In the last year, media headlines across the country have been rife with controversy around sexual assault cases occurring on college campuses, and lack of initiative by these colleges to properly handle the cases. Included in this large list of universities are some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, including Harvard University, University of Michigan, Princeton University, and Brown University. A study conducted in 2008 found that one in six women enrolled at Princeton experienced nonconsensual sexual contact at least once during their time at the university.

The statistics of sexual assaults on college campuses are grossly deflated- after all, many survivors don’t report their traumatizing experiences at all, and some wait years before disclosing incidences of sexual assault. Even more alarming than the lack of disclosure is the lack of interest and seemingly nonchalant attitude that some universities have exhibited when a student reports a sexual assault. This doesn’t mean the entire university, including all its faculty and staff, feel this way. But it seems as if some university individuals would prefer to put the reputation and prestige of their institution over the well-being of its students by either covering up the dirty deeds of some students, protecting students that are well connected (an issue that has come up at Brown University), or even worse, lackadaisically “helping” a student through their time of need. If there’s no serious consequence for sexual assaults, then perpetrators know they can get away with it, and the victims won’t see any reason to report it. It will just continue to perpetuate this never-ending cycle of underreporting sexual assaults.

Something needs to change. Recent university surveys found that 17 percent of female undergraduates experience one or more unwanted sexual behaviors during their time in college. But what about men? If women grossly underreported because of fear of not being believed and embarrassment, compounded with an inept institutional structure unable to help them seek justice, then just how badly does this system fail men? As a student of public health, I have spent my fair share of time learning about health behavior theories and social context. One thing that has always stood out has been the concept of social norms. Social norms can drastically alter a behavior, and over time can cause some serious long-term damage, whether psychological, emotional, or physical. Many people across the world believe it’s not really possible for a man to be sexually assaulted, or even raped, because social norms dictate it as such. Sadly, this mentality is found on campuses as well, even by other males. In a culture where “hooking up” is worn like a badge of honor, male victims may never report sexual assault.

We need to do better. Besides the typical freshman year orientation PowerPoint with two slides and 10 tips on “How to Prevent Sexual Assault,” we need university officials to mean it. We need institutions to lead by example, and show that sexual assault (regardless of gender) of their students is more important to them than school rankings. The state of Virginia is currently considering a law that will add sexual assault sanctions to student transcripts, a move which may gain some traction in other states in the coming months. While some universities have many resources and privacy measures in place for assault, the truth is that there are many others out there that may not have enough. We need students to understand that males and females can be assaulted, and that they shouldn’t feel afraid to come forward, or feel that nothing will be done even if they speak out.

Something needs to change. Recent university surveys found that 17 percent of female undergraduates experience one or more unwanted sexual behaviors during their time in college.

Social media has played a role in activism around sexual assault by helping motivate others to anonymously come forward and share their stories as a form of coping with the trauma they have experienced. Former Tufts University student Wagatwe Wanjuki, a survivor of sexual assault herself, began a social media campaign using the hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege in order to provide a space for people to share their truth and generate conversation around sexual assault. Other methods such as forums and blogs have served as outlets for victims to band together and foster change in institutions. This has also worked on a macroscopic scale. Wanjuki also created a petition supporting requests from the federal government and the Department of Education about holding colleges accountable that don’t protect students from sexual assault.

Sexual assault, while a controversial topic, is one that needs to be openly discussed. We need to be cognizant of university and other institutional efforts to help sexual assault victims so we can prevent them from occurring. No student in a university should feel scared to be in school because their assailant is on the same campus as them. Social media has mobilized many people in order to hold universities accountable for their lack of action. It’s time for us to change our thinking, and actively work to prevent sexual assault.

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 10.30.32 PMJunaed Siddiqui is a first-year PhD student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. He is passionate about adolescent health and is interested in the intersection between religion and resilience in youth. He is currently a Faculty Research Assistant at the University of Maryland Prevention Research Center, where he examines the outcome of disclosing stigmatized health behaviors to primary care physicians on overall patient healthcare quality.

 

 

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