Sexual assault is disturbingly prevalent across college campuses in this country.
No matter the school or the college-town, it seems, assault has become an all-too-expected part of our daily news cycle and our concept of the undergraduate experience. At many colleges and universities, assault and harassment prevention programming is in place to try and deliver information about consent, violence prevention, intimate partner violence, and other issues that students who are just living away from home for the first time may encounter. Many of these programs are directed specifically at incoming first-year students – oftentimes, in fact, they’re part of orientation in a student’s first few days or weeks at school.
In recent years, as more research has been conducted around best practices and as the issue itself has become more and more urgent, campuses have gotten creative about their approach to assault prevention education. Many institutions have sought to spice up the ways they disseminate information about their policies so that students actually understand the regulations, most of which take the form of skits or performances that are meant to depict a negative sexual experience and then probe students’ reactions through discussion and reflection.
At my own alma mater, the freshman class floods into an auditorium each year to watch an interactive performance by upperclassmen. The performance, created by a group of upperclassmen, portrays students facing many of the issues that college freshmen do. Afterwards, we split up into smaller break-out groups to talk about hook-up culture and binge drinking and “blurry” sexual encounters and taking care of each other.
Similar programs exist at a wide variety of schools including University of Michigan, University of Virginia, New York University, Vassar College, and Skidmore — student groups make use of theater and performance as a means of presenting something that can launch students into a discussion about what it means to give consent and when to encourage their friends to seek professional help. Often times, the group of creators work together to devise a piece that feels relevant to their student body and to the particular moment on their campus, and frequently make sure to include dramatized versions of events that seem to come up time and time again on their individual campuses.
An understanding of consent is, without a doubt, one of the most important things a brand-new college student needs. Truth be told, college is too late to be first learning about consent — but, we have to start somewhere, and, just as we don’t let students move into their dorms without having the appropriate vaccinations to protect against college-rampant illnesses, we shouldn’t allow them to begin building their collegiate lives without a strong sense of how to conduct themselves safely in a perhaps newly sexual environment.
Of course, finding new and original ways to describe Title IX laws and campus-specific resources is important — the information is dry, which means it’s likely to be ignored, and it’s far too important not to be paid proper attention — but I’m not convinced we’ve yet cracked the best way to teach assault prevention.
Campus programming – be it theatrical or otherwise, though theater is proven to be an extremely effective means of opening people up and engaging with difficult subject matter – needs to be continually evolving. Though the productions at many campuses are successful ways to break the ice and begin discussion, there seems to be something missing.
In an interview with NPR, University of Windsor researcher Charlene Senn explained why we should consider shifting our focus to, “teaching women ways to avoid assault.” Though the idea that there’s something certain girls can do to essentially “steer clear” of assault doesn’t sit right with me, the importance of ensuring women and men understand with absolute certainty what constitutes assault and what happens if and when you have been assaulted is inarguably critical.
Students, particularly women, but, truly, all students, need to understand where to go if they have been assaulted. They already know how to shout out from the audience to indicate which of the scenes they’ve just seen looks more like consensual or non-consensual sex; more than learning how to identify a “good experience” from a “bad,” they desperately need to learn what to do when they know something has gone wrong.
Then, they need to be made intimately familiar with the legal particulars of sexual assault, something we often don’t discuss in any realistic detail until someone has actually already reported assault — at which point its far too late to begin coming to terms with the judicial process. They need to know the ins and outs of how much evidence they’ll need to back up their claims and who on their college campuses is bound to report what they hear from students about assault. They need to understand how to decide whether or not they’d like to press charges before they arrive at the deeply fraught moment in which they are forced to make that kind of decision.
Of course, we should strive and seek to end assault. Our campuses should not be such that college freshmen need to learn about Title IX and crisis centers and anonymous hotlines in their first few days, but, until they aren’t, we need to take a look at how those first few valuable moments on a college campus can be best made useful and how educators and student leaders can seize the opportunity orientation presents.
With each new year, colleges open their doors and gates to groups of incoming students who, in the early moments of their college careers, are ready to learn. Institutions, particularly now, are responsible for making the most of those moments and for arming students properly to be successful, safe, and healthy members of their college communities in the years ahead. Just as you teach new students how to help a friend who has had too much to drink or what to do if they think they have mono, students should me taught about their school’s assault policies and resources.