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ND community explores next steps in conversation on sexual assault

| Friday, November 20, 2015

Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final installment in a five-part series on sexual assault at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Today’s story focuses on the future of the conversation on sexual violence.

The conversation on sexual assault is changing.

In the last three years alone, the University- and student government-supported initiatives have transitioned from those of awareness and education to advocacy and bystander intervention with the One Is Too Many, It’s On Us and GreeNDot initiatives, student body chief of staff Dan Sehlhorst told The Observer in October.

Launched at Notre Dame earlier this month, Green Dot is a national program that teaches bystander intervention to students to help prevent sexual assault in their own communities. The program draws its name from crime maps, in which red dots “typically suggest the spread of some terrible epidemic with each dot representing an individual case. Together, these red dots are the accumulation of individual decisions, moments, values and actions that contribute to a culture of violence and bystander inaction,” according to the student affairs website. On the contrary, “green dot behaviors” represent instances where red dots were avoided or combatted through behaviors like bystander intervention.

Students gather in the Notre Dame Room in LaFortune Student Center to receive bystander intervention training as part of the GreeNDot campaign, which emphasizes awareness and preemptive action.Zachary Llorens | The Observer
Students gather in the Notre Dame Room in LaFortune Student Center to receive bystander intervention training as part of the GreeNDot campaign, which emphasizes awareness and preemptive action.

Christine Caron Gebhardt, director of the Gender Relations Center (GRC) said choosing a prevention program to implement at Notre Dame proved challenging because data is limited, and each program must be tailored to individual institutions. She said Green Dot does, however, have a target number of students to reach for reducing sexual violence on campus.

“Green Dot’s measure of success is when you hit critical mass, which is 15 percent of your student body bystander-trained,” she said. “That is the point where you will see sexual assault decrease, both in your non-confidential resources and in your confidential resources.”

Danny Funaro, chair of the department of gender issues for student government, said the campus community is making strides to hit the 15 percent point.

“The last GreeNDot extended training was full,” he said. “There’s definitely a good amount of very involved people willing to go through these processes.”

According to Aimee Herring, lead deputy prosecutor at the SVU of Saint Joseph County, the media have reported an increase in sexual assaults. However, she said, an increase in reported assaults does not necessarily reflect an actual increase in the number of assaults.

“I think that that tells us we have victims who know that they have been violated, and know what to do when they have been violated and what options they have because they are seeking help if they need it, they are reporting if they want to, they know who to go to if they want to report,” she said.

Herring said continuing that work would be an important task moving forward, to help educate victims and the community about sexual assault.

“I think it is working,” she said. “I think that our college campuses in this community in general have come out and have spoken out about sexual assault in general and specifically saying we don’t want to see this in our community. … This community will not stand for that.”

Annie Kuster, a senior and part of the GRC’s FIRE Starters program, said improving University policy and awareness has been a positive but that the conversation about sexual assault requires the community to go further than that.

“I think there has to be a little bit of a culture shift because I think right now there are still some areas that are particularly vulnerable,” she said. “ … So now, maybe people are starting to understand what’s going on, but people might still leave their girlfriends at a party and go on to the next one because she wants to stay. … Or, everyone’s drinking heavily, and we don’t have a sober friend to make sure that everything’s under control.”

She said promoting a culture that does not tolerate sexual assault would require “putting steps together of what does it actually mean to respect somebody, and get to know somebody, and have these conversations that foster a healthy relationship instead of one that could lead down a potentially negative path, for both parties.”

Echoing that idea, Abby Palko, associate director of the Gender Studies program, said because faculty and administration are not present in situations where sexual assaults are more likely to happen, change must come from students — with help.

“My hope is that you all who are here now as students are able to create the kind of campus culture you want to be in, and that is healthy for everyone, and that is a space where people can flourish and grow,” she said. “There are supports that the administration can put in place, but a lot of it has to come from students deciding what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. And the faculty are here to support you. In some ways it sounds silly, but we’re almost completely powerless here.

“We can advocate for change to the rules, we can advocate for accountability, but we don’t actually create that. And we’re not at the parties with you, and we’re not there to say, ‘Hey, do you really want that seventh drink?’ or “You two don’t really look like you know what’s going on right now, maybe you should separate.’ We’re not there to do that. It feels like all we can do is say, ‘Yes, we’re behind you,’ as you work to bring about this change, and there are lots of faculty who want to do that.”

Senior Skyler Hughes, a producer for Loyal Daughters and Sons, said talking candidly about sex and other gender issues would also be a necessary part of the conversation moving forward.

“Being this Catholic, relatively conservative campus, there’s a lot of silence around sex in general,” Hughes said. “And by extension, there can be a lot of silence around sexual assault. I think that there’s been a little bit of a breaking of the silence on that issue — on specifically sexual assault — because people are now willing to talk about that, but people are still very uncomfortable with talking about some of the other issues.

“But these other issues are not unrelated to the issue of sexual assault. When you’ve got different gender dynamics, gender relations, they can contribute to certain power dynamics that can promote a culture that allows sexual assault to happen.”

In the context of a Catholic university, Caron Gebhardt said it is important to realize that the idea of consent is relevant not only in relation to sexual assault but in any acts of physical intimacy.

“So all the ways a Catholic institution would hold firm to our value that sexual activity would remain within the marriage context, we also recognize that there’s layers, levels of sexual activity that occur between our students — and there should be consent at all of those times, in all of those ways,” she said.

From the perspective of preventing sexual violence, Caron Gebhardt said, consent requires looking at how each person in the relationship is being valued.

“It’s really about how each person is being treated with dignity, which is inherently part of who we are a Catholic institution,” she said. “Now I know as students, it’s like, you want to know, ‘Is this consent? Is that not consent?’ because there are procedural questions. But more importantly, what I’ll say to students is, if you can’t talk about it, then how could you possibly do it?

“ … Students are going to make choices, and if they choose to engage at that level of sexual intimacy, that’s fine, but hopefully they’ve laid a ground where if that were to happen, each person would be treated with respect.”

Managing Editor Jack Rooney, Associate News Editors Clare Kossler and Catherine Owers and News Writer Katie Galioto contributed to this story.

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About Margaret Hynds

Margaret is a senior Political Science major and the former Editor-in-Chief of The Observer. She hails from Washington, D.C., and is a former Phox of Pangborn Hall. Follow Margaret on Twitter @MargaretHynds

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