Sexual assault is a problem at Penn that has recently been on everyone’s mind, especially after nearly a third of female undergraduates reported having been sexually assaulted. The issue is even more prevalent on campus this week in light of the ”It’s On Us” campaign, a national action week devoted to preventing sexual assault.
In recent weeks, the University has been trying to tackle the endemic problem of sexual assault on campus by imposing policies on the student body. For example, the “Thrive at Penn” pre-orientation online class, which deals with sexual assault, has recently been made available to all undergraduates at Penn, not just freshmen, and may become mandatory if not enough people participate.
While this kind of top-down mandate is necessary to make students understand that the University takes sexual assault seriously, the effectiveness of such policies is questionable. The mandatory alcohol module is proof enough of how well online videos and multiple choice questions work as teaching tools — not very well. We need a sexual assault program for freshmen that is organic and student-driven and creates conversations instead of legal bullet points.
That’s why we’re excited to hear about the Undergraduate Assembly’s proposed initiative to mandate monthly sexual assault prevention discussions, which would be a step in the right direction.
At its core, the proposal is a simple way for Penn to use the College House system to educate freshmen about sexual assault. Since all freshmen are required to live on campus, it should be easy to gather groups of them together each month for an informal conversation on this important issue.
Although Penn already has excellent resources exploring such issues, including the Women’s Center, the LGBT Center and the Vagina Monologues, these groups are usually self-selecting and therefore may not reach those individuals who need to hear their message the most. How do we reach the perpetrators of sexual assault — or potential future perpetrators — who are precisely the types of people who most need this education?
The monthly discussion group should be facilitated by a student leader knowledgeable about sexual assault and organized in tandem with a hall’s RA or GA. It would be more accessible, and perhaps more comfortable, for students who are apathetic to the issues surrounding sexual assault. It would also provide a low-pressure space for students to question and discuss issues about sexuality, relationships and gender that come up in the transition to college.
The initiative is in its early stages, so nothing has been set in stone. It’s imperative that students and administrators contribute their opinions to the UA discussions in order to create a sexual assault prevention system that is both realistic, educational and community-building.
After the disturbing revelations of the Association of American Universities survey — which found that only 16.7 percent of undergraduates were very or extremely knowledgeable about where to get help if they or a friend was sexually assaulted — it is clear that there is a need for a space which provides support and sexual assault education not just before New Student Orientation, but during the entire freshman year. In addition, it might be helpful, since Penn has no required gender studies class, to explore the issues underlying the sexual assault epidemic.
Although there is no perfect way to prevent sexual assault on campus, there is no doubt that Penn needs an inclusive, student-led and discussion-driven program to continually support freshmen as they enter into college life. Proactive sexual assault prevention should not end with a presentation at NSO before freshman year even begins.
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