Content Warning: The following article contains language that discusses sexual assualt, harassment and rape that may offend some readers. To speak in confidence about experiences of sexual assualt, you can contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault at 1-800-871-774.
Among the undergraduate student population, 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males experience rape or sexual assault in their time as students. That is according to one 2020 study by the Association of American Universities, cited by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). For many, this is an unsurprising data point, but too often it is one that is ignored or quietly kept from those who would rather not think about it.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the University of Maine’s Title IX Student Services office is working with campus and community partners to put together a variety of programs and other online events, such as weekly Teal Tuesdays, a webinar on navigating casual hookups and a virtual 5k to promote awareness for sexual assault. However, the average student could be forgiven for not knowing about these opportunities, seeing as the information is mostly located on either the university’s Title IX webpage or buried in a Friday Futurecast.
Pandemic-hampered communications aside, it is also arguable whether promoting awareness is really the most productive avenue for the university to promote a safer, healthier campus climate.
A 2019 study by University of North Carolina researchers, published in the journal Violence Against Women, investigated university students’ usage of formal campus sexual assault resources like counseling, Title IX services and campus police, which researchers suggest that only 10% of survivors seek out. The study reports that some sociocultural barriers to students using these formal resources include stigma, feelings of shame or embarrassment, fear of reprisal from the accused and thinking that nothing would come of reporting.
The study clarifies that in some cases the best course of action for a survivor’s well-being is not to pursue formal avenues, but rather informal support systems like family and friends. However, college administrations can also contribute to the mitigation, or inflammation, of the barrier factors described by the researchers through their actions, communications and the ways in which they nurture a larger campus culture.
In 2019, the Bangor Daily News published a troubling article detailing the stories of two students at the University of Maine at Farmington who both sought help from the university’s Title IX office after being sexually assaulted. In both cases, committees came to the conclusion that the women’s allegations were accurate before the decisions were bizarrely overturned after the fact. These students walked away from their college experiences feeling utterly betrayed by the institutions that they allowed themselves to be vulnerable to. Regardless of verdict, that is something that can and should be avoided.
Despite the dismal picture that these stories painted, former-UMF interim President Eric Brown’s response was about the best that could have been expected from an administrator in his position.
“I was personally moved and saddened by this article. Nothing is more important to our well-being as an institution than the safety and trust of our students. I look forward to open conversations in the days ahead about how to ensure UMF is the best possible guardian of both,” Brown wrote in an email to the UMF community which was republished by the Bangor Daily News.
Title IX is a sweeping civil rights law, passed in 1972 as part of a collection of other education legislations, which prohibits sex discrimination in education programs. College policies for responding to accusations of sexual assault, which fall under Title IX, have been intensely politicized since the civil rights law was passed. Under the Trump presidency, Secretary of Education Betsey DeVos instituted controversial rules which had administrators investigate allegations through courtlike tribunals that allowed accusers to be cross-examined by the defense’s representation.
Many survivor advocates have argued that the rules enabled colleges to dissuade accusers from coming forward with convoluted rules and intimidating processes.
“We’re really seeing it used as a way for schools to confuse and manipulate survivors, which is really what we’ve seen for decades,” Sage Carson, the manager of Know Your IX, a survivor advocacy group, told The New York Times. “Now it’s this really scary process on the books, and it gives the schools a way to say, ‘Do you really want to go through this?’”
In March, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to the new Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, and during his campaign he promised to deconstruct the Trump-era rules. However, neither the president nor the secretary have been specific about how the rules will change, and any changes can be expected to take more than a year, according to NBC News.
While the president’s reforms may help a year or so down the line, colleges and other educational institutions at all levels can start advocating for changes right now regarding the ways in which they fail to address sexual assault and sexuality.
In her own article published in The Maine Campus, contributor Leah Savage argued that discussions about sexuality and sexual assault need to start early with young men and women in order to combat the culture of shame and stigma that prevents survivors from coming forward.
Research by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center suggests that Comprehensive Sexuality Education, a K-12 style of sex education that develops and builds as individuals themselves develop behaviorally and physically, addresses the majority of the risk factors typically associated with sexual violence.
This is to say, sexual assault cannot be solely or even mostly addressed with policy or formal supports, and it certainly cannot be addressed in a month. Perhaps it should be treated like a lifelong, ongoing process of open communication, free of stigma — like a relationship.