The UT System’s 2017 Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments report found that 15 percent of female undergraduates at UT-Austin have been sexually assaulted since enrollment. 28 percent of the same demographic reported “unwanted sexual touching,” and an additional 12 percent experienced an attempted rape. More than half of victims were assaulted by fellow UT students.
UT has a rape problem. The first step toward eliminating that problem is implementing a proactive system of sexual assault education for incoming students. As the class of 2022 arrives on campus for orientation this summer, it’s time we reassess how we prepare students for the reality of rape on our campus.
Our current sexual assault education system attempts to educate incoming freshman in two ways: a pair of presentations during orientation and an online module called Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates. UT offers numerous resources to combat sexual assault, but these are the only trainings required for all students.
Protecting the Herd takes place on the first night of each orientation session in front of an auditorium of about 1,200 students. Mostly undergraduate orientation advisers present a brief play touching on a variety of topics including unhealthy relationships and rape. The program focuses on educating students about the available resources and schoolwide policies. Afterward, orientation advisers lead short discussions with groups of about 25 students.
New students must also attend a lecture called Longhorns Take Care of Each Other, presented by the University of Texas Police Department and the Counseling and Mental Health Center. Both groups cover key resources — such as SureWalk, the Rape Aggression Defense System, Voices Against Violence and the Counseling and Mental Health Center — but do not address core questions about consent and assault.
The second half of UT’s prevention approach takes place online via a newly enhanced two-session web course called Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates. The production company, EverFi, distributes the program nationally but allows schools to personalize it for their students. UT’s version includes campus-specific policies as well as the University’s definition of consent.
Current UT students were required to take a similar program called Haven as freshmen, but students could quickly click through it, and many of the multiple choice questions had painfully obvious answers.
While both the orientation presentations and SAPU introduce key resources, they stop short of engaging their audience with consent. Programs such as these do the crucial job of telling students what resources are needed in the event of an assault, but do not give students the tools to prevent one before it happens.
In failing to discuss consent, UT focuses its preventative training on giving resources and warnings to those who may get assaulted when it should be training those who may assault about the significance of consent. It’s important to know what to do after someone is raped — but it’s more important to prevent the rape from happening in the first place.
A 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control found that “brief, one-session educational programs focused on increasing awareness or changing beliefs and attitudes are not effective at changing behavior in the long-term.” In addition to presenting resources, we need to engage students in dialogues. One-off presentations are not enough to change students’ perspectives.
In order to fix a sexual assault problem like ours, we need to correct a campuswide misunderstanding about what consent means in practice. UT students are in the midst of a reckoning, fueled by a nationwide backlash against sexual harassment and inequality. Women are trying to grapple with the space between discomfort and assault, with the reality of a post #MeToo world. Men worry that their actions will be misinterpreted, that they’ll be accused of something they never intended.
Everyone on this campus could benefit from a better understanding of consent. One way to do this is through required dialogues, in rooms smaller than auditoriums, where students actually engage in proactive conversations about the nuances of the topic.
These conversations could take place in signature courses. The University currently requires every freshman to take these small, discussion-based classes, which are intended to orient students to the university. Considering freshmen are currently required to cover topics such as library research and campus landmarks in their signature courses, they could easily be required to spend a class discussing consent. Professors can look to trainings and presentations provided by Voices Against Violence in order to facilitate these crucial conversations.
We do not have data to assess whether our current programs are working — the University has not released sexual assault statistics since CLASE in 2017.
We do know that UT’s system is less comprehensive than many of its peer universities. Schools such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Michigan State stand out for their focus on in-person training aimed at bystander intervention and increasing consent awareness. The University of California at Berkeley, the University of California Los Angeles, Ohio State, the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan all require students to complete follow-up programs after their freshman year. Right now, UT’s efforts do not make sexual assault prevention seem like a priority. UT should join its proactive peer universities by prioritizing active dialogue about the meaning and importance of consent.
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