this issue. If you have information on the history of the University of Chicago’s policies in regard to sexual assault, or if you or someone you know has experiences relating to sexual assault and/or subsequent hearings, please contact us at [email protected] or joycrane7@gmail.com.