Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Students must act to prevent sexual assault

Last week, thousands of freshmen descended onto the UW-Madison campus. Eager to start the next chapter of their lives, most are delightfully overwhelmed with everything this tremendous university has to offer. Most are also undereducated about a reality plaguing this campus: Sexual assault.

Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE) continually finds that the majority of students come to UW-Madison believing rape is something that only happens in the middle of the night when no one is around.

As we've seen far too many times this summer, this form of rape certainly happens and needs to be addressed, but there is another reality students need to be aware of: One in four women will be victims of rape or attempted rape during their time at college. Ninety percent of these assaults will be perpetrated by someone the victim knows. While these numbers are staggering, most students remain confused about the scenario in which sexual assaults most commonly occur.

Knowing this dangerous misconception exists, it should be the university administration's responsibility to inform all, but especially new students, of these undeniable realities. Currently, the university invites freshmen to participate in a sexual assault prevention program, one that has proven effective. Pre-tests show that most students start the program ill informed about the definitions, realities and dynamics of sexual assault, but, based on their post-test scores, leave with a better, more comprehensive understanding.

Still, only 13 percent of students completed the workshop in the fall of 2010, while 27 percent had partial completion and 60 percent did nothing at all. Because the program is not mandatory, there is no way to ensure students will take the initiative and complete it.

However, 80 percent of those who completed either all or a portion of the program felt it was important for colleges to provide a sexual assault prevention program to its students, this compared to 49 percent of the population who did not complete any of the program. This gap suggests that once students are taught about the realities of sexual assault, they realize how severe of an issue it is and how important it is for students to be educated about the topic.

One gentleman who completed the program said, "It helped me understand how I can help stop sexual assault from happening to people around me. Even if I'm not involved in it, I can help stop it." This is an incredibly powerful take-away. If every student had this attitude, the impact would be profound and felt around campus. Yet, because the university does not enforce this program, the potential for change is lost.

That said, we cannot simply point our fingers at the university administration and expect them to rid this community of rape. Is there more they could be doing? Absolutely, but we cannot expect anyone else to take action against rape until the majority of students step up and actively recognize it as a serious problem on campus.

Passive disdain for sexual assault is not sufficient. We need to use our collective voice to say we will not let our campus be a place where rape is prevalent. We will not let our institutional leaders or peers turn a blind eye when something tragic happens. And, most of all, we will not let ourselves remain idle when offered the opportunity to make a difference and learn.

Doing this not only means holding perpetrators accountable, but also breaking down the existent rape culture. We need to remember that alcohol is not a gateway to consent. We need to stop blaming rape victims for what they were wearing, how much they were drinking or how promiscuous they are, but instead blame the rapists for not getting consent. Most of all, we need to remember that consent is a freely given ‘yes,' not the absence of a ‘no.' Rape would occur far less frequently on campus if this simple distinction was recognized by all. Sexuality may be a private issue, but sexual assault is a community problem. We all must work together to stop it.

PAVE is a student organization dedicated to ending sexual assault, dating/domestic violence and stalking on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus through education and activism. PAVE's kickoff meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Sept. 15 in the PAVE office, room #3147 of the Student Activity Center. For more information or to find out how to get involved, e-mail

-Jacqueline O'Reilly

**As published in The Daily Cardinal