Tag Archives: sexual assault

The Grammys’ mixed messages on domestic violence

By Hannah Stein, JWI

In between dramatic performances, corny jokes and tearful acceptance speeches at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, President Obama spoke out against domestic violence. Obama reminded artists and the music industry that they have the power to shape a culture that denounces domestic violence and sexual assault. In his video appearance at the awards ceremony, the president encouraged artists to take part in the It’s On Us campaign. Just a week after NO MORE’s eye-opening Super Bowl ad, domestic violence and sexual assault were again in the national spotlight.

After the president’s message and before Katy Perry’s performance, survivor and activist Brooke Axtell shared her own story of abuse. Axtell emphasized the reality that violence is not love, preaching, “authentic love does not devalue another human being.” She spoke directly to the audience and delivered an important message: domestic violence is inexcusable, and we need to talk about it. It seemed that on a night typically known for it superficiality, the 2015 Grammys stood for something bigger.

Or at least they tried to.

While heightened awareness marks progress, there’s a much bigger issue at hand: the entertainment industry continues to glorify abusers.

Sunday’s Grammys sent viewers very mixed messages. Our president demanded that celebrities raise awareness for and stand up to domestic violence, stressing the importance of being proactive. Axtell shared her gut-wrenching story of survival, empowering people around the nation to get help and recognize their worth. Yet among the nominees for Best R&B Performance were two men whose careers include instances of mistreating women, R. Kelly and Chris Brown.

In addition to his indictment on child pornography charges, R. Kelly faced numerous rape accusations throughout the 2000s. He was eventually acquitted of all charges in 2008. Chris Brown, just before the 2009 Grammys, beat his then-girlfriend Rihanna so badly that she went to the hospital. He recently finished his court-mandated community service and faced no jail time.

Adding to the confusion of the night’s message-filled show, rapper Eminem won the Grammy for Best Rap Album. His music is known for praising violence against women, often threatening female icons in his lyrics. He has rapped about hurting women from Lana Del Ray to Christina Aguilera and his own wife. And the recording industry just gave this guy an award? Listening to his lyrics, we should ask what message young people who are learning what it means to be in a relationship receive, when we are part of a culture that rewards violent imagery, or too quickly forgets aggression toward women and girls.

Our culture idolizes celebrities and makes them into role models whether they like it or not. We have to hold artists accountable for their actions, showing that violence is never acceptable. It shouldn’t matter whether a person has one dollar or a million to their name — abuse is abuse, and it’s not OK.

President Obama asked viewers to take the #ItsOnUs pledge to end domestic violence and sexual assault. This is a great start, but it cannot be the only thing we do. Most people feel that taking the pledge means they’ve done their part, but there’s so much more work to be done.

Start the conversation with your friends. Provide support to a local domestic violence shelter. Raise awareness on campus. Every action matters because, remember, it’s on all of us to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

Alcohol, athletes and assault: Playing the blame game at Vanderbilt

By Hannah Stein, JWI

In late June of 2013 Vanderbilt officials watched dormitory surveillance footage to address rumors of vandalism. However, what they saw was far worse. A group of athletes — each of whom played football for the university — were dragging an unconscious student through the hallway, snapping pictures and cracking sexually explicit jokes before carrying her into one of the rooms.

Sickening. That’s the only word I can think of to even remotely describe the case. As details have emerged, I am horrified that she knew nothing until law enforcement informed her. Yes, the woman knew she had blacked out. But no, she didn’t think she had been assaulted. Why would she have? That night she went out with people she trusted and wanted to hang out with. Co-defendant Brandon Vandenberg was her friend.

The defense subpoenaed an expert to testify that the co-defendants were drunk the night of June 22, 2013. During jury selection they asked potential members to define what it means to be drunk. They asked how alcohol affects the brain and what implications that might have. The defense spent so much time focusing on the objectivity of intoxication, yet every aspect of “being wasted” is subjective. Two drinks for me does not equal two drinks for you, as our alcohol tolerances differ. So how can you define intoxication when such ambiguity exists?

Our reactions to and interpretations of the Vanderbilt rape case are nothing but subjective. This presents itself through social double standards, especially when it comes to partying. But let’s think about this for a second. A police officer detains an intoxicated driver who then cries, I’m too drunk to be responsible for my actions! How would you respond? I hope you’d laugh at the absurdity of this remark. I certainly would. How many times have you heard of someone talking his or her way out of a DUI? It just doesn’t happen.

So why should sexual assault be any different?

Co-defendant Cory Batey testified that he was too intoxicated to know what he was doing. Rather than accepting responsibility for his actions — all of which, by the way, were caught on camera — Batey played the blame game. It was Jack Daniels’ fault. The college culture made me do it. My friends pressured me to do it. Yet even after identifying himself in the video and then apologizing to the victim, he refused to change his plea to guilty. Despite the concrete evidence of his crimes, Batey truly believes alcohol is to blame for his actions.

According to the defense, intoxication serves as an excuse for atrocious behavior. Perpetrators of sexual assault are often given the benefit of the doubt, especially when alcohol is involved. However, this doesn’t go both ways. When victims drink too much, they tend to face more criticism than compassion. Society tells women to limit drinking in order to prevent getting raped. But at what point does society hold rapists accountable? The focus on accountability has shifted in recent months, but we won’t be able to truly progress until we start preaching don’t rape instead of don’t get raped.

UPDATE: On January 27, 2015, co-defendants Brandon Vandenberg and Cory Batey were found guilty of four counts of aggravated rape, one count of attempted aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery. Vandenberg was also found guilty of tampering with evidence and unlawful photography. Their bonds have been revoked and sentencing is scheduled for March 6.

The Evil on Modern Campuses

By Lori Weinstein, CEO/Executive Director, JWILoriWeinstein

While I’ve never called out another woman, I have a problem with Camille Paglia. Here, I’m talking about her recent post on time.com, “The Modern Campus Cannot Comprehend Evil.” In less than 750 words, she summarily dismisses the issue of assault on college campuses, denigrates women and attempts to set the domestic violence movement back decades. Her post is dangerous, misleading and ill-informed. When a 20 year old man takes advantage of an inexperienced 18 year old woman in order to have sex with her against her will, Camille, this is not a case of mixed consent, or “oafish hookup melodrama.” It is rape. Rape is not just committed by psychotic strangers. It is committed by acquaintances and friends and lovers. It is not about the animalistic male sexuality that responds uncontrollably to provocatively dressed co-eds. Rape is about power and control and is has become an epidemic on our nation’s campuses.

There is no hierarchy. We do not put predators at the top of the list and sexual assault on college campuses at the bottom. Violence is violence is violence.

We used to segment violence—stranger rape vs date rape. But rape is rape. And violence is violence. Paglia writes as if those women who were sexually assaulted against their will by another student should just shake it off—feel lucky that they weren’t the victim of a real crime. That they have no right to complain because somehow their attacks are less than.

Lilly Jay at the launch of White House Initiative

Lilly Jay at the launch of White House Initiative “It’s On Us.” Photo by Nicole Radivilov | Contributing Photo Editor, GW Hatchet.

So explain that to young women like Lilly Jay, who was raped as a freshman at Amherst and spoke last week at the White House about her struggle to “reclaim college.” Understand what actually happens here—imagine, being raped or assaulted and having to sit in class or walk the hallways with your assailant. Could you concentrate on your studies? Imagine being all to certain that any attempt to report the attack will go nowhere—or worse, that you’ll have to confront your attacker face to face only to have him exonerated because maybe you were drinking. Or were wearing a crop top. Or didn’t say no that final time.

So, you stay quiet. Or transfer. The physical and psychological pain forever scarring.

Just today, the University of Oregon, a school not even named on the list of 55 colleges under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education about their handling of sexual assaults, released the results of a survey that 10 percent of the students surveyed were raped and 90 percent of the students assaulted, never spoke of the violence.

And Paglia thinks colleges should “stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives.” Camille, it is the colleges’ responsibility to protect our students, even if that means from each other. More than responsibility, it is law. Our universities are charged with creating safe environments. The danger is not in violating civil liberties, the danger is when colleges are not honest about the number of complaints they do get; when they aren’t in compliance with the Clery Act or Title IX; when they protect star athletes; and leave women walking home alone and afraid.

We have to shift our understanding of the ‘sexual’ in sexual assault

Sara Yufa headshotBy Sara Yufa, JWI

In the last five years, 60% of rapes were not reported to police. Factoring in these unreported assaults, only 8% of rapes were actually prosecuted and only 3% of rapists will spend even a single day in prison.

Many sexual assaults go unreported because the victim fears she will be victimized again by peers and insensitive officials. This threat of public humiliation is due to a misconception of the cause of sexual assault, and a fear of slut shaming or being blamed for contributing to her attacker’s sexual desires.

The sexualization of sexual assault perpetuated the false popular myth that sexual assault is driven by sexual desire when in fact, sexual assault is an act of violence, power and control. Making the conversation about sexual desire diminishes the severity of the violence and minimizes the crime to uncontrollable human nature.

However, just as sexual conquests are misogynistically worn as badges of honor, so too have sexual assault cases surfaced via social media as a flex of power and sexual shaming of the victims. For example, the March 2013 case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which the victims’ pictures were posted online, and the similar, more recent July 2014 case in Houston, Texas. In Houston, the photograph was appropriated into a meme of the pose of the victim, and posts of people mocking the girl went viral on Twitter. Until the hashtag was flipped around to show support for the victim, it was used to mock the girl for being caught with her underwear down. No one publicly questioned how she arrived at the situation or why it was documented and made public.

When posts like this appear online, it increases the power aspect of the crime, marking sexual assault as something to be proud of and displayed for public viewing. Not only did the perpetrator rob the victim of her privacy when he assaulted her, he did it again by publishing the crime and forcing the private matter to be public.

And victims of sexual assault are discouraged from reporting the crime in other ways – such as lack of proof, fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, fear that authorities will treat them with hostility or not take the incident seriously, not knowing how to report the crime and a desire to hide the assault from family and others.

Sexual assault in the U.S. is especially prominent on college campuses: one in five women is a target of attempted or completed sexual assault while she’s a college student and college-aged women are four times more likely than any other age group to face sexual assault. Despite these facts, so many sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported. Date and acquaintance rapes are less likely to be reported than stranger rapes – so considering the nature of college social interaction, the likelihood of reporting sexual assault is lower on college campuses. When assaults are reported, universities often handle the case in a way that conceals the assailant, especially if they have a lot of influence at the university, such as athletes or officials.

On Thursday, July 17, JWI held a roundtable on sexual assault as part of its Summer Series for Interns and Young Professionals in the D.C. area. As a female college student, I feel it is important to have a thorough understanding of what sexual assault means and to know my rights and to understand that every sexual encounter should have clear established consent and that consent can come in the form of verbal or non-verbal indicators. It is also important to be an active bystander and step in if you see someone who is not in the position to show consent.

Specific to college campuses, under Title IX and the Clery Act schools are legally obligated to provide protection for students against discrimination based on sex, and provide transparency of crime on and around campus. Each school must have a sex discrimination policy and a Title IX coordinator easily available to students.

This information is vital for both women and men, girls and boys, as sexual assault can happen to anyone. To decrease the number of sexual assaults that happen every year, we have to shift our cultural understanding of sexuality and gender roles away from the traditional patriarchal system to one of equal, safe, loving relationships.

Obama’s New Sexual Assault on Campus Initiative is Needed

By Dana Fleitman, JWI

People just don’t think about it.

As a society, we are not asked to think critically about sex and consent.

Sure, we’ve heard that “no means no” (unless it’s really a coy yes, of course). And we’d all basically agree that rape is wrong (violent stranger rape, anyways, anything else might be ambiguous). As we grow up, the media and our peers send us the message that sex is the absolute pinnacle of the human experience (especially for men), but our sexuality education focuses on sex as a cause of disease and shame (especially for women). Parents usually don’t say much of anything. We know some people think sex should wait until marriage, other people are for it in just about any circumstance, and rape is bad.

That’s about it. That’s what we got.

Is it any wonder, then, that when young people step onto their college campuses, they have no idea how to navigate sex and consent, or what sexual assault even really is?

I’m the author and a trainer for Safe Smart Dating, an original program addressing sexual assault and dating abuse in Greek life on college campuses. The program is co-ed, peer-led and was created in a unique partnership between JWI, Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) and Sigma Delta Tau (SDT). Through the pilots and the feedback I’ve received, there is no doubt in my mind that college students desperately need (and even want!) guidance, non-judgmental information and structured time to actually talk about sex, consent and relationships.

Most people do not connect their own sexual behaviors to the spectrum of sexual assault. As a society, we tend to think about sexual assault as violent rape of a stranger, maybe somewhere seedy like a back alley, and it’s easy to think “well, I’d never do something like that!” and make our own sexual behaviors seem incredibly distant from something as horrible as rape. It is eye opening when young people learn that – while violent rape and stranger rape do exist – sexual assault is any sexual activity that takes place without the explicit consent of the recipient, and that most sexual assault is perpetrated by an intimate partner and/or someone the victim knows and trusts. Having sex with someone who is passed out or very drunk, refusing to wear a condom, and assuming everything’s fine because no one has yelled “no!” are all forms of sexual assault.

One major focus of the program is shifting the framework from “no means no” to “yes means yes,” guiding students to seek enthusiasm from a partner rather than begrudging consent. Whether it is with one person after marriage or with a different partner every night, sex should be consensual, pleasurable, something both parties feel they had control over and wanted. By the time the question becomes “okay, but was it really sexual assault?” there is already a problem; everyone should be looking for an enthusiastic partner who wants to have sex in the first place.

The student participants tell me that this framework is very different, very new – and very helpful. One girl literally took a picture of a slide showing ways non-consent can look to share, and told me, “It really clicked. The ‘yes means yes.’”

In the post-session surveys, students were asked to write in what they learned that was new. Men’s responses included: “I learned that it is best to explicitly ask for consent. ‘Blurred lines’ are not okay,” “Sexual abuse does not just include rape but any unwanted interaction,” and “I learned how consent is more than just not hearing no.”

Female student responses included: “Not being able to say no doesn’t mean a ‘yes,’ so one has to ask for a positive answer before continuing,” “I learned sexual assault is more than just rape,” and “I learned that sexual assault is not played up in any way, shape, or form. It is real.”

This was new information, learned for the first time through this program.

Safe Smart Dating is a valuable first step and conversation-starter, but so much needs to be done on college campuses to address the structural, cultural and individual contributors to this epidemic as well as create effective systems for reporting, supporting survivors and punishing perpetrators. Today, the Obama Administration took a bold step and launched the Not Alone initiative, a truly groundbreaking project from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault that makes preventing and addressing sexual assault on campuses a national priority.

With the shocking numbers of sexual assaults on college campuses – one in five undergraduate women will experience attempted or completed sexual assault before she graduates – it’s about time. 

People just need to start thinking about it. And talking. And acting.

Dana Fleitman is JWI’s manager of prevention and training programs.

Read JWI’s statement on the administration’s new sexual assault on campus initiative.

Battling Sexual Assault on Campus From the Ground Up

By Jordana Gilman

As a third year resident advisor (RA) at Cornell University, I was asked to help with a special part of new RA training at the beginning of the year called “Behind Closed Doors,” a program that simulates difficult situations and asks new RAs to deal with them as if they were the real thing. My assignment was to sit in an empty dorm room and explain to the new RA, over the course of about 25 minutes, that I had been sexually assaulted. I was given a script, and the health center’s victim advocate sat in the room with me to facilitate a debrief after each RA tackled this tough conversation.

Although this was a simulation and I was merely playing a part, the experience wore on me as I performed this scenario over and over again. I heard myself saying, “I feel so alone,” or “I’m not really sure what happened,” and “I didn’t say yes, but I didn’t really say no either.” My acting debut became less of an act as I embodied my part and came face to face with my own blurry consent conversations.

The rest of RA training passed, with Orientation Week and the first few days of school. Then, as I was standing in Rosh Hashanah services, I felt a nagging inside me rather than the usual joy that the new year brings. I made an appointment with the victim advocate after my apples and honey nosh.

By the time Yom Kippur rolled around, I was feeling empowered. The victim advocate had given me the vocabulary I needed to understand my experience, and I had the confidence to own my choices. Months before, when I had a sexual encounter that didn’t feel right and didn’t come with consent, my friends jumped to conclusions. Their accusations that I had been assaulted, although not directed at me, hurt me deeply. I felt that something had gone awry, but I didn’t feel assaulted. The victim advocate (which, by the way, is a free, confidential, walk-in service) listened to my story and offered ways for me to look at it. I left feeling clean and light, free of the shame I had endured for months because my friends told me I had been assaulted and I didn’t do anything about it.

While I have been able to learn from this and move forward, I am well aware that many conversations in the victim advocate’s office don’t have the same sunny outcome. The more I open up about this topic, the more I realize just how many people have experienced sexual encounters that leave them feeling violated, used, or assaulted.

On the bright side, Cornell University (and many others!) are taking great strides. Cornell recently revamped its sexual assault policy in a proactive effort to support victims. There are a number of social media campaigns being spearheaded by students, most notably the Every1 Campaign, a creative and interactive online project that generates conversations about consent. Countless attempts have been made to change campus culture and increase bystander intervention, such as the Cayuga’s Watchers program, a student-run, independent, not-for-profit organization established to curb issues associated with high-risk drinking at Cornell University using non-confrontational bystander intervention techniques. Blue light phones and shuttles to and from the libraries abound. Students, administrators, and law enforcement are working together on all sides of this issue to protect students and reduce sexual assault at Cornell.

So what’s happening? We know how a consent conversation should go. We know there are options for getting home safely and we know that the policies have our backs. We’re highly educated, motivated and, though I can’t speak for everyone, we make good life decisions.

So how did I end up having non-consensual unprotected sex, and why did it take me nine months to talk to a professional about it?

I wish I had the answer to this question, and I wish I could take that answer and implant it on a chip in people’s brains so they can learn from my experiences. I wish that the convincing, eye-catching social media campaigns could jump out of the computer as I sit down on the bed with someone and remind me of everything I already know. I wish that the wise words on flyers in the dorm bathroom stalls didn’t fade into the background after the third time I sat down to pee.

I do not have a cure-all for sexual assault on college campuses, but I have an idea about where we can start. Let me preface this by saying I do not think that people who have had traumatizing sexual experiences should discuss them before they are ready. But I think we need to talk about rape and sexual assault, in person, face to face, with boys and girls, students and adults, in a serious and supportive way. We can’t rely on hypothetical, feel-good online campaigns or administrative policies to change decisions in the bedroom.

It will never be comfortable, but broaching these topics directly with friends of all genders and sexualities is an important step in preventing it. This is not solely a women’s issue or a straight issue or a young issue. It doesn’t matter if you wrote the book on safe and healthy sex or if you’re a virgin or if you’re in a committed relationship. Sexual assault can happen and we have the power to talk about it openly and honestly.

Since I am no expert in this field, I can only speak from my own experience. I can report that as I have opened up more about what happened to me, friends around me have started to open up too – about experiences they’re unsure about, nights they can’t remember, regrets or fears they have. I have been able to suggest that they go speak to the victim advocate, or merely tell them, from the bottom of my heart, that it is not their fault.

I think the scariest thing about sexual assault on campus is the feeling that you are alone; that there’s no one to talk to, no one who can really understand what happened (because you might not even understand yourself), no one who can be there unconditionally, without judgment. That feeling exists at the point of giving (or not giving) consent as well. There is no one there to help you with your decision or remind you of all the smart things that the Internet tells you about empowerment and healthy conversations. I believe that talking about sexual assault will address this feeling of isolation and prepare people for difficult conversations in the real world in real time.

On the most basic level, I hope that opening up about this on a blog will not be in vain, and will encourage people who read it to be more open to having these types of conversations, to speak up when someone makes a rape joke, and to be sensitive to the unseen struggles of others.

Talking sexual assault and consent with ZBT

By Dana Fleitman, JWI Program Coordinator

“First of all, sex is great. It’s a good thing.”

Dana at ZBTSo began my presentation on sexual assault and consent last week at the Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) International Leadership School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Despite my strangely high comfort level in front of crowds – I do stand-up comedy regularly and have always loved public speaking – I was still a bit intimidated to be one of the few women in the room and in front of a crowd of 200 fraternity brothers for an hour-long session on sexual assault and consent. I was there to promote the Safe Smart Dating program, a new national partnership with JWI, ZBT and Sigma Delta Tau that focuses on dating abuse, sexual assault and being an active bystander, which will launch in fall and go to campuses with ZBT and SDT chapters across the country. This session seemed like a great opportunity to talk more in depth about sexual assault and consent.

How does a woman – or anyone, for that matter – engage young men on one of the largest issues on college campuses today without vilifying, alienating or blaming them? Nearly one in five undergraduate women will experience attempted or completed sexual assault before they graduate, and the vast majority of perpetrators are male. It’s pretty challenging to meaningfully address a privileged group on social issues without putting them on the defensive.

As I learned last week, it’s a ZBT tradition to snap your fingers in support, approval or agreement with something. When I explained that the session would be about sexual assault, I could feel the apprehension and nervous energy in the room. After the overview, my first slide was a picture of a guy and girl giving a thumbs up across from a bed with the heading “Sex is great!” I explained that sex is a positive, fun thing that people enjoy, and my goal was to make sure that they build skills around consent to have wonderful, consensual and mutually enjoyable sex. The crowd erupted into a round of impromptu snapping: Victory!

Framing anything as prevention makes the topic inherently negative. Whether we’re talking about sexual assault, pregnancy, smoking, bullying or diabetes, prevention is about what to avoid and how not to behave. No one likes a list of things they aren’t supposed to do. An engaging discussion should provide realistic, doable steps towards positive social change that empower people as potential allies rather than scolding them as potential perpetrators.

On a topic like sexual assault, I think it’s key to be down-to-earth, sex positive, and approach men as well-intentioned. There may be a selfish sociopath or two in the audience hoping to “get away with” sexual assault, but those people need serious help; no hour-long presentation is particularly likely to reach them. It’s tempting to paint consent in black and white and tell young people that it’s oh-so-clear in every situation, but that’s simply not an accurate or constructive approach. The truth is that any sexual activity that takes place without the explicit consent of the recipient is defined as sexual assault; that means that unwanted sex between romantic partners or friends that happens in a drunken state with poor communication is on the continuum of sexual violence, which can go all the way up to highly violent rape. Neither of these situations is acceptable and both can be highly traumatic, but the former is much more common than the latter; over 90% of perpetrators of sexual assault on women are intimate partners or acquaintances.

To me, this indicates that people simply are not thinking critically about consent. We’ve all heard “no means no,” which puts the responsibility on the objecting partner to speak up instead of on the initiating partner to check in. Instead of assuming everything is fine until someone is yelling “NO!” at us, we need to be tuned in to what our partners are thinking, feeling and wanting. This means asking for consent, and it doesn’t have to be done in a clinical, mood-breaking, awkward way. I encouraged the audience to move slowly with a partner to give him or her time to react, be tuned into the partner’s body language and sounds, and to check in by asking questions like “What do you like? How do you like it? Does that feel good to you? What do you want?” These types of questions are great for gauging a partner’s level of enthusiasm and getting consent, and they’re also just good questions for ensuring an enjoyable experience with a partner. If a partner isn’t responding positively to these types of questions, then there is probably an issue.

On a college campus, pretty much everything happens in a social space. Sexual assault is usually committed or initiated at a party or in a dorm, not in some isolated area. This is why engaging men as active bystanders is also key: men are powerful influencers of other men, especially in a fraternity where students have a built-in mentorship system and pride in their group identity. I encouraged them to keep an eye out at parties and dorms, say something when they notice a potential issue, get other people involved and think about their daily conversations and assumptions around sex and gender.

The presentation also covered gender constructs around sex (media examples and the idea that men “get some” and women “give it up”); consequences of sexual assault for the survivor and perpetrator; more in-depth strategies to be an active bystander; consent and alcohol; and other information and statistics. While the worst case scenario of asking for explicit consent is awkwardness and potential rejection, the worst case for a sexual assault conviction can include severe social, academic and legal consequences, and it’s important to recognize the weight of these choices.

The evaluations showed largely positive responses to the presentation. More than three out of five respondents agreed that they would think more critically about consent as a result of the presentation and/or could see themselves applying the strategies discussed in their own lives. It was great to see comments like “very applicable, a lot of information that is useful,” “very clear and down to earth,” and an appreciation for “the conversational feel to it.”

“I hope you guys have lots of great, consensual sex.” So ended the presentation.

Responding to Sexual Violence at Yale

By Daniel Tahara, Class of 2014, Computer Science & Mathematics, Yale University

Daniel Tahara

Yale’s response to the challenges of sexual violence and inequities on campus has been highly visible, yet equally inadequate.  By creating a committee to address the Title IX suit (filed against the University by male and female students and recent alumni who allege that the University’s failure to properly handle incidents of assault has created a “hostile environment,”), they might have been able to address the issue in a meaningful way.  The mistake they made, however, was assuming that the committee could be a panacea.  Furthermore, by requiring all campus leaders to attend a sexual harassment training event masquerading as “leadership training,” they only did more to exacerbate the real problem: that sexual violence is not regarded as seriously as it should be and that any attempt at systemic change is viewed as something of a joke.

As I have learned during my time at Yale, there is an unspoken belief that the victims of sexual violence should not speak out or report the incidents, as doing so would “ruin” the life of the offender. To some degree the hesitancy is understandable— I do believe people make mistakes and should be given second chances, and that alcohol can blur the bounds of culpability in certain situations. But what of the victim?  While empathy is a cherished virtue, empathy leading to inaction perpetuates the problem, because both the offender and the victim know that there will be few, if any, consequences.

I do want to reiterate that I am not seeking to single out Yale, or any other institution for that matter; it is merely the example to which I can best relate.  The underlying pattern is common on all college campuses across the country.  Where this pattern fits into the broader question of relationships and sexuality is in the pervasiveness of the hook-up culture for the late-teen through early-20s age group.  I haven’t yet fully wrapped my head around it, so I am in no position to criticize.  However, based on my specific, albeit limited exposure to it, I do feel comfortable saying that the hook-up culture is incompatible with a culture of openness and conversation.  “Hooking up” seems to have become a tag for two people who are having a physical relationship who don’t actually address an underlying emotional connection (or lack thereof).  Not to say that a strictly physical relationship cannot be healthy, but when there is no communication, that is where troubles start.

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. I think it’s important to take this opportunity to discuss the issue, because the way I see it, education and open communication are the best ways to prevent sexual violence.

That’s my take. What do you think?

Solutions to Sexual Assault in Schools

by Marni Kostman

Recent data shows nearly 4,000 reported incidents of sexual battery and over 800 rapes and attempted rapes occurring in our nation’s public high schools. By high school graduation, more than one in ten girls will have been physically forced to have sex; when these young women get to college, the number rises to 20%. Women and girls, however, are not alone in this phenomenon as 6% of undergraduate men report similar sexual victimization. Sexual violence often negatively impacts education, job performance, future earnings, physical and psychological health, and sometimes serves as a catalyst for unhealthy relationship patterns in the future. These negative consequences impact the individual victims and their loved ones, as well as our society’s entire pool of human resources.
On April 4, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter responding to the dire situation of campus sexual violence. The letter details for the first time how the education system should handle sexual violence as part of the Title IX requirements of gender equity in schools. It recognizes that sexual violence interferes with student achievement academically and personally, and holds that under Title IX – a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education – discrimination includes sexual violence. The letter gave formal guidelines for schools, such as disseminating a notice of nondiscrimination, designating at least one employee to coordinate Title IX compliance and responsibilities, and adopting grievance procedures for prompt and fair resolution of complaints.

While these formal steps are important, it is my opinion that more informal prevention measures are the most crucial to a safe educational environment and effective response to sexual violence.
Formal guidelines and efficient response procedures are needed and encouraged by the VP leadership, the departments of education and justice, and organizations working on sexual violence; but we need to see schools investing in prevention education, social norms changes, and engaging men. The “Dear Colleague” letter suggests a holistic framework responding to sexual violence, including comprehensive victim services and counseling, academic support and escort services, and employee training on how to deal with allegations of sexual violence. At the same time, there are no suggestions for preventing sexual violence. The training for staff is on how to respond to incidents that have already occurred, and suggested educational resources only address the aftermath of a violent incident. While all of this is useful, it doesn’t help to end the culture of violence in schools that leads to the high statistics mentioned above.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month; I propose that schools start educating students about how to prevent sexual violence now, and carry on this programming throughout the year. In his speech at the University of New Hampshire, Vice President Biden called on students to prevent sexual violence:

“These are your friends, these are your classmates, the people you study with. You need to watch out for each other. You are the first – and best – line of defense…The more and more you bring attention to the issue, the less and less the behavior goes unnoticed, unreported and unpunished, and the more and more attitudes begin to change.”

We can start to change attitudes by raising awareness about the frequency and the consequences of sexual violence among teens. Schools can hold workshops on the dangers of sexual violence, the importance of healthy relationships, and the value of equality regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Youth should be fully involved in these workshops, which should be interactive and provide them with real tools to prevent or handle sexual violence before it escalates. They should also learn the importance of looking out for their peers.
Furthermore, schools must promote policies that don’t blame the victim. Students may not want to look out for themselves or each other if they fear that the school will allow retaliation from classmates, will not provide confidentiality, will force them to press charges, or will retaliate itself with disciplinary proceedings in cases where drugs or alcohol are involved. It is important, here, to have staff who are sensitive to students and perhaps to have a student leader or youth committee to turn to in dealing with sexual assault if institutional problems arise.
Getting youth involved is key in preventing sexual violence; the ways to engage them are infinite. High schools could hold contests during homecoming or spirit week to raise money for a sexual assault crisis line. Sports coaches and club supervisors could talk to their athletes/members about  respecting their partners and obtaining consent, as well as looking out for their peers inside and outside of school. Relatable youth speakers and peer advocates can speak in a health class or a student health fair. Men can be set up with mentors or engaged in programs that teach non-violent masculinity, and also raise awareness that men may be victims too. Self-defense can be taught in gym class. Teachers should recognize that students may drink or do drugs on the weekend and – while this should be prevented in other ways – the same students need to be taught about how to minimize harm and prevent date rape. Most importantly, we should turn to the students themselves for ideas on how to prevent sexual assault: solutions that speak to them and are relevant to their community.

A member of the JWI family shares her story

JWI is grateful to the member of our staff who bravely and graciously offered to share her story, to help spread awareness during Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.


I was a straight-A student, an outstanding athlete, a girl from a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in a mid-size Mid-Atlantic city. I had dreams of becoming a doctor – sports medicine – and had gotten in early to my first-choice college. While a shy girl, I had a small, close group of similarly high-achieving girl friends. I came from a perhaps over-bearing but fully supportive family. I had a lot of things going for me and, to the outside world, I did not present the image of a victim. Yet I was one of the one in three adolescent girls in the United States who have faced physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

What Happened:

I was raped by my first boyfriend at seventeen. I didn’t know then that there was a word for it – date rape – and had thought it was my fault. While my parents had warned me to avoid strange men, to carry a key between my knuckles while walking through a parking lot at night, and to always have a phone on hand with 911 on speed dial for emergencies, I had never been warned about dangers closer-to-home. I did not know that most incidences of sexual violence are inflicted by people we know rather than strange men lurking in empty parking lots.

My boyfriend did not have to catch me in an empty parking lot and he didn’t have to hold a knife to my throat. He only had to hold his hand over my neck in a way that impaired my breath just enough to scare me, to put another hand lightly over my mouth to silence me when I said “no,” and to make me feel like I deserved it by saying things like “Why did you ask me to come over, then?” and “Do you honestly expect me to believe I’m your first?” I did not know how to defend myself against this rape-that-I-did-not-know-was-rape. He caught me off-guard at a time when I felt most safe, with my boyfriend in my bedroom at my father’s house.

Since the rape, my self-esteem was shattered. I felt used and dirty and alone. Worse, I was sexually harassed when the news got out at my after-school job where my abuser and I worked together and was propositioned daily by my other co-workers who now thought I was “easy.” Again, I did not know that this behavior was sexual harassment at the time and that it was illegal. I did not learn this until two years later, in a Gender Studies class in college.

Even after I learned about “date rape” and “sexual harassment” and “no means no” in college, I had already learned the lesson that I “deserved abuse.” After all, I could not blame my victimization on a difficult background; I must have let it happen. In college, I spent two years in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with a boyfriend who would push me into walls and sent a male friend to the hospital during one of his jealous rages.

How the Situation Changed and How I Coped:

While in college, I started working at a rape crisis line and became an advocate on campus for students as well as women throughout the surrounding area. I helped set up college staff trainings on domestic violence as well as the school’s Take Back the Night. Through these activities, I learned that many of my peers, girls like me, had experienced similar types of abuse. Now, not only did a have the vocabulary for what happened to me; I also had faces to the name, and that was life-changing. I was no longer alone. I was no longer a freak. And I was no longer deserving. After all, how could I say that it was deserved after I had learned that many of my classmates, some of my closest friends, had been similarly victimized? I would never believe that they deserved it, so how was I any different? And so I stopped blaming myself and started going to counseling and focusing further on my work combating domestic violence as a therapeutic activity. While laying down roots in this feminist community, I gained greater self-esteem and was further reassured that I was not to blame for the abuse but instead should be proud of myself for surviving it.

What I Know Now:

I know that the abuse was not my fault and I know that, while I could not control the situation under the circumstances, girls need to be given more resources that can increase their sense of control. I know that girls need to be taught about teen dating violence from an early age, as early as middle school. Girls should be able to name the abuse as well as to know the warning signs to prevent it. Girls should also be taught about healthy relationships, about the dangers of slut-shaming and bullying, and should be engaged in activities that build their own self-esteem as well as positive relationships with other women. Schools should have support structures for the one in three girls dealing with this type of violence and school personnel should be fully trained to handle it sensitively and effectively. Most importantly, the issue should not be kept silent. Parents should talk to their teens. Youth groups, sports teams, etc. should recognize the problem. Programming on teen dating violence should be a part of standard school curricula. A variety of narratives must be told and it must be emphasized that this epidemic of violence can affect any girl: your daughter, your neighbor, your best friend, or even you.

OP-ED: Economic crisis boosts need to focus on domestic violence

By Loribeth Weinstein

Published: 10/20/2008


WASHINGTON (JTA) — As we enter the final stretch before this historic election, the economy and the war in Iraq are at the forefront of our minds, and for good reason.

Loribeth Weinstein is executive director of Jewish Women International.

Loribeth Weinstein is executive director of Jewish Women International.

The seriousness of these issues for all Americans cannot be overstated, but I’d like to take a moment to focus on those for whom our current crisis literally will hit too close to home. October is more than just the month before November: It’s also Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Domestic violence is the American epidemic we don’t want to talk about, hear about or know about. But in my 30 years as an advocate for women and children, I’ve never been more concerned about the victims of domestic violence than I am right now. Families already buckling under the weight of domestic violence in the best of times can collapse in times of economic downturn and war.

As Jews, we don’t get to take a vacation from tikkun olam and tzedakah because we find an issue disturbing or because something is affecting our bottom line. We are commanded to repair the world, to help those less fortunate, because it’s the right thing to do. And when our pocketbooks fail us, we still have our conscience and our voice.

If we don’t focus our attention on vulnerable families now — if we don’t encourage our leaders and future president to do the same — we very likely will see increases in the already too costly human price of this national scourge.

The statistics are staggering for this equal-opportunity destroyer. One in four U.S. women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; one in six will be the victim of an attempted or actual rape; one in 12 will be stalked. Nearly 5.3 million acts of intimate-partner violence occur each year among U.S. women aged 18 and older, resulting in 2 million injuries and nearly 1,300 deaths.

A poor economic prognosis matters in a uniquely grave way to women and children in families where abuse happens.

According to a 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice, women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over the five-year course of the study were three times more likely to be abused. A spike in cases will be devastating for a system where supply is already not keeping up with demand: According to the 2007 National Census of Domestic Violence Services, 7,707 requests for services went unmet due to shortage of funds and staff in one 24-hour period.

Let’s wake up to what is really going on in families of all races, religions and economic levels behind the closed doors of our apartments and starter homes, mansions and military bases. The recent tragic stabbing death of 29-year-old Sgt. Christina E. Smith was the third off-post domestic violence murder of a Fort Bragg servicewoman in four months. Sgt. Richard Smith, 26, was charged, along with a friend, with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder of his wife. A local police spokesperson responded: “No, gosh, not another one.”

The war matters enormously to our leaders, to our citizens, and to the parents and spouses of soldiers who pay the ultimate sacrifice. But it also matters to families of military women like Christina E. Smith. Families already under strain become another, rarely talked about, casualty.

So we’ve got to keep doing what we know makes a difference, such as running domestic violence prevention programs that model and teach healthy relationships for teens, and we need to maintain partnerships aimed at ensuring full funding of the Violence Against Women Act and Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and appropriate funding of the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA.

Only two years ago, the Lifetime Women’s Pulse Poll, conducted by Roper Poll, revealed the degree to which domestic violence informed the voting decisions of women and men over 18. Ninety-seven percent felt that the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault against women and girls was important and would impact who they voted for in the election.

Jewish Americans are compassionate and the more we know about an issue, the more we care about an issue. Let’s come together as one voice and let our leaders know that in the best and worst of times we are not going to let domestic violence continue. That we hold them, and ourselves, accountable for making it stop.