Our election has given me a lot to think about when it comes to the way that our institutions handle discussions of sexual violence. No, I don’t mean November’s presidential election. I mean our election to choose UChicago’s student government leaders for the upcoming year, in which members of two of the four slates running faced allegations of sexual violence leading up to the election. Malay Trivedi of Elevate declined to confirm or deny the allegations, even after his slate suspended their campaign in response to survivors contacting them to substantiate the allegations. Myles Hudson of Engage eventually confirmed the allegations, and Engage went on to win the election.
As the chair of the Student Government Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Committee, my immediate concern following the election was the fact that, over the next few months, my colleagues and I will have to work with Engage, a slate whose decision to continue their campaign in the face of sexual violence allegations directly conflicts with my ideals. More deeply concerning, though, was the subsequent outpouring of misinformation, confusion, and even outright vitriol on online forums. Throughout and following the election, “sexual misconduct” was the prevailing term used to describe the allegations against the candidates. As a result, students attempted to parse the difference between sexual assault and sexual misconduct, arguing that these survivors didn’t experience “real” sexual violence, and that calling the candidate’s behavior sexual assault invalidated the experiences of “real” survivors. To be clear, at UChicago sexual misconduct is an umbrella term that includes sexual assault, but the inaccuracies of students’ comments represent a larger problem with how we as a campus community understand sexual violence. This in turn feeds into who we believe is deserving of acknowledgement, recognition, and support. The election may have brought these misconceptions to light, but it did not, in and of itself, create them. Rather, it demonstrated how the language of university policies, and the educational tools aimed at promulgating them, end up leaving students misinformed about concepts of consent, Title IX, and sexual violence.
Consent education at UChicago is generally part of a broader curriculum about sexual violence and bystander intervention, most notably during orientation week, but also as part of workshops offered by the Office for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Support throughout the year. These discussions are extremely important, and bystander intervention training is an effective tool in the prevention of sexual violence at institutes of higher education. However, discussing consent solely in these contexts ends up portraying consent as though its principal function is to prevent a sexual assault, rather than to empower people to take charge of their bodies. Words like “power” and “agency”—words that are crucial to discussions of sexual violence, since sexual violence arises from power imbalances and strips its survivors of agency—are nowhere to be found in the University’s terminology. Instead we talk about consent as something that needs to be “obtained,” framing consent, and by extension, sex, as something that is given by one person to another, rather than the result of mutual agreement based on all parties having agency over their own bodies, sexualities, and pleasure, and having equal power in the situation.
Terms like “misconduct” only serve to further downplay sexual violence or obfuscate students’ understanding of it. Even though at UChicago “sexual misconduct” is a term intended to encompass a range of acts, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence, and stalking, it isn’t hard to see how “misconduct” can be viewed by students as something lighter or lesser than sexual violence, in a way that terms like “violence,” “harassment,” and “assault” cannot. In choosing terms that are easy to swallow, we end up with terms that are easy to misconstrue. Consequently, when student leaders face serious allegations, campus discourse is quick to argue that it is “only misconduct” as though this cannot encompass a wide range of sexual violence.
Even tools like the Campus Climate Survey, a nationwide survey conducted by hundreds of institutions of higher education to assess strengths and weaknesses around sexual violence prevention efforts for students, have flaws despite providing us with data that is invaluable to the process of understanding sexual violence on campus and how it is perceived. Yes, the survey revealed significant deficits in the ability of resources and students to connect with one another—deficits that the University can hopefully begin to resolve—but many survey questions were worded in such a way that they failed to take into account the reality of how sexual violence occurs on a college campus. Around 80 percent of survivors know their assailant. In fact, the most common assailant is either a friend, or a current or former partner. Given this, how can a student be expected to list the “date(s) nonconsensual sexual contact occurred” if sexual violence was an ongoing aspect of an abusive relationship? Is the violence that a student experiences the single occasion or occasions where, as University policy would state, “an act of sexual penetration without consent” occurred? Or is the violence the escalation of dangerous behavior on the part of the assailant that led to that point—over the course of hours, days, or even months and years? I would argue that it’s both. Still, it’s no wonder that when the language of the resources our school attempts to use to support us creates an incomplete narrative of sexual violence, we as a community are left with an incomplete understanding.
We may not be able to change the language with which UChicago portrays sexual violence—that language is the product of years of federal legislation, adjudicated by individuals with various goals from protecting institutions’ liability to preventing assailants’ lives from being “ruined”—but we have the power to advocate for better tools to combat it. The goal of Title IX is to prevent discrimination in education, specifically discrimination on the basis of sex, but when we prioritize semantics over clarity, we lose the ability to work as a community to address sexual violence. The very factors that contribute to the prevalence and the nature of this problem on a college campus—a closed community, the likelihood of knowing your assailant, independence, entitlement, entering serious relationships for the first time—can also be leveraged to create a community in which people hold their peers accountable, practice healthy relationships, and work together towards restorative justice while still understanding the gravity and impact that sexual violence can have not only on survivors, but their peers, and the community at large. Even in a situation where there is still uncertainty—such as an allegation that has not been formally resolved by an administrative body—the community is harmed when it is forced to choose between leaders who they believe have committed acts of sexual violence. Survivors are harmed when they are forced to watch their assailants battle for positions of power that directly impact them, or worse, win.
As the Department of Education rolls out regulations aimed at reducing institutional accountability, all of the slates running for election included in their platforms some variation of goals aimed at increasing it. Our candidates called for increased trauma-informed counseling services, mandatory prevention training of students in leadership positions, and more widespread marketing of sexual violence resources, changes that would undoubtedly begin to chip away at our misconceptions, and hopefully lead to a greater understanding on our campus about what sexual violence is and how it affects people. These goals are admirable at any level, from collegiate to national, and I am proud to attend an institution where students prioritize, value, and actively campaign for such reforms. But it also matters who’s in charge of them.
Amara Balan is a fourth-year in the College and chairs the Student Government Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Committee.
This op-ed deals with sensitive subject matter. If you or someone you know needs support following sexual violence, the following is a list of resources: https://tinyurl.com/saapresources.