Over the last several months, there’s been no shortage of media stories about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. Just this week, the New York Times published an article detailing Hobart and William Smith College’s response to a sexual assault report by a first-year student named Anna. Her story is unfortunately not the first to capture the media’s attention, and as long as the issue of sexual assault on college campuses remains in the public awareness it almost surely will not be the last.
Here at Speak About It, we spend a lot of time researching and discussing these issues. Our theory, and the theory of many other people and organizations engaged with this work, is that there hasn’t necessarily been an increase in sexual assaults on college campuses recently. The difference between what’s happening now and what’s happened in the past is that people are actually talking about it.
There’s an unprecedented level of dialogue and awareness of this issue, and it’s having an effect. More survivors are coming forward with their stories, generating greater public awareness and outcry for better policies. Under increased pressure from the government, the public, alumni, and donors, college administrators and trustees are realizing that they can no longer ignore the realities of sexual assault on our campuses. While the stories of survivors like Anna can be alarming and difficult to hear, they are demonstrative of the fact that we are in a unique moment in history where creating real change on this issue is finally possible.
In the past, schools had little incentive to be proactive in their efforts to prevent sexual assault and support survivors. Encouraging a conversation about sexual assault, implementing education or prevention programming, or hiring and training staff to oversee Title IX enforcement and education required schools to admit that sexual assault was a reality on their campus. In the world of higher education, where building and defending an institution’s reputation is among every administrator’s highest priorities, this was seen as a liability. If we don’t talk about sexual assault at all, it must not happen here, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. When a school reports that they experienced zero sexual assaults, it doesn’t mean that there are no assaults–it just means that students aren’t reporting them.
The truth is that sexual assault is a reality on every college campus, regardless of whether or not people are talking about it. More dialogue about sexual assault does not mean that there’s more sexual assault, it means that there’s more conversation. Schools with a strong network of support for survivors are likely to see more reports, not because the rate of assault has necessarily increased, but because students feel more confident and safe coming forward. As one administrator from the University of Michigan puts it in this article from NPR, “If you want low numbers, you’re really saying to students, be quiet. We should expect the more education we do, the safer our students feel, the more they see us responding. We should expect our numbers [of reports] to go up.”
Thankfully, the conversation has been shifting over the past few years. Instead of passing judgement on colleges for being proactive with sexual assault education and prevention, people are now recognizing that these schools are ahead of the curve. Since 2010, Speak About It is proud to have worked with over 26 colleges and high schools to provide innovative and meaningful programs focused on sexual assault prevention. Through our performances and facilitations we educate, entertain, and empower students to support their friends and peers, recognize potentially dangerous situations as an active bystander, and continue the conversation about sexual violence prevention throughout the school year.
In light of the current nationwide conversation about sexual violence and student safety on college campuses, as well as the ongoing investigations being carried out by the Department of Education at over 60 schools, the stakes have never been higher for campuses to provide high-quality educational programs addressing sexual assault. Speak About It offers a team of trained, professional actors who travel directly to college campuses. Our hour-long performance meets Campus SaVE Act requirements, and our actors are also qualified to lead pre- or post-show facilitation trainings with student leaders to provide strategies for discussing these issues and supporting peers.
If you are interested in improving or supplementing the sexual assault prevention programming at your institution, we hope you’ll consider bringing Speak About It to your campus. We are available year-round to partner with high schools and colleges to help create and sustain a dialogue about consent, boundaries, and healthy relationships. Together, we can shift conversations and campus culture around sex, dating, and relationships in a positive and healthy way.