Student groups seek to end sexual assault
Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a five-part series on sexual assault at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Today’s story focuses on student group responses to sexual assault.
Approaching the issue from a variety of different perspectives, students from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s are seeking out avenues to continue the conversation around, and ultimately prevent, sexual assault on college campuses.
Central to their efforts is defining what it means for students to stand against sexual assault.
“A lot of people on campus, okay, they’re against sexual assault,” senior Skyler Hughes said. “But it’s not a controversial thing to be against.”
Hughes is a producer for Loyal Daughters and Sons (LDS), an annual, student-run performance that collects the personal stories of Notre Dame community members regarding gender relations, sexuality and sexual assault, and adapts them for the stage.
Almost a decade after its initial beginnings as a senior thesis project, Hughes said LDS still works to identify how the performance fits into the ongoing discussion about sexual assault, and more broadly, gender relations.
“[LDS’s] role has definitely evolved, and I think that’s one of the things we’re trying to negotiate right now: What is our role in this larger conversation?” he said.
Hughes said LDS distinguishes itself by bringing a personal element to the conversation.
“I think because we tell these stories — these very personal stories — I think we add a dimension to the conversation that other campaigns — with statistics, or trainings, or door-to-door campaigns — they can’t add … ,” he said. “And I think that’s a really important side to have in the conversation about sexual assault. We can’t detach it from those personal stories.”
Focusing their efforts on educating and informing students about sexual assault rather than relating students’ personal experiences, the FIRE Starters — a student initiative of the Gender Relations Center (GRC) — are also working to define their stance against sexual assault, Notre Dame senior and FIRE Starter Annie Kuster said.
“There’s a lot of different angles that we can take towards sexual assault and relationship violence,” Kuster said. “[It’s] not just like, ‘this is what sexual assault is.’”
Kuster, a member of the FIRE Starters subgroup on sexual assault and relationship violence, said the FIRE Starters aim to foster a dialogue concerning “gender and sexual identity and relationship violence, and things like that, that usually are swept under the rug.”
She said her subgroup this semester chose to consider sexual assault through a discussion on the meaning of consent.
“One of our biggest focuses was consent, [and] understanding — not necessarily promoting sexual activity — but understanding what consent means, how that functions,” she said. “Any interaction you have with someone else involves consent, to some degree.”
“I’m fairly sure that nobody goes into the night and is like, ‘you know what, I’m going to sexually assault somebody, I’m going to hurt somebody tonight,’” Kuster said. “And we [as a subgroup] thought it had to do a lot more with this fuzzy line, and when you cross it and you don’t cross it.”
Similar to FIRE Starters in their educational approach, Saint Mary’s Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) aims to provide students with the knowledge necessary to take a stand against the problem of sexual assault, Saint Mary’s sophomore Abbie Spica said.
“I think that we can take a stand against sexual assault largely through education, by informing people of the realities of sexual assault,” Spica, who serves as the head of BAVO’s student advisory committee for events and campaigns, said.
Among other initiatives, BAVO offers Green Dot bystander intervention training and helps coordinate Take Back the Night, in which Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students march across Notre Dame’s campus to demonstrate solidarity with survivors, Spica said.
“This is happening to our peers, these acts of sexual violence,” she said. “We need to be support systems, we need to be encouraging, and Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame are a family, so we need to act like it and be there as a support system for each other.”
Spica said the group setting of BAVO allows students to collaborate with like-minded peers and to increase the overall impact they can have in addressing sexual assault.
“Sometimes it’s very discouraging when you’re by yourself working on issues like this, because, individually, it’s hard to see how much of an impact you’re making,” Spica said. “When you have so many people doing it in a group, it’s interesting to see how many people’s minds you can change or how many people you can influence.”
BAVO is not the only student initiative to facilitate group collaboration. Notre Dames — a female empowerment club started in 2014 — provides a weekly forum in which students can jointly examine sexual assault and other issues impacting women on both campuses, club president and founder Notre Dame senior Alison Leddy said.
“One of the reasons I actually started Notre Dames was because I had a few friends who were victims of sexual assault, and what was consistent in their experiences was that they felt like they didn’t have a voice — either in the situation, or after the situation,” Leddy said. “ … I was personally really moved by the fact that they didn’t feel like they could say anything or they didn’t feel like their voice was worthy of being heard.
“Especially in an instance of sexual assault where so much power is taken away from you, their voice was the first thing to go.”
Complementing the efforts of LDS, FIRE Starters, BAVO and Notre Dames, other student groups are focusing their attention on those aspects of sexual assault which are often overlooked in the larger discussion of the issue.
At Saint Mary’s, the Straight and Gay Alliance is seeking to challenge the largely heteronormative discussion of sexual assault, according to the alliance’s president, Saint Mary’s sophomore Abigail Lynn.
“A lot of times, people in the LGBTQ community write [sexual assault in a homosexual relationship] off as it not being sexual assault when, if the same thing happened in a heterosexual relationship, it would be a huge deal,” Lynn said. “That’s why it needs to be talked about. If it’s not talked about, you don’t even realize it.”
According to Lynn, expressing opinions openly is one of the first steps students can take in working to raise awareness about the issues surrounding sexual assault.
“I realized really quickly that if you go about it the right way, people are really receptive to what you have to say,” Lynn said. “We can acknowledge that we have different viewpoints on things, but we can also respect each other. We’re trying to build a community.”
Echoing the mission of the Straight and Gay Alliance, members of the College’s Justice Education Student Advisory Committee are also working to promote more inclusive language when speaking about sexual assault, committee member and Saint Mary’s sophomore Alex Shambery said.
“People come to Saint Mary’s with certain mindsets about things, and then they have discussions with other people who may have a greater sense of knowledge about those subjects, and this brings people to realizations,” Shambery said. “The only way to go is up.”
Saint Mary’s senior Bri O’Brien, who also sits on the committee, said people sometimes dismiss the idea of same-sex assault on campus because it is not as commonly discussed as instances of heterosexual assault are.
“Sometimes when you just talk about the surface level of something, you’re not really getting at the heart,” O’Brien said. “It’s easy to do the bare minimum. It’s easy not to talk about same-sex assault.
“The bare minimum doesn’t include same-sex assault.”
In addition to same-sex assault, the issue of male advocacy figures only marginally into the larger discourse on sexual violence, president of Men Against Sexual Violence (MASV) and Notre Dame junior Daniel Esparza said.
“There’s not many male groups at all that talk about sexual violence as a serious matter, and that’s actually a subject that I do take seriously,” he said.
According to Esparza, MASV’s mission in part is “to be able to dissolve any misconceptions behind sexual assault, first and foremost.”
But dissolving misconceptions can sometimes require people to go outside their comfort zone, Esparza said, and student advocates must often embrace awkward and uncomfortable situations.
“There’s really a need to make conversations uncomfortable,” Esparza said. “It’s kind of a social polarization deal. If [men] are not constantly bombarded with the problematic atmospheres that they might create, they really get comfortable validating those problematic behaviors and attitudes.
“Continuing the conversation is really a matter of trying to make things awkward, in a way.”
News writers Selena Ponio and Andrea Vale contributed to this report.