When I arrived in Hyde Park for my O-Week in September of 2011, I was woefully ignorant about sex. I did not have any form of sex education at my high school and never received any “sex talk” about sexual decision making, much less about the mechanics of sex.
So when I attended the Sex Signals presentation during O-Week, a nationally popular sexual assault awareness program whose inaugural college performance was given at the University of Chicago in 2000, I was unfamiliar with what consent meant in regards to sexual encounters. Two actors—a man and a woman—performed an interactive stand-up routine about “hookup culture” and gender roles, followed by a series of skits. Audience members were instructed to hold up a red stop sign whenever the man “crossed the line” at any point during the performance. In the first skit, a man continued to perform sexual acts on a woman in her dorm room after she whispered, “Stop.” I did not hold up my stop sign because I thought the situation was too ambiguous to be considered assault. The presenters clarified that this situation was not consensual and then quickly moved on to another skit. In the next scenario, a man continued to grope a woman at a party, despite the fact that she was visibly uncomfortable. The audience members were encouraged to intervene if they ever witnessed a situation like this, and were repeatedly identified as a group of potential bystanders, as opposed to a group of potential victims or perpetrators. The creators of Sex Signals have told The Atlantic that this framing is intentional, albeit inaccurate.
At the subsequent Chicago Life Meeting titled UChoose, I received what other students called a rape whistle and participated in a 10-minute conversation about the Sex Signals presentation. Unfortunately, this discussion promptly moved on to other topics and non-sex-related campus safety issues. The description in the relevant O-Book from 2011 described the session not as one that would deal with sexual assault explicitly, but where we would instead “learn about campus resources related to sexual identity and health, alcohol education, social responsibility, and informed decision-making.” This hasty glossing over of the reality of sexual violence was simply not enough to adequately get students on the same page in a group with varying levels of familiarity on the topic. I was left still unclear on what sexual assault encompassed or how it was defined, and I did not understand what my options were or where to turn if it ever happened to me. Because of the framing of the issue, assault seemed to happen rarely and I naively thought that it would never happen to me.
In my third year, it did happen to me; I was raped by someone that I went on a date with. While he was assaulting me, the thoughts running through my mind were variations of, “Why is he doing this when I said I did not want to do this,” “That really hurts,” “Why is he hitting me,” and “Why won’t he stop?” The words “sexual assault” and “rape,” however, did not initially come to mind as a way to think about my experience. I spent a few weeks in denial about my own assault because I had not internalized that I truly had autonomy over my own body. The preventative education from O-Week provided only a cursory understanding of sexual violence, without any sustained dialogue or examples of what constituted sexual harassment, dating violence, and stalking. In addition, it did not clarify that a lack of a sustained or verbal “no” was not indicative of a “yes.” This lack of education ultimately contributed immensely to my denial.
In April 2014, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released a document entitled “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence,” which it describes as “further clarify[ing] the legal requirements under Title IX [...] and provid[ing] recommendations for addressing allegations of sexual violence.” Title IX, which I heard no mention of during my O-Week, is a federal civil rights law which prohibits sex discrimination in public and private educational institutions that receive federal funds. In the fall and winter quarters, I and other concerned students from the survivor advocacy RSO Phoenix Survivors Alliance met with administrators such as Dean of Students (DOS) in the University Michele Rasmussen, Associate DOS in the University for Disciplinary Affairs Jeremy Inabinet, DOS in the College Jay Ellison, and Title IX Coordinator for Students Belinda Cortez Vazquez to address several points in this document where it seemed that the University was not compliant with Title IX.
Our concern focused on preventative education as prescribed by section J-4 of the OCR 2014 document. Most students in the College attend Sex Signals and incoming first years in more recent years have participated in Haven, a module that focuses on bystander intervention as a solution to preventing sexual assault. A script sent to O-Leaders for the 2014 UChoose post—Sex Signals meeting indicates that the University added a 15-minute-long “Title IX and VAWA Overview” portion, part of which was spent talking to students about changes to the University’s sexual misconduct policy. Of the 12 points that OCR calls to be included in the training “at a minimum,” the University substantively covers only two, one on bystander intervention strategies and the other on the role alcohol often plays in incidents of sexual violence. Given the general confusion about what this policy and the relevant laws are among students on campus, and given that the burden of educating students in the Class of 2018 was placed on O-Leaders (who are, at the end of the day, just other students), the University is not providing adequate education. It does not incorporate the meat of these OCR recommendations, including but not limited to what constitutes sexual violence and consent in University policy, how the University analyzes whether sexual conduct was unwelcome under Title IX, and how to report sexual violence to administration and law enforcement. We were told in person by Cortez Vazquez and via e-mail by Ellison that they believed their programs to be “effective and compliant,” despite the fact we presented to them, in full, the 10 points that are not included in existing programming, and despite the fact that they could not point us to where these points were covered. It is unclear how they can be “effective and compliant” when the University of Chicago does not follow even the minimum guidelines outlined by OCR.
Students and alumni of Phoenix Survivors Alliance aren’t the only ones who call for improved preventative education. In March 2014, we distributed an anonymous form where we collected student feedback on Sex Signals. The criticism of the program can be separated into three main categories: (a) that it diminishes the harsh reality of sexual violence through the use of humor, (b) that it presents a heteronormative view of sexual violence even as people of all genders and sexual identities are victims, and (c) that it treats everyone in the room as a potential bystander, which neglects to acknowledge that many students have been sexually abused before coming to campus, and that many more will be victims or perpetrators during their time as students in the College. The UChicago Clothesline Project has collected more than 150 personal accounts of assault from UChicago students since we opened our submission form more than two years ago, and we continue to receive a fresh wave of stories every time we put up a round of fliers in bathroom stalls on campus. Clearly, then, not everyone is simply a bystander—sexual assault is prevalent on this campus, and students need more robust education than what the University currently provides.
The University of Chicago has no programming on sexual assault in place for students beyond the start of their first year. While the University Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention program has developed workshops concerning sexual violence, there is no mechanism in place to widely share them with students, nor is attendance mandatory. The vast majority of students in the College have little to no interaction with any sort of preventative education past O-Week, even though students cannot reasonably absorb the high volume of information thrown at them in one week alone.
The University has the time, money, power, and resources to supplement this programming for O-Week 2015 in order to comply with OCR guidance. All students deserve comprehensive education on sexual violence and to be informed by their school of their rights under Title IX. It is on the University to at the very least inform students of its own responsibilities as an institution to respond to this violence. This institution owes it to the survivors in its community and the community as a whole, on ethical grounds and on legal ones.
Veronica Portillo Heap is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history and gender and sexuality studies.