Nearly one-third of students at Penn know someone who has experienced sexual assault. Of those, 57 percent know someone who has been sexually assaulted in the past year.
These figures — found in a recent Daily Pennsylvanian poll — most likely underestimate the problem, since sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes both on- and off-campus. They are indicative of a highly problematic culture, and students and administrators alike need to re-evaluate how we approach, respond to and inform ourselves about sexual assault at Penn.
The most obvious, visible example of this cultural problem is in our language. It has become far too commonplace for students to say that a difficult exam “raped” them or that someone unfamiliar looks “like a rapist.” These sayings may seem harmless, but they trivialize an extremely serious issue. Eventually, terms like “rape” and “sexual assault” become associated with “uncomfortable” or “creepy” instead of the grave crimes they actually are, leading to the actions themselves being perceived as trivial. This further discourages victims from speaking out or seeking help for an already seriously underreported crime.
The actions that we should take to be more educated, informed and proactive are not limited to reconsidering our colloquialisms. Campus events like the Vagina Monologues and Take Back the Night could have more of an impact if they were on students’ minds earlier in the year. Having smaller but similar events in the fall semester would promote campus awareness and encourage dialogue throughout the rest of the school year.
The offhandedness with which students approach sexual assault is also partly the responsibility of the University, whose campaigns to raise awareness have significant shortcomings.
This begins at New Student Orientation, when new Penn students are first introduced to campus culture. Chances are, if you’ve heard the phrase “call it what it is” since it was introduced during NSO, it’s been referred to in a joking fashion as opposed to the intended context — distinguishing what is sexual assault from what isn’t.
In addition, the large posters of the “Penn Plays Safe” campaign, which display statements like “Skip the punch,” “Remember your fun” and “Have your way,” are frequently mocked instead of taken as serious advice. The same goes for the alcohol module videos that we were required to watch before arriving at Penn. By trying so hard to find catchphrases that are “cool” or “memorable,” Penn often ends up reducing these issues to campus-wide inside jokes.
Furthermore, information about how to deal with sexual assault needs to be more readily accessible. While Counseling and Psychological Services at Penn provides thorough resources on sexual assault on its website, the webpage is excessively difficult to find.
It’s clear that current University methods of raising awareness and educating students about sexual assault are not always productive at best and counterproductive and inaccessible at worst. Penn should make an active effort to rework its NSO videos, poster campaigns and resources so that recognizing sexual assault becomes a priority instead of a punchline — so that the handling of sexual assault is common knowledge instead of hidden on a website many never find. It can do so by utilizing more immersive tactics like small-group sessions or workshops.
Moreover, it concerns us that students in social sororities and fraternities are twice as likely as other students to know someone who has been sexually assaulted. There are numerous steps that both Greek institutions and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life can take to address this issue.
Spring pledging coincides with the presentation of the Vagina Monologues, and many fraternities even require their pledges to attend the event. While we commend this practice and encourage fraternities and sororities to standardize it, we are disappointed both by reports that members of the fraternities only mandate pledges go to avoid going themselves and that students often get drunk before attending these events.
Furthermore, while some national chapters of sororities require all members to watch a series of videos about sexual assault, there’s no way to ensure students to watch these videos attentively. It would be far more effective for all Greek chapters and the University to require all their members to attend in-person workshops offered by Penn, rather than just sending the minimum number required.
Ultimately, while the University and OFSL should alter their policies to encourage awareness, the responsibility falls on us students. It is up to us to treat this issue — an issue we Penn students are clearly not immune to — with the respect it deserves.
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