Sexual assault prevention, education revamped

Five months after the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct released its findings and suggestions, and one year after Margolis Healy and Associates did the same, the college continues to work to address recommendations made by both groups regarding consent and sexual assault education.

Reports from both the Task Force — composed of alumni, current students, members of the Board of Managers, faculty and administrators — and MHA — a consulting firm which focuses on safety at universities, colleges, and K-12 school systems — emphasized the importance of education around issues of consent, sexual misconduct, bystander intervention and healthy relationships.

A number of changes directed at addressing these recommendations took place this fall: education for incoming students was transformed; Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Nina Harris coordinated ongoing trainings for various peer leaders and groups on campus, including RAs, members of the Swat Team, new members of both fraternities and different athletic teams; the school’s Title IX website, which provides resources and information for students, was overhauled and enhanced; a wellness course covering sex education and sexual violence can now be taken for PE credit; the student group Assault and Sexual Abuse Prevention developed a variety of educational initiatives; the “Can I Kiss You” event encouraged students to consider respect, consent and bystander intervention; Harris conducted Sexual Violence Elimination trainings, which aimed to teach staff, faculty and students how to support survivors; survivors of sexual assault discussed expanding support systems and their own experiences at confidential survivor dinners; and Title IX Coordinator Kaaren Williamsen established a student Title IX advisory team which will meet weekly to discuss policy, create resources and plan events. Additionally, a host of events this spring will address issues of gender, violence and relationships.

One of the largest shifts in existing sexual violence prevention education on campus took place during first-year orientation. In previous years, members of ASAP planned and led mandatory workshops, focused on issues of consent, sexual assault, clear communication and leveling an uneven playing field of information around sexuality. Instead, at the beginning of this year, incoming students took an online module, attended a presentation by Harris and participated in discussions facilitated by their RAs as part of the “Making Friends, Making Out” program.

According to Harris, the module focused on sexual assault, stalking, intimate partner violence, bystander intervention, consent, campus policies, alcohol and other drugs. The presentation, one of several revamped portions of this year’s first-year orientation, looked not only at sexual assault prevention and the college’s expectations but at healthy relationships more broadly, Harris said. She highlighted the presentation’s goals of connecting students with their resources and ensuring that all first-years had similar amounts of information. Following Harris’ presentation, RAs facilitated discussions among their halls and with partner halls. For the most part, first-years such as Maria Soria ’18 had positive experiences with the program.

“The program was valuable in the sense that it made people take the time to consider relationships and consent, which might be something that they didn’t have to think about before,” she said.

Marieme Diop ’18 believed that the online module was an important part of the program, especially the focus on alcohol-related issues, such as how to deal with dangerous situations, know one’s limits when drinking and care for intoxicated friends.

“Combining and teaching about both [sexual assault and alcohol] was a really good idea,” Diop said.

Soria also thought the focus on alcohol as it pertains to consent was helpful.

“I liked that the program made it clear what role alcohol can play when it comes to consent and sexual assault,” Soria said. “It was important that they made clear that no one under the influence can give consent.”

Soria found Harris’ presentation especially memorable. She remembered many audience members laughing at a YouTube video which featured several rape jokes. For Soria, this served as a reminder of how much work around consent and assault still needs to be done.

“The fact that there [are] people who can still laugh at something so serious is very telling. It shows why we have programs like this,” Soria said.

Some first-year students, however, pointed out gaps in the orientation program, though overall seemed to agree that it represented a good start. Frankie Ponziani ’18 remembers thinking that the presentation was heavily focused on heterosexual couples.

“While I’m straight, I thought that the presentation was not indicative of how diverse our campus is,” Ponziani said. “Not that it was bad, just [that there is] room for improvement.”

Soria recalled that the program did not address the greater rate at which transgender people are assaulted. (The U.S. Department of Justices’ Office for Victims of Crime writes that “Some reports estimate that transgender survivors may experience rates of sexual assault up to 66 percent, often coupled with physical assaults or abuse”).

“It’s something that’s so important to address, but wasn’t really considered. We have to think about how these issues affect all members of our community,” Soria said.

For Colette Gerstmann ’18, the RA-led discussion felt detached from what she thought was an excellent opening presentation. Gerstmann remembers that her group’s discussion, unlike the presentation, focused mostly on friendship and dating.

“While the discussions we had about healthy relationships were valuable, sexual consent and respect for people’s bodies and boundaries in general came up in the conversation only vaguely,” Gerstmann said. “It often felt like we were dancing around what really needed to be said but weren’t saying it.”

RAs reflected mostly positively on the discussions. RAs Emma Madarsz ’15 and Elyse Tierney ’15, for example, thought that the discussions helped first-years with varying levels of experience in relationships feel comfortable with participating in conversations. Both Madarsz and Tierney, as well as RA Averill Obee ’15, saw the purpose of the discussions as encouraging first-years to think about their ideal relationships and to reconsider their previous conceptions.

Obee pointed out a few areas for improvement. Though she appreciated Harris’ presentation, especially since the presentation ensured all first-years had the same information, she believed that issues which the presentation raised were not given enough consideration in the hall discussions.

“[Harris] talked about things like consent, but there wasn’t a chance for people to discuss or ask questions with all the first-years, and by the time we split into groups people had forgotten questions or moved on,” Obee said. “There has been a lot of talk about how these discussions were supposed to be just the start, and I know we talk a lot about these issues informally at Swarthmore, but I’m not sure how the college is planning on making sure all the first-years, and the rest of the college, are engaging with these questions in a formal way,” she added.

Soria echoed Obee’s concerns.

“I don’t remember anyone talking about how we can keep this going for the rest of the year and for the rest of our time at Swat,” Soria said. “This is something that needs to be ongoing and I’m not sure if people know how to do that.”

Obee also felt the discussions would have benefited from facilitation by those with specific training around areas of consent, noting that in previous years, students with a great deal more training were brought in to lead various orientation discussions (ASAP members, for example, underwent 18 hours of facilitation training before conducting orientation workshops).

“I really liked that that established us as part of those conversations and let us get to know our halls more in a deeper way, but I would’ve liked it if we could have been paired with another student from ASAP or who was similarly interested and trained in topics of consent, healthy relationships, and assault prevention,” Obee said. Harris noted that she hopes for ASAP members to co-facilitate the discussions with RAs in the future.

Madarasz and Tierney felt that the RA-facilitated discussions helpfully opened up space to educate first-years about the various resources available to them as victims or friends of victims of sexual assault and for first-years to feel better-connected to their RAs. Madarasz said that she would have felt more supported by her RA had they facilitated her own first-year orientation discussion around consent and sexual assault prevention.

When asked if they felt as though they were equipped to support friends who may be assaulted while at the college, and if they felt aware of the various resources available to victims of sexual assault, first-years responded in a variety of ways. Some felt that they were well-prepared by the program, while others did not remember learning about on-campus resources. Thomas Stanton ’18, for instance, recounted that when his friend at home was assaulted, he felt powerless to help, but that after the program, he called his friend and had been able to provide what he felt was a much better level of support. Gerstmann, on the other hand, felt that her preparation to help friends who may be assaulted comes from previous knowledge, rather than from the college’s programming.

Harris connected the change in orientation education around consent and related issues to an increase in institutional responsibility.

“What does it say to a new student coming in where you have a big important topic but the administration isn’t present?” Harris said. She and Williamsen contrasted the administration’s absence and approach of previous years towards topics such as consent and assault — where students such as ASAP members bore the responsibility of educating their peers — to this year’s programming, which Williamsen said was aimed at immediately connecting first-years to the faces of their resources.

This semester will feature a series of events geared around sexuality, gender and sexual violence. The week of February 8 will be focused on healthy relationships and sex at the college, and will include, among other events, a workshop centered around navigating relationships entitled “Hookups to Breakups,” facilitated by Harris, Wellness Coordinator Noemi Fernandez, and Alcohol and Other Drugs Counselor Joshua Ellow. The week will also include a conversation about men, masculinity and sexuality and a visit from sex educator Dorian Solot called “I <3 Female Orgasm,” which will highlight communication, healthy sexuality and the female orgasm. Finally, Harris said that ASAP will host that week’s Pub Nite.

In March, Harris hopes to conduct programming out of the Women’s Resource Center, such as a festival- or carnival-like event in the WRC courtyard, as part of Women’s History Month. Sex educator and minister Reverend Beverly Dale, whom Harris described as “super sex-positive” and who works on dismantling body shame and sexuality issues which arise through misuse of religious texts, will facilitate a workshop entitled “Whose Body is it Anyway? Relationship, Intimacy, and Sexuality: An Interactive Discussion with the Bible.” In addition, the college plans to screen “The Mask We Live In” (produced by the same group that created “Miss Representation”), a film which focuses on male identity.

April, Sexual Violence Awareness Month, will feature a presentation of the story of a rape survivor by A Long Walk Home, an organization which uses performance art to combat gender-based violence. ASAP still hopes to conduct its annual Clothesline Project, which addresses gender-based violence by displaying t-shirts created by survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Additionally, Harris and Williamsen said that other survivors have expressed interest in holding an on-campus Take Back the Night, an international event which usually consists of rallies, marches and vigils configured as direct protests against sexual violence.

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