Fordham University’s Jesuit motto encourages students to live as “men and women for others,” but according to recent data, some Fordham students have not been living up to this standard. Fordham leads all Jesuit colleges in the United States in on-campus sexual assaults with 23 incidents that are categorized as “sexual offenses-forcible” on the U.S. Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool reported from 2010 to 2012. Gonzaga closely follows Fordham with 21 reports. Marquette reported 20, while Boston College reported 18 and Georgetown ranked fifth with 15.
On-campus sexual assaults poison the collegiate environment in which they occur and raise safety concerns for female students. Mental illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as sexually transmitted infections are common consequences of sexual assaults (National Institute of Justice). A college campus is an especially difficult place for sexual assault survivors given that 85 to 90 percent of victims know their attackers (National Institute of Justice). This means that many attackers and victims have classes together or live near each other. Aside from the deleterious effects of sexual assaults in general, the relatively high number of sexual assaults at Fordham has caused concern among Fordham officials. According to an article written by Connor Ryan in The Fordham Ram, the university has called upon the Student Life Council and United Student Government to review the university’s sexual assault prevention training and discuss possible solutions to the issue (Ryan). Both the Rose Hill dean of students, Christopher Rodgers, and vice president of Safety and Security, John Carroll, expressed concern over multiple reports of sexual assaults on Fordham’s campus, but they did not comment at length on the comparisons between universities: “It is difficult to infer very much from comparisons between schools like this, but even a single complaint is unacceptable in our community,” said Christopher Rogers. “I can only comment on the accuracy and process that’s done at Fordham. It is what it is,” said John Carroll. (Ryan). The recent sexual assault numbers at Fordham are frightening for victims of sexual assault, potential victims, and Fordham officials alike.
Sexual assault is a frightening reality for many Americans living outside the walls of Fordham’s picturesque campus as well, but the causes of sexual assault are not entirely clear. According to Stanford University’s Men Against Abuse Now (MAAN) program, the crime of sexual assault is committed by one person who attempts to dominate another through forced sexual intercourse. According to MAAN, rapists are not sexually-deprived; most have sexual partners. Not only do most rapists have access to consensual sex, but according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 22% of rapists are married. This data suggests that sexual assault is not a crime motivated by lust or sexual desire, but rather by power. It is a crime motivated by a desire for power and domination and often committed by serial criminals with 46% of all imprisoned rapists committing another crime within three years of being released from prison (RAINN).
Alcohol is often a subject that surfaces during debates on college sexual assault. Alcohol use is not necessarily a cause of sexual assault, but it is often present when the crime occurs. The percentage of alcohol-related sexual assaults ranges from 34% to 74%. A study conducted in 1994 by Dr. Antonia Abbey of Wayne State University found that 34% of all reported sexual assault perpetrators had been drinking alcohol at the time of the assault. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 30% of all sexual assault victims reported the same. Two years later, a study commissioned by the National Research Council and edited by Nancy Crowell and Ann Burgess found that the involvement of alcohol in sexual assaults was much higher: the percentage of perpetrators who had been drinking alcohol at the time of the attack was 74% and the percentage of victims who had done the same was 79%. Using studies conducted across different populations including the two aforementioned, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism places the percentage of alcohol-related sexual assaults at approximately 50%.
All people would agree that the effects of sexual assault on individuals, families, and communities is detrimental, so the question of whether the high rate of sexual assault on Fordham’s campus is a social justice issue or not can be answered with a definitive yes. The more pressing question is, how should Fordham administrators and students respond to this problem? A solution is needed because the nature of the culture and community of a university is as important as its academic record. For many students, a university is a home as well as a school. Therefore, Fordham needs to find a way to effectively combat the causes of sexual assault on its campus.
A glaring flaw for Fordham in particular is its view of sexual assault as described in the Campus Assault and Relationship Education (CARE) program. Fordham administrators and officials must work to update the CARE program and guidebook in order to establish a strong position on the issue of sexual assault. The CARE guidebook and training program is designed to educate students about sexual assault causes and prevention. It also outlines the judicial process for victims of sexual assault at Fordham. The process is long with multiple steps that involve a fair amount of work that has to be done by the victim. The guide makes little effort to address potential attackers. A few reminders of the definition of consent are interspersed in a section outlining the prevention of date rape and gang rape (CARE 6). Other than these few bullet points, the guide focuses primarily of the potential victim’s responsibility to protect him or herself against attacks. Fordham’s guide, policies, and judicial process place the burden on the victim to prevent on-campus sexual assault.
This victim-burdening is not as evident in other policies at fellow Jesuit schools. Gonzaga University’s student handbook has a long section outlining the expectations of students and the ways in which they should treat others: “…all students are expected to contribute, through their words, actions and commitments, to the development and sustenance of a community characterized by respect, caring, and honesty.” This section precedes any prevention advice for victims and potential victims (Gonzaga Student Handbook). Respect for fellow students is put at the forefront of Gonzaga’s policy. The same can be said for Georgetown University’s sexual assault guidebook and policy. Its Code of Student Conduct policy outlines the various ways in which sexual assault can be defined and how a person can be found guilty of sexual assault. While these policies are simply words on paper that most students do not read, they are translated into training and information sessions and judicial processes that are presented to students when they enter college. For example, Fordham’s CARE program is incorporated into the CORE programming that every Fordham freshman must complete. Since the policy’s attitude is expressed to all students, a revised version of the CARE handbook is needed in order to assert the expectation that students must treat fellow students with respect and an have attitude of non-tolerance towards sexual assault.
Despite its shortcomings, the CARE guidebook excels with its definitions, which is paramount for a judicial policy that is both effective and fair. The 23 reported “forcible” “sexual offenses” at Fordham fall under a broad definition on the U.S. Department of Education website: “Any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and/or against that person’s will; or not forcibly or against the person’s will where the victim is incapable of giving consent.” Conversely, rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment are all defined separately and specifically in the CARE guidebook. The topic of sexual assaults on college campuses has become a national conversation in recent months, and there is debate about how university administrators can fully resolve this alarming issue without wrongful accusations. This delineation of sexual crimes is important for meting out appropriate punishment for rapists, sexual abusers, and sexual harassers. University administrators and health personnel must place an emphasis on understanding these definitions fully in their training programs in order for victims to feel confident about reporting and receiving justice for assaults and for potential perpetrators to fully understanding the consequences of every type of dangerous behavior.
Changing the language of the CARE guidebook and the angle of the CARE training program is the first step in combatting this issue. The next step must be a practical—and hopefully temporary—solution. One such practical solution would be a designated bystander program in which student leaders representing a diverse swath of the Fordham student population would be extensively trained to interfere in cases of potential sexual assault. In an article written by Michael Winerip for the New York Times, the modes of intervention in a case of potential sexual assault at a college party are detailed by a University of New Hampshire researcher and bystander program expert Jane Stapleton. Stapleton uses the word ‘creativity’ to describe the necessary tactics employed by bystanders in their efforts to stop a crime from occurring without appearing uptight or uncool in the middle of a party. One example described by Stapleton in the Winerip article involved a girl taking her friend away from a potentially dangerous situation by telling her that she had the tampon she asked for. However, thinking of a ‘creative’ solution for a very serious, time-sensitive problem is no easy feat. Trained designated bystanders could alleviate this problem because they would already be prepared with solutions and strategies for interventions. They would have to be students who would be willing to abstain from drinking or drink much less than their peers. Fordham already has a student organization that helps educate fellow students about alcohol and safe drinking habits called Peer Educators. These students offer to talk to fellow students about alcohol consumption, which can be difficult to do with the risk of appearing “uncool.” Given this precedent, there must be Fordham students who would be willing to help their peers with the issue of sexual assault.
Bystanders are often cited as the people with the most power to prevent sexual assaults from ever occurring, but unfortunately, people find it difficult to interfere with friends who look like they might engage in dangerous behavior. Individuals are often unsure of how to intervene when a situation seems to take a dangerous turn. According to a 2011 study conducted by Christine Gidycz of Ohio University, Lindsay Orchowski of Brown University, and independent consultant Alan Berkowitz, men who participated in college bystander programs were no more likely than men who did not participate in college bystander programs to intervene in situations in which men demonstrated sexual aggression towards women. The authors of the study believe this reluctance is due to the perception that their intervention in a sexual situation would not be accepted by other men. This stigma is personified in an example detailed in Winerip’s New York Times article. A male student at the University of Massachusetts separated his friend from an intoxicated female student, walking her back to her dorm after his friend’s intentions became apparent to him during a taxi ride back from a party. Despite his admirable efforts and the female student’s expression of gratitude the next day, the UMASS bystander recalled his friend’s anger and the tension present between him and his friend after the intervention.
There are organizations throughout the country like Men Can Stop Rape that not only work to educate people about how to prevent and stop sexual assault from occurring, but also work to change social norms on a high school or college campus and in the larger community. Men Can Stop Rape, like its name suggests, works to end and prevent sexual assault primarily through appeals to men. They challenge the social norms of masculinity through bystander training programs, marketing campaigns, and school clubs called Men of Strength (MOST) Clubs which target young men in middle school through college. Their current marketing campaign shows quotes from men who describe cases in which they have helped prevent sexual assault with the tag line, “Where do you stand?” If Fordham brought a group like Men Can Stop Rape to campus to address students (rather than Fordham officials) and ran similar campaigns and training programs that challenged men to think about how they can help stop sexual assault, it might be an effective method.
If both men and women are integrally involved in preventing sexual violence on campus, a total non-tolerance for unwanted sexual aggression could become an integral part of the campus community. A designated bystander program could hopefully turn into a designated bystander culture much like what the designated driver campaign, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, did in the 1980s. The campaign has been very successful at reducing the number of drunk driving fatalities over the last 25 years: drunk driving fatalities fell from 15,827 in 1991 to 9,878 in 2011 (Winerip). Both the 2011 study and Men Can Stop Rape place an emphasis on perception; men and women must perceive that their efforts of intervention would be supported by their peers in order to feel comfortable intervening in a situation with the potential for sexual assault. If designated bystander programs are implemented at colleges and universities, it will send a message to college students that taking advantage of other students will not go unnoticed by their peers. Students holding other students accountable for their behavior is a powerful weapon that is painfully underused.
While a designated bystander program would be an effective first step for Fordham, there are still two major unanswered questions: What responsibility does the individual bear? Conversely, if designated bystanders divert potential perpetrators repeatedly when they are in an impaired state, what lessons are the potential perpetrators learning? Victim-blaming is never the correct answer and to suggest that a girl or woman was “asking for it” is not an acceptable excuse for sexual assault; therefore, it is necessary for Fordham students to create a community that does not tolerate fellow students putting other fellow students in harm’s way. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Fordham University does not have that type of community yet. What will it take for the community to change?
This is a sad state of affairs. These are contentious and perplexing questions with no right answers. The designated bystander program is a last line of defense in cases of potential sexual assaults. If there was a way to combat the root cause of sexual assaults, sexual assault could be potentially stopped altogether. Fordham University cannot change the paradigm on its own; however, a commitment to combatting this issue practically could make Fordham University a positive example for the rest of the country to follow. An improvement to the CARE Handbook and its training program would provide the necessary framework for an improved discourse and attitude towards sexual assault on Fordham’s campus. This improvement could ultimately result in an effective designated bystander program. Students who participate in a program that requires a commitment of time and energy to protecting other students and raise their voice in opposition to this type of behavior would be “men and women for others” indeed.
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