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February 12, 2018

UChicago Should Change Its Approach to Sexual Assault

Prevention should be the focus in addressing sexual assault on campus.

A recent New Yorker article examined efforts at Columbia University to study sexual assault. The almost-two-year-long, $2.2 million inquiry, led by faculty members Jennifer Hirsch and Claude Ann Mellins, was named the “Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation” (SHIFT) and was unprecedented in scale. Its three-part design—including one-on-one interviews with 150 students, a 60-day diary project with 412 students, and an exhaustive one-time survey—provided a breadth of data about sexual assault that had not previously been available. The study concurred with prior experiments with its finding that “a little more than one in five respondents said they had experienced sexual assault since starting college,” but its suggestions for future actions differed. These suggestions included fighting sexual assault with a “public health approach,” which addresses areas including substance abuse, sexual orientation, and mental health.

The dialogue around sexual assault is familiar not just to the world but also to the University of Chicago. In the last month, the Phoenix Survivors Alliance has held a protest and written a column detailing their frustrations regarding current University disciplinary policies surrounding sexual assault. Still, no real attempts at research have been made by this world-renowned social science juggernaut. The University of Chicago should use its abundant resources to commission a study on the prevention of sexual assault.

Notably, public discourse over sexual assault seems to have reached a fever pitch in recent months with the social media #MeToo movement, in which millions of people around the world have testified to their experiences with sexual assault. This has resulted in a wave of allegations of harassment and assault against some of the most powerful men in society, as well as women. The movement has led to a debate about what to do next, with the main goal being punishment of those who have been found responsible of misconduct. This focus on punishment has been the practice regarding campus sexual assault in recent years: survivors and their supporters rightfully want some form of action. However, there is a growing contingent that believes these policies have deprived the accused of due process, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded these guidelines on sexual assault last year, stating that “through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach.” Regardless of which side of the debate one falls on, people can agree that sexual assault is an awful product of our society and that it exists. Our focus, then, should shift towards prevention.

Technically speaking, the University believes this as well. Each incoming first-year is required to complete a one-hour session on EverFi’s Haven, an online program aimed at preventing sexual assault, along with attending a “Campus Life Matters” O-Week assembly. What brilliant measures put in place by UChicago to protect its students: barely two hours to alleviate all of the University’s issues relating to sexual assault.

One would expect that, with all of the student pressure on this issue and the considerable resources our University has, mandating an online class that most students breeze through flippantly should not be the only policy in place. Relatedly, the researchers from the previously mentioned New Yorker article found that students find these programs, which emphasize affirmative consent, worthless in practice. According to Mellins, affirmative consent rarely factored into the experiences that students were describing.

“One of our institutional advisers pretty much fell off her chair,” Mellins told me. “She said, ‘How can it not be a thing? We’re working so hard to teach them.’ And our point was: there’s a really broad disjuncture between what students learn and what they actually practice.” That the University truly seems to believe Haven and an assembly are enough in the prevention of sexual assault is fundamentally disrespectful to survivors of sexual assault. 

Some may wonder why UChicago should not just rely on the results of the Columbia University study and its prescribed treatments. Although this would be a step in the right direction in sexual assault prevention—and even though sexual assault itself is a widespread problem—it is also a highly localized issue. The culture at each university is distinct, and further, a university with a billion-dollar endowment and world-renowned social science department has an obligation to further the research on the subject. Doing so would position the University, and any researcher for that matter, as a leader in an issue that is of doubtless importance and allow UChicago to make its campus safer for its students.

Aaron Katsimpalis is a first-year in the College.

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