Our Stance: Let’s stop sexual assault before it happens

Women's March
People gather in Civic Center Park for the second annual Women’s March. (Fiona Matson/CU Independent)

Let’s talk about sex.

Or rather, let’s talk about sex openly and honestly, since we’re already talking about it in a roundabout way in so many public spheres. Almost every human will do it at some point in their life. For many of them, their first time will occur in high school or at a university. The beginning of one’s sexual life, referred to in a positive context as one’s “sexual debut,” can be exciting for those interested in pursuing this facet of themselves.

Unfortunately, college is also a complicated time to have sex. New students get a whole new set of peers from which to choose partners, but they also become much more vulnerable to sexual assault. Many experts agree that statistics on the incidences of sexual assault are underreported for a variety of reasons; as far as is known, 20 to 25 percent of undergraduate women and 6 percent of undergraduate men will have experienced sexual assault by the time they finish their undergraduate education. Two-thirds of those who commit assault have done it before or will do it again.

CU Boulder is no exception to the campus assault phenomenon. In 2015, the university took the Sexual Misconduct Survey to understand how students have or haven’t experienced sexual misconduct. 13,000 students — over a third of those enrolled — participated.

The survey results were even more severe than national estimates.

Over a quarter of undergraduate women, 28 percent, reported experiencing “assaultive behavior and tactics”, as well as 6 percent of undergraduate men, 10 percent of graduate women and 2 percent of graduate men. On average, 15 percent of the university’s student population had experienced sexual misconduct while attending. These statistics do not include incidents prior to attending CU.

The majority of these incidents occurred off-campus, with some occurring in residence halls. Though the survey did not explicitly offer fraternity houses as a possible location, there’s a common understanding in the CU community that they are where so many assaults happen. Case in point: the infamous nickname for one fraternity nationwide is “Sexual Assault Expected.”

This culture affects those who have never directly experienced assault, too. The term “secondary survivor” refers to someone who has a family member, friend or loved one who was assaulted and thus the person has a shared trauma with the survivor. Many women say they only go to social events with other women-identified individuals to protect each other from potentially dangerous situations. Some men say they’re scared of malicious false accusations from a consensual situation, though these only occur for about 2 to 10 percent of accusations brought to authorities.

For someone who was recently assaulted, they often experience difficulty validating their experience.

Rape examinations are available, if applicable to the situation, but they’re often caught up in a system that delays the testing and release of results. When there’s no physical evidence of an assault, it becomes a game of conflicting stories. Many survivors don’t file reports at all, whether out of shame, fear or downplaying the seriousness of the incident. For those that do report, they’re often blamed for wearing revealing clothing, being too inebriated for their own good, “looking like they wanted it” and socially engaging with the perpetrator in some way. If the survivor was inebriated, their account is often disputed. None of these are excuses for someone to be assaulted, yet they’re often brought up during investigations. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, was doubted for being drunk at the time and confusing Kavanaugh with someone else.

CU’s methods of dealing with sexual assault are not nearly as helpful as they could be.

The initiation of bystander intervention training beginning in fall of 2009 had good intentions. However, the result has been an event during which most attendees distract themselves with their phones. While the information presented could potentially be helpful to interrupt a dangerous situation, it lacked discussion on how to make situations less dangerous in the first place for those who were in them. Many freshmen report that it barely touches on cases of questionable sexual consent, instead focusing on situations with the potential for alcohol poisoning, how to help people who are physically injured and other non-sexual contexts.

The school allows for survivors to report on record to start an investigation, or to anonymously report, which doesn’t open an investigation. Yet it’s still a difficult and exhausting system to go through, and justice isn’t always achieved. The CU Independent has heard anecdotally from survivors who have gone through CU’s disciplinary procedures to try and get retribution for what was done to them, but it’s immensely difficult to get someone to go on record due to the shame and fear that often comes with being a survivor. (If you’d like to share your story with us, whether anonymously or on the record, please contact us.)

Regardless of the outcome of an investigation, sexual assault can irreversibly impact someone’s life. The survivor bears the brunt of the repercussions, while the perpetrator tends to have little to no consequences, especially if the incident is not reported. Survivors often struggle with mental and physical issues, especially post-traumatic stress disorder, for years afterwards, and have to take the money and time to go through therapy in order to recover.

In the era of the #MeToo movement, with so many accusations coming from events that happened in a university setting, it’s evident that there’s a pattern here.

fourth woman accused then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault last week, and yet he was confirmed on Saturday. Former actor Bill Cosby was just sentenced to three to 10 years in prison following accusations of sexual assault by at least ten women. The conversation has never been more in the public eye. Institutions like CU can make policies to deal with misconduct that’s already happened, but they’re not addressing the fact that misconduct happens in the first place.

We haven’t even discussed the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community, or communities of color, in dealing with sexual assault. Both communities disproportionately experience violence more than heterosexual or white communities. About 65 percent of trans* folx experience sexual violence. Women of color and immigrants are at a significantly increased risk of being assaulted than white women, with variations depending on ethnicity.

Let’s start to change all of this, going back to the source of the issue, with one simple concept: consent.

To use affirmative consent, also known as “yes means yes” rather than the previous “no means no model,” ask if someone wants to do something. If they say yes — enthusiastically, in an uninhibited state of mind, informed of the context of the situation, without coercion or manipulation — then you have their consent. If they say no, waver, don’t answer the question, are incapable of responding or otherwise indicate anything less than 100 percent interest, DON’T DO IT. Don’t try and force the person to do it, persuade them that they want to do it or threaten them into doing it.

A big part of this is never assuming that someone’s “into it.” Many assaults are committed by repeat offenders, but there are occasionally times when it’s a situation of miscommunication. This doesn’t dismiss the impact of the situation for those that feel violated, but the situation can be avoided with affirmative consent.

Consent in a sexual context focuses on the activity itself, of course, but it also includes the surrounding situation. The people who are sexually involved have the right to know what, if any, birth control method their partner is going to be using. People have the right to know their partners’ STI status. They should know if their partner(s) is/are on any substances that could affect their ability to communicate or make decisions.

All of these factors allow for someone to decide whether or not they want to begin engaging in a sexual situation with another in the first place. Do they consent to the birth control method, and its risks, or lack thereof? If someone has tested positive for an STI, what method will be used to minimize the risk of other parties from contracting it? Are all parties aware of the state of mind that everyone else is in, and is everyone sure that everyone else is capable of making decisions?

It seems childish to go step-by-step through what affirmative consent is, yet it’s still not being applied to sexual situations by college students. So much has changed since the 1980s, during which Ford alleged that Kavanaugh assaulted her, and yet college students are still using the same models to have sex. Part of that is entrenched social differences in how genders communicate, while another part comes from the previous “no means no” model, which allowed sexual advances until someone said no. This new “yes means yes” model, in contrast, emphasizes that someone’s silence or lack of resistance does not inherently mean that they consent to what’s happening.

This is where the conversation starts.

We, the editorial staff of the CU Independent, are intent on understanding the many complexities of sexual assault on college campuses. It’s apparent that the general acceptance of sexual assault as inevitable is only the tip of the iceberg. If we can start to challenge that notion, then maybe we can address sexual assault once and for all. Consent is just one facet of this complex issue — there must be change on an institutional and societal level — but it’s an important one nonetheless.

Every 98 seconds, someone is assaulted in the U.S. So many of those occur in college communities, with many in the first few weeks of classes. It’s on all of us — the university, the Greek community, the drinking culture, our maturing generation — to redefine how we think about sex, because no one else is going to do it. The recent re-examination of our society’s relationship with sex should not make us scared to engage in it. In fact, it should make us more eager to change it! We can have more intentional, enthusiastic, healthy sex if we commit to rewriting the script on how to do it.

So let’s talk about sex, for real this time.


The Fall 2018 CU Independent Editorial Staff

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, there are resources available. The CU Independent does not endorse any of these services specifically.

On campus:

Counseling and Psychiatric Services (students receive six free sessions a year): (303)492-2277

Office of Victim Assistance (confidential, no requirement to file a report): (303)492-8855

Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (for filing a complaint to CU Boulder): (303)492-2127

Off campus:

Moving to End Sexual Assault (victim advocacy, support groups, bilingual services): (303)443-0400

Colorado Crisis Services (24/7 confidential hotline, multilingual services): 1(844)493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255

Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (focused specifically on intimate partner and domestic violence): (303)444-2424

To send us your story, email tips@cuindependent.com.

Lucy Haggard

Lucy Haggard is in her third year at CU Boulder, born and raised in Colorado. She was the Editor-In-Chief during Fall 2018, working primarily on coverage of Title IX at CU. She helps the CUI cover campus and the local community in the most aesthetically and audibly pleasing ways possible. When not on assignment, she's probably dancing way too early in the morning.

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