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Changing Campus Attitudes

Some U.S. colleges stand out in combating gender violence.

May 1 is known by college-bound high school seniors as “National Decision Day” because it is traditionally the deadline to choose which one of the schools they will attend. This year, on that day, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of more than 50 colleges and universities under investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints. The specific timing, and the fact that this was the first time the Department of Education had publicly identified the schools—among them some of the nation’s best-known universities—was widely seen as a way of pressuring colleges to do more about the problem of gender violence on campus.

Photograph courtesy Rhonda Henry

"Our focus is on harnessing the power of the majority and getting them to exert social pressure on their peers."

—Rhonda Henry

Three days earlier, the White House released a report by a sexual assault task force that urged universities and colleges to institute programs like those at two institutions it named—the University of New Hampshire and the University of Kentucky. Both the universities not only offer compassionate help to victims of sexual violence, but go further by educating students about the issue and by training bystanders how to intervene—with the ultimate goal of fundamentally changing campus attitudes and behaviors.

“Early educational efforts for women focused on how they could protect themselves and for men it was ‘Don’t Rape,’” says Rhonda Henry, director of the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center at the University of Kentucky.

“In many ways, that was missing the mark altogether. If one woman is at risk and she’s able to fend off the attacker, that doesn’t change expectations—and of course we don’t want the man to go hurt someone else,” Henry explains. “What we’re saying at the University of Kentucky is, ‘Our cultural norms aren’t going to accept that.’ We don’t want to just move the perpetrator from Victim A to Victim B. We want to stop that behavior.”

University of Kentucky now requires every freshman to complete a survey on their attitudes and experience regarding sexual violence. It has also instituted a program called Green Dot, with each green dot on a figurative campus map “representing any single moment in time when people choose to state their intolerance of power-based personal violence through words, choices or actions.” Green Dot emphasizes that bystanders “are contributing—one way or another. You are acting to stop or interrupt violence or you are remaining silent, allowing it to go on and modeling to others that silence is okay.”

Photograph courtesy University of New Hampshire

"On a college campus, about 90 percent of victims know their perpetrators."

—Amy Culp

Sexual assaults at universities don’t fit the stereotype of rapes and, therefore, must be approached differently, says Amy Culp, director of the Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program at University of New Hampshire.

“Generally speaking, on a college campus, about 90 percent of victims know their perpetrators,” says Culp. “So what we decided to do is educate the majority. We go into the residence halls and the fraternity houses. We talk to the athletic teams. We open their eyes—getting them to think about, ‘What is assault and what is consent?’ We encourage them to have conversations while they’re in a sexual act, making the point that you have to ask. You can’t just do what you want.”

Alcohol is a factor in most campus sexual assaults, Henry and Culp point out, making it important for bystanders to intervene when they see women drinking too much—either on their own or with the encouragement of others.

“Many young people are experimenting with alcohol and other drugs in a big way for the first time and that raises the risk of dangerous behaviors,” Henry says. “But, if men are getting pushback from their peers—‘Hey, taking advantage of someone who’s drunk is not O.K. Making those kinds of comments is not O.K.’—that’s where we’re more likely to achieve real social change. Most men are good men. Most men do not rape. So, our focus is on harnessing the power of the majority and getting them to exert social pressure on their peers.”

Tech-savvy students are pressuring colleges and elected officials, says Anne Hedgepeth, government relations manager for the American Association of University Women, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering women that has 170,000 members and 800 university partners. 

“The problem itself is not new,” Hedgepeth says. “What is new is we are hearing from students and activists who are using social networks to bring forward examples of gender violence, work with schools to change policies and elevate the issue in the minds of thought leaders and Congress.”

Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.