April is National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, an important time for educating our communities about sexual violence. Sexual assault is a human rights, social justice and public health issue, and raising awareness is key to aiding victims and preventing future assaults.
On college campuses, sexual assault is a widespread problem — with many recent examples sparking controversy and debate about how universities deal with reports of these horrible acts. Sexual assaults and rapes on college campuses are often shrouded in silence, their victims forced to quietly carry the burden. It can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but one that has to be clearly and sympathetically addressed, especially on college campuses. Victims need to find a supportive environment to tell their stories, and school communities need to raise awareness to help support victims and prevent sexual violence in the first place.
‘Not On My Campus’
The need for thoughtful, honest discussions about campus sexual assault and sexual violence brought about the “Not On My Campus” initiative, which started at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in the fall of 2013. “Not On My Campus” has a clear, unyielding mission: zero tolerance on campus and the abolition of silence surrounding sexual assaults. The decision to start the movement was made after students noticed the prevalence of sexual assaults on campus and pledged themselves to three important causes: educating peers, spreading awareness and teaching members of the university community to be active bystanders. The initiative focuses on 12 bullet points adapted from the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign, including abolishing victim blaming and encouraging intervention to help prevent sexual assault.
University of Texas
After a report of sexual assault at the University of Texas (UT) that involved two high-profile football players, a group of students — Edwin Qian, Ellen Cocanougher and William Herbst —realized the fear that so often forces victims into silence was unacceptable. They worked with campus sexual assault counselors to start their own “Not On My Campus” initiative.
The controversy surrounding the sexual assault case at UT represents an unfortunate and dangerous pattern of how universities handle accusations of rape and sexual assault. Many colleges suggest that students report cases of sexual assault directly to a college board dedicated to either responding to sexual assault or disciplining students. In some cases, universities do not have a disciplinary board dedicated to instances of sexual violence, so students report attacks to the same boards that handle infractions such as drinking on campus or parking tickets. If there are specific organizations dedicated to responding to sexual assault cases, students are sometimes encouraged to go to them instead of going to the police, rather than reporting the assault to both. Reporting sexual assault is an extremely difficult task for victims, and sometimes the processes in place on college campuses can make it even harder.
UT’s “Not On My Campus” organization created a pledge to “break the silence” surrounding campus sexual assault. Within two days, the organization saw massive support on social media, receiving 1,000 likes on Facebook, 300 retweets on Twitter and the widespread circulation of the #NotOnMyCampusUT hashtag. Olympic athlete Trey Hardee and former University of Texas football coach Mack Brown endorsed the efforts.
Texas Christian University
Texas Christian University (TCU) is another college campus that has adopted the “Not On My Campus” movement. During the last week of March, hundreds of TCU students took part in a campaign to raise awareness by writing “Not On My Campus” on the palms of their hands and sharing pictures of the message. The TCU “Not On My Campus” Facebook page has nearly 1,500 likes, and many students say it has opened up the floor for honest and frequent discussions regarding campus sexual assault.
All three of these universities are great examples of how the power of student advocacy can be used to effect social change. In 2015, sexual assault is still far too prevalent, especially on college campuses. But the advent of social media and the increasing advocacy of today’s college students are promising to lift the shroud of silence and empower victims to speak out and help prevent future sexual violence.