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Sexual violence is a life issue

| Thursday, September 10, 2015

This is another sexual assault column.

The Saint Mary’s community – students, alumnae, faculty and families – became inflamed last spring by “The Hunting Ground,” a devastating documentary on institutional apathy and corruption in the face of campus sexual violence. Notre Dame students joined the furor, and shortly thereafter the University publically disclosed its involvement in an ongoing federal investigation for sexual harassment cases. President Mooney announced the creation of a Presidential Taskforce on Sexual Assault at Saint Mary’s, which began meeting this semester. And now the SMC Department of Gender and Women’s Studies has invited Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, the founders of End Rape on Campus who were featured in “The Hunting Ground,” to speak on campus. They are holding a panel at Saint Mary’s tonight. (7pm at Carroll Auditorium in Madaleva Hall.)

I thought we were getting somewhere. Transparency. Honesty. Accountability. Action.

And then I got the emails. First weekend: three reports of sexual assault and battery in Notre Dame men’s residence halls.

There will be more to follow.

What will it take? Another documentary? Another angry editorial? What. Will. It. Take.

Sadly, it’s becoming apparent that it will take money. Take a glance at the construction projects devouring campus to see what millions of alumni dollars can do – and what they are and aren’t being spent on. Alumni support dominates and determines the culture at this highly endowed university; with alumni demanding accountability, resources and progress, real change could begin very soon. But as it stands, it looks like anything short of a major cut in alumni contributions won’t spur the administration to take any form of meaningful action, even something as basic as listing the name of the men’s residence hall in which a reported assault took place. Or a public apology for its lethargy in addressing the roots of sexual violence on campus: sexism, entitlement, unawareness.

It shouldn’t take this much. Not at “Our Lady’s University.” Respect for women is built into your name. By admitting women in 1972 — in the thick of the women’s movement — University president emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh worked to make respect and equality part of the fabric of this community. When will America’s “premiere Catholic university” realize it is not living up to its own standard of ethical excellence? Its emphasis on justice, morality and loving one’s neighbor may be admirable, but it is only skin-deep because all this is not keeping students safe.

For a pro-life institution, this is the epitome of hypocrisy. Sexual violence is a “life issue.” Protecting life from conception to natural death, from the womb to the tomb, is not just about protecting it from abortion and euthanasia. For most of us, direct threats to our lives do not come at the very beginning or when we have grown old. They come in the space between. For young women, and many young men, they come in college. Even here.

Violence is a life issue. Sexual violence — an attack on a person’s dignity and autonomy — is a life issue. If Notre Dame is Catholic, if Notre Dame is pro-life, if it is the model of moral perfection it brands itself to be, it will “fight to promote and uphold the sanctity of all human life” not just in the bellies of pregnant women but on its own campus. It will not sacrifice the safety of its students to shield its own prestige. It will embrace the challenge of actually valuing justice, actually defending the vulnerable and actually promoting peace. It will be what Fr. Edward Sorin promised: “one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country.”

But it is not there yet, and people on our campuses are suffering for it. So while we wait for our pro-life institutions to take up the mantle, perhaps we the people — students, alumni, faculty and families — can recommit ourselves to defending life in the lives of our peers, classmates and neighbors. Step up. Speak out. Get informed. Demand transparency from your institution and support from your Church. Honor survivors and listen to their stories. Respect them. Fight for them. Because your ears, your eyes and your voice matter. Your money matters. You are the only weapon this community has to fight sexual assault. You. Yes. You.

Keep this momentum going. Come to the panel at Saint Mary’s tonight and take your first step. Watch “The Hunting Ground.” Or better yet, encourage another campus-wide screening so this generation of Domers and Belles can join the discussion. (And this time, Notre Dame, screen it for free.)

Yes, this is another sexual assault column. But if you’re sick of hearing it, then maybe you’re part of the problem.


Jennifer Vosters is a senior living in Le Mans Hall. She is an English major with minors in theatre and Italian. She can be reached at [email protected]

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

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