Preventing rape and other forms of sexual assault at colleges has become a hot button issue in the wake of the Obama administration’s “It’s On Us” campaign. In September 2014 the White House described it as “an awareness campaign to help put an end to sexual assault on college campuses.”
In December 2014 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all SUNY schools would be adopting a uniform sexual assault policy for all campuses. That policy defined consent as an affirmative voluntary agreement between all participants: Consent is active, not passive,” the policy states. “Silence or lack of resistance cannot be interpreted as consent.”
More locally, colleges such as Cornell University, SUNY Cortland and Ithaca College have embraced initiatives such as the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education (SHARE) program, which is a one-stop resource available to all students who are dealing with sexual misconduct of any kind, and the national Rape Aggression Defense program (RAD), which is designed to combat sexual assault statistics via balancing “the needs of women to acquire self defense education in a relatively short period of time, with the lifelong commitment required for physical mastery,” according to the RAD website.
The RAD program is returning to Ithaca College following their launch of SHARE last fall, and this summer’s incoming students will be the first to receive a required orientation session on sexual harassment and assault. According to IC’s website, that training includes interactive discussion around sexual violence, consent, crime reporting and disclosure, confidential, private and third party reporting, victim rights, bystander intervention and multiple prevention strategies.
Ithaca College Title IX Coordinator Tiffani Ziemann said the evolution of sexual consent law on college campuses, and the amount of attention it’s receiving in today’s culture, is new territory.
“There’s definitely [been] an increase in awareness in the last year to 18 months,” she said. “Students have been talking about the issue a lot more. It’s [being received] not necessarily as ‘What’s going on, why should we care about this?’ but [instead] the students are getting really invested in it. There’s little pockets, little groups that this has been their issue for a really long time, but now there are other students on campus increasing that conversation, which is great. I would say our reports have gone up, because more people are aware of their options. It’s not just ‘Oh, I should say something if I was raped in the traditional sense.’ If someone is making someone else feel uncomfortable, there’s a climate where students are more aware and talking about that more.” Making someone feel uncomfortable can now be called a “microaggression.”
“There’s a couple of different components,” she continued. “One is how we respond to the complaints when they happen, and the other is how are we educating students about other options, definitions and things of that nature. As far as how we respond, at least judicially, we were already on par with some of the regulations. So that was already in place. As far as code of conduct, we were already there. And then with the education pieces, [the new sexual consent law] has definitely increased our need to raise awareness on campus. We’ve increased how much time we spend on orientation, what we talk about in orientation, and the past year or so with affirmative consent, we really increased the time that we spend on those topics and getting the word out on campus to increase everyone’s conversation about it. So that has been a big focus for our campus, and I think all campuses.”
According to the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, one in four college-age women will be the victim of sexual assault during her academic career. Furthermore, the United States Department of Justice estimates that almost 25 percent of college women have been victims of rape or attempted rape since the age of 14, and according to the White House Council on Women and Girls, only 13 percent of students who are sexually assaulted report the crime to authorities.
Ziemann said creating a level of comfort on the topic, and the action, needs to be cultivated to raise such numbers.
“The reason all of this is so important is students need to be able to go to college and feel safe at college. Unfortunately things happen that make them feel unsafe or feel like they can’t be on campus and get an education. And so, (a) it needs to become less taboo to talk about sex and sexual violence. You shouldn’t be ashamed if you’ve experienced this. You should be able to have resources available to you. And (b) if people understand that it’s not okay, it will decrease what’s happening, because students will understand what is sexual violence. It’s not just the stranger rape. It’s sex without sexual consent, touching without consent—it’s all those things as well. It’s important to keep educating students on that so that they know for themselves, that they’re not crossing a line.”
Ziemann added that in light of the newly defined terminology of affirmative consent, the lines of consent still too often get blurred, misunderstood or ignored under the effects of certain substances.
“I think students still struggle with the intersection between alcohol and consent. It gets really tricky if both people have been drinking, or one person has been drinking. It’s hard for students to know when and where the rules apply, but they always apply. I think that dynamic will continue to be an issue on college campuses. Unfortunately, there are drinking and drug cultures that we have to work with. Students need to know risks increase when they’re under the influence, and they still need to know how to manage that situation under those circumstances.”
Ziemann noted that no matter if you’re a student at IC, Cornell or another college, there are resources available to support sexual assault issues, and a good place to start is online. For Ithaca College, visit ithaca.edu/sacl/share; for Cornell’s, visit share.cornell.edu; and for SUNY Cortland’s, visit cortland.edu/offices/university-police-department.
“That’s where you’ll find definitions [and] all of our reporting options, all of the support options we offer for sexual assault,” Ziemann said. “One of the big things for students to know is about consent: you always need to know that your partner is into whatever is going on. And that if something does happen, if a line is crossed, that they do have options on campus. They can go to the public safety office, they can come to me, a Title IX coordinator, and we will help them figure out what they want to do next.” §