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Only people can stop sexual assault

| Monday, September 7, 2015

In just over two years here at Notre Dame, I’ve received far too many emails notifying me about a sexual assault report on campus. And every year, to follow those emails, countless columns (like this one I’m writing) appear in The Observer, furiously pleading for some way, any way, to end these horrendous acts of violence on our campus. Yet why does it still happen? Why can we, as a Notre Dame student body, not find a way to actually do something? Yes, we’ve had numerous successful awareness campaigns and bystander trainings that have increased conversation around campus. The bottom line, however, is that we still have people who are sexually assaulted on our campus. And we need to actually do something about it.

One thing is clear: no amount of policy change will stop sexual assault. Cracking down on alcohol, parietals or disparities between guys’ and girls’ dorms won’t prevent sexual assault on our campus. All of these policy changes, while they might have some effect, just serve as an extra deterrent, adding to the already strict rules and laws in place to help protect our students. These changes could be beneficial (or do nothing), but they aren’t nearly enough. We need to do more.

My freshman year, I, like all other Notre Dame students, underwent Building Community the Notre Dame Way. As everyone knows, this training involved education about sexual assault and basic bystander intervention training for all students. Although its intended purpose was good, I got little from it. Like most other people who I talked to, I only began to understand sexual assault in the context of myself; I learned what sexual assault technically was and how I could personally avoid being in those bad situations. Like many other people, I brushed the training (and the entire issue of sexual assault) off for many reasons. I knew I wasn’t a bad person, so I wasn’t going to get in those situations. I wasn’t a bad friend, so I would watch out for my buddies to make sure they didn’t get in those situations. I was also a little bit incredulous: one in four girls get sexually assaulted in college? To me, that logically transitioned to the fact that somewhere close to one out of four guys I knew committed a sexual assault in college, and none of the guys I knew seemed that bad. I never encountered someone who was sexually assaulted, so the stat just really wasn’t impactful for me. Sexual assault just didn’t really seem to be a serious problem to me as a college-aged male. I wasn’t going to be involved in any of those situations, and it had never affected me personally

My opinions and my apathy didn’t change until I began to have serious conversations with my female friends here. I had never realized that I, a man, should care just as much about sexual assault as anyone else on this campus. I had never been scared walking home alone at night, I had never been objectified and I didn’t know what it was like to feel pressured by someone of the opposite gender. I didn’t understand any of it, because I didn’t understand that every sexual assault affected the people that I love indirectly, and thus affected me. Until I realized this, it really wasn’t something that I cared deeply about — I knew it was horrible, but I didn’t realize that there were so many things that I could do to help stop it.

So how do people, but not policy, stop sexual assault? Yes, it’s through bystander intervention, safe drinking and looking out for each other. But it’s also much more than that. To stop sexual assault, we need to stop thinking about it in the context of our selves. Luckily, it didn’t take something personal for me to start really caring about sexual assault as an important issue that I can do something about. And it shouldn’t for anyone.

Once we all start really realizing that sexual assault is something that we can change on an individual level, progress will come. Sexual assault can’t be stopped by legislation or administrative changes. Rather, it can only be stopped by people. By men who know what their female friends feel every weekend night. By women who know what their guy friends think about an issue so important to them. By a student body who realizes that even if we avoid these situations personally, our part in combating this issue involves so much more. When this happens, when we actually try to understand each other’s views and personal experiences, we will all start realizing how deeply this issue affects each and every one of us at Notre Dame. Only then will change come.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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