As a member of the University of Akron’s Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CASA), I attended a conference in Columbus on Friday, November 2nd that brought together student leaders from colleges and universities across the state. This was the second “Generation IX: Summit Our Time. Our Power. Our Voices., Changing Campus Culture Student Summit.” This was an incredibly lengthy title to describe an event tackling an equally large problem: sexual assault on college campus. I have written many articles in the past looking at this issue and so have many esteemed authors, journalists and documentarians. Students across the country have been speaking out for years from the very first take back the night to the #MeToo movement about the very real problem of a pervasive culture on campuses that protects people who commit sexual assault and ignores, isolates or even attacks those who are victims.
For anyone who works with this issue in any capacity or has been affected by this issue, they understand how it too often feels like you’re just shouting into a void. This conference was extremely useful through its lectures and workshops on how to magnify one’s voice and how to make the void a little less endless.
Throughout the day, there were lectures and workshops that I was able to attend as well as opportunities to network with students across the state and compare notes as to how our different campuses handled Title IX and sexual assault. The first lecture by Tim Mousseau, a sexual assault survivor and activist, discussed the statistics that frame the conversation around sexual assault. These are valuable statistics that really show how big of a problem sexual assault is and really shows who are the survivors of sexual assault and who are the perpetrators. 18-25% of women on college campuses will experience sexual assault and so will 6% of men. Mousseau’s research also examined how big of an issue it is in the LGBTQ+ community with his research showing that a large percentage of this community being affected. Interestingly, while 90% of sexual violence on campus being perpetrated by men, only 6% of men would willingly commit sexual assault. Oftentimes, one perpetrator commits multiple assaults, but that still does not account for the large gap in the statistics. Mousseau theorized that this mean that many men do not realize that their behavior contributes to sexual violence and that they may have ‘unknowingly’ committed sexual assault because of an incomplete understanding of consent and a culture that assumes men always want to have sex, other men shouldn’t stop other men from having sex, and college kids are always getting drunk and hooking up like it’s no big deal. These are all completely untrue, and tie into the underlying theme of the conference: teaching consent.
Another workshop led by Akron’s very own Julius Payne of the Rape Crisis Center of Summit and Medina County looked to conquer a culture of disrespect through relationships and communication. This lecture looked at the empathy, communication and respect that goes into building positive relationships and the context of words that differ because of upbringing, media and experiences and misunderstanding context could negatively affect relationships. The crux of this workshop was that through building true, meaningful and healthy relationships people would be more willing to fight the bystander effect and stand up for someone else.
The second workshop looked at how to hold administration, faculty and unresponsive student organizations accountable. Jill Davis with the Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio discussed that to better engage people it’s valuable to appeal to their sense of ethics while also using data and budgetary information to show the value in helping others. While it’s unfortunate that people have to be appealed to in order to help worthy causes, this speech looked realistically at the struggles of engaging people on college campuses. This speech also looked at not just the importance but rather the necessity of making sure that people from different races, ethnicities and sexual orientations are involved in fighting for this issue and are allowed their own platform.
The final workshop of the event was also led by Julius Payne who discussed not just the importance of consent but also how to discuss it. While preaching honesty, non judgment and openness, Payne discussed the importance of going beyond “no means no” to build a realistic foundation for sexually active students that looks at the “grayer” areas of non verbal communication and sex after drinking or drug use. Really, this presentation served to look at finding comfort in the discomfort.
While all the advice and suggestions provided throughout this conference were invaluable the best piece of advice was from Mousseau. He stated, “it’s too late when we talk about it”. When we talk about sexual assault it’s always in reaction to a sexual assault taking place. The people who speak out are too often sexual assault survivors. To really stop sexual assault we need to focus on prevention and the people at the front line fighting should be people who are not “ripping themselves open to martyr themselves for the cause”. This is all of our fight and tools on how to discuss consent are invaluable to the effort. Please, find comfort in the discomfort and challenge jokes about sexual assault and misconceptions about consent and stand up for anyone who ever looks uncomfortable.