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Campus engages sexual violence issues

Karen Langley | Friday, November 16, 2007

In recent years, campus dialogue has increasingly addressed issues of sexual violence. This attention has grown throughout campus but has particularly drawn male activists, University officials and student leaders say.

Student groups are calling with increasing intensity on both the men and women of Notre Dame to reduce the instances of sexual assault – which all sources say occur much more often to members of the campus community than may be perceived.

“We want to create a movement where we say, ‘No, this is not OK, and we won’t let this happen,'” said Michael Redding, president of Men Against Violence.

Though no more than two rapes have been reported to NDSP during any year in the last decade, sources engaged with the topic say sex crimes are often seriously underreported. They cite as evidence of extreme underreporting U.S. Department of Justice statistics that between 20 and 25 percent of women will be raped sometime during their college career.

Despite these statistics, student leaders and officials say increased awareness and individual commitments to reducing sexual assault can have a real impact.

“Hopefully, if any place could be free of sexual violence, it could be a place like Notre Dame,” said Ann Firth, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs.

Campus dialogue about issues of sexual assault has been formally generated within the University’s Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention, a committee of representatives from throughout the campus community and the Gender Relations Center, among other venues.

“There is a greater openness to talking about these issues,” Firth said.

Openness has increased particularly among men on campus – a change that is critical, said Bill Kirk, Associate Vice President for Residence Life.

With the vast majority of offenses perpetrated by men, the issue cannot be resolved until men take ownership of it, Kirk said.

“This is not a women’s issue,” he said. “This is a students’ issue.”

A small group of men engaged with the issue came together in fall 2005 under the title Men Against Violence.

The group formed so that “stand-up male role models on campus would hold other men accountable to work for social change,” said Heather Rakoczy, director of the Gender Relations Center.

Membership in Men Against Violence has increased each year since its inception, group co-founder John Corker said. The group operates as a task force under the jurisdiction of the Gender Relations Center while awaiting confirmation of club status.

Corker, now an Admissions Counselor, said men are finally joining women in addressing a problem that affects everyone.

“Men are really signing onto the issue, but it’s under the leadership of women,” he said. “The leadership continues to begin and end with women.”

Corker cited the expansion of MAV and the work of Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention as evidence of growing campus engagement with issues of sexual assault.

“We have gotten to the point where the campus community recognizes this is a tangible issue here at Notre Dame,” he said.

MAV focuses its efforts on men who realize sexual assault is a problem but don’t see the relevance to their lives.

“Probably the biggest obstacle we are continually overcoming is the mindset that if I don’t harm women and I’m not involved in assault or sexual assault, it’s not something that affects me,” Corker said.

Any man with female friends, a mother, sisters, or any other female in his life needs to realize the significance of actively addressing sexual assault, he said.

“Every guy on this campus knows somebody who has been affected by it,” Corker said.

MAV’s projects have included drives to encourage male students to sign a pledge. Also, an annual spring poster campaign shows groups of men involved in different activities – from Bengal Bouts to the Liturgical Choir – framed with a Department of Justice statistic about sexual assault and the MAV pledge.

The campaign’s message is that “whatever you do, be a man against violence,” Corker said.

The group’s presentations at an annual Indiana conference on sexual violence prevention has led to start-up men’s organizations at other schools in the state – an increase Corker said is indicative of a trend on campuses across the nation.

The traditional social power ascribed to men sometimes increases the impact of their activism, said Rakoczy.

“Some men can only hear challenging messages like this from other men,” she said.

This, she said, is even the case for some women.

On Nov. 6, MAV brought anti-sexism activist Jackson Katz to campus. More than 220 people – half of them men, half women – sat in the audience as Katz said men need to stand up against a culture that allows the physical and psychological subjection of women.

“There are very many people at Notre Dame who want to make a change in the world,” Redding said, “and they spend a lot of time doing it.

“This is an issue that with just a little bit of effort, specifically becoming more vocal on the issue, we can see a lot of change.”

According to U.S. Department of Justice data provided by the Gender Relations Center, one in four college women will be the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault this year, and one in six men will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. The data provided also found that nine of 10 women raped on college campuses do not report the assault.

During the period from 1996 to 2006, 27 forcible sex offenses were reported to have occurred on campus, according to information compiled by NDSP in compliance with federal requirements.

The reports for each year contain between zero and two reported rapes.

“Anecdotally I can tell you, as a rector, that’s not at all what’s going on,” Rakoczy said. “Rape and sexual assault are happening on our campus.”

Though survivors of rape and sexual assault are always given discretion about whether they press charges or take any other course, Rakoczy said they can do a “tremendous service” to others by reporting the crime.

With national statistics of sex crimes occurring on college campuses so high, and zero to two rapes reported to have occurred at Notre Dame each year, “you would get the sense this is being covered up,” Kirk said. “It absolutely isn’t.”

In addition to the many reasons for which a survivor might choose not to report statistics at all, the published statistics are also affected in that they only account for offenses that occurred on campus.

Most sexual assaults reported to Residence Life occurred off campus, he said.

“We know it’s a dramatically underreported crime,” Kirk said.

Survivors of sexual assault may hesitate to report for a variety of reasons, he said. Among these may be the influence of alcohol or fear of disciplinary action for any rules broken.

Both Kirk and Rakoczy emphasized that if someone reports a sexual assault, no disciplinary action will be taken against the person reporting for any du Lac violations whatsoever.

Even if the survivor were to have been drinking, breaking parietals and having consensual sex before being raped, no disciplinary penalty would be enacted if he or she was to report the rape, Rakoczy said.

“Those other violations are just not important to us if someone is the victim of a crime,” Kirk said. “Obviously we would be concerned pastorally, but in terms of disciplining – absolutely not.”

The Catholic environment of Notre Dame may also play a role in the hesitation of some survivors to report the crime, Rakoczy said.

“I think it’s a guilt and shame which is completely unnecessary and unfounded,” she said.

Some survivors wonder whether, as members of a community whose Catholic values discourage premarital sex, they can still be considered virgins, she said.

“To equate a person who has been raped with someone who has chosen to have sexual intercourse could not be more wrong,” Rakoczy said. “Rape is a crime.”

Any student found by the Office of Residence Life to have committed such a crime will be expelled from the University, he said.

Such an expulsion has occurred at Notre Dame, he and Firth said.

Kirk said the majority of sexual assaults he’s seen reported during 17 years in Notre Dame administration share a common factor – the presence of alcohol.

“We never want to say the victim is in any way responsible for sexual assault,” Kirk said.

The use of alcohol cannot be seen as a causal link with a situation in which someone chooses to act criminally, Kirk said. But drinking can still increase risk.

“If alcohol lowers your inhibitions, it can put you in dangerous situations,” he said.

Alcohol can act as “liquid courage,” Kirk said, causing “breeding grounds” for sexual violence and regretted sex.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that college students who get drunk at least once a week are 75 percent more likely to be sexually victimized than other students, according to Gender Relations Center records.

The Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention is co-chaired by Bill Kirk, Associate Vice President for Residence Life, and Ann Firth, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs. The committee includes representatives of the Offices of Residence Life and Student Affairs, Notre Dame Security/Police, the Gender Relations Center, the Saint Mary’s Office of Residence Life, the Athletic Office, students, professors and others.

The committee’s purpose is two-fold: To ensure resources are in place for those who have experienced sexual violence and to educate the community about the reality of sexual violence and how it can be eliminated, Firth said.

Events like this week’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week are about “encouraging those who have been victimized to speak, seek support and come forward,” Firth said. “That is a very important and healthy thing.”

Resources are available for all survivors of sexual assault, regardless of how long ago the incident occurred, she said.

Some survivors are also unsure about whether what happened to them is sexual assault, she said.

But if the incident involved physical force, emotional abuse, the use of alcohol or any drug – or if it just felt wrong – then the survivor should be talking to someone about it, Rakoczy said.

When a student undergoes sexual assault, the first contact through the University is Assistant Dean in the College of Arts and Letters Ava Preacher, the University Victim Resource Person.

“If someone is in crisis or has experienced trauma, it can be difficult to know where to start,” Rakoczy said.

Preacher provides resources so that the survivor can decide what choices he or she wishes to make, Rackoczy said.

Preacher was not available for comment this week.

Notre Dame has a decentralized approach to rape and sexual assault services rather than a rape crisis center. Research shows these are equally effective methods, so long as protocols are followed, Rakoczy said.

Resources available to students include S-O-S, the rape crisis center for St. Joseph County. Counseling and therapy are available at the University Counseling Center, and a confidential, on-campus support group is also available.

Ava Preacher can be reached at 631-7728. University sexual assault resource information is available online at http://osa.nd.edu/departments/rape.shtml