Creating a New Culture
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 22, 2013 01:03
When a freshman girl walks onto campus for the first time, she also immediately enters what is known as the “red zone,” the time period in her life when she faces the greatest risk of being sexually assaulted. For freshmen, the first six weeks on the Hilltop are consumed by attempts to fit in with the student body, discovery of the atmosphere of college parties and exposure to what the hookup culture entails.
But the same first weeks are also defined by a dark and hidden reality: a much higher than normal rate of sexual assault.
But according to former Georgetown University Student Association Deputy Chief of Staff Lisa Frank (COL ’13), writing off sexual assault as a problem that only concerns female students who put themselves in vulnerable situations reflects a widespread misconception.
“There’s a lot of slut-shaming, a lot of victim-blaming. I think that people here really buy into the myths that sexual assault is perpetuated by strangers and happens to drunk underclassmen,” Frank, who still serves as a member of the GUSA working group on sexual assault that she convened last year, said. “This is really a whole community problem. It’s not a women’s problem. It’s not a drunk freshmen problem.”
One in four women and one in 33 men will experience sexual assault before they graduate from college, according to statistics provided by the American College Health Survey. While Georgetown’s Health Education Services data concerning sexual assault on campus are not available to the public, Sexual Assault & Health Issues Coordinator Jen Schweer confirmed that the university’s figures are on par with national averages.
Nonetheless, in the campus conversation about relationships, gender roles and campus security, sexual assault is eschewed as a point of discussion.
“The biggest myth is that it doesn’t happen on the Hilltop and that it only happens overseas in places like Darfur and the Congo,” Women’s Center Director Laura Kovach wrote in an email. “Sexual assault does happen on this campus.”
IT HAPPENS HERE
Kat Kelley (NHS ’14) got involved in sexual assault prevention work in her senior year of high school, when she became certified to work for a sexual assault hotline. At Georgetown, she committed herself to the cause on the collegiate level through co-chairing Take Back the Night, co-producing this year’s “Vagina Monologues,” participating in GUSA’s Sexual Assault Working Group and co-founding the student blog “Feminists-at-Large.” As an outspoken leader on this issue, Kelley says that a student who has experienced sexual assault approaches her for guidance at least once a month.
For Kelley, Georgetown’s main problem with sexual assault awareness is that students do not accept that sexual assault, particularly by acquaintances, occurs within the student body.
“There’s just such a silence around it, because unfortunately, there is such a stigma about sexual violence,” she said. “I think that people in theory take it seriously, but I think that a lot of people think that it doesn’t happen here.”
Christian Verghese (COL ’15) founded Georgetown Men of Strength, a group that, during its brief existence, was dedicated to demonstrating that Georgetown suffers culturally from a lack of interest in the subject of sexual assault from the male perspective.
“That underlying mainstream definition of masculinity, I think, is a big root cause for the ways we can overlook and condone sexual violence … in that jocular manner,” Verghese said.
Verghese’s organization focused on determining how its members could empathize with sexual assault survivors and counter destructive definitions of masculinity. It also planned intervention trainings that taught college and high school-aged men how to prevent sexual assault in relationships and at parties where alcohol was present.
“[Sexual assault] is a huge issue not only for women, but for men just to address, because they will probably either be around a situation where it could happen or they might be the person that whether they know it or not is committing the assault themselves,” Verghese said.
Nonetheless, Verghese said that as he transitioned out of his leadership role, membership slowly dwindled and the group ceased to exist. Verghese attributes this lack of interest to the same prevailing cultural definition of masculinity that inspired the group’s creation in the first place.
For Kelley, the problem extends beyond males’ refusal to acknowledge their role in committing sexual assault.
“Males perpetrate it. Males experience it. And males are just as much a part of the community and culture in which it takes place,” Kelley said.
OUTSIDE THE BINARY
LGTBQ Resource Center Director Sivagami Subbaraman sees sexual assault at Georgetown as a consequence of gender roles and, more particularly, generalized conformity to them.
“There’s not much questioning here of gender roles, not much pushing of boundaries, not much challenging. There’s a willingness to fall in line. You come in through the gates and fall in line,” Subbaraman said. “It’s there in the air you breathe and the water you drink, that pressure to conform.”
According to Frank, the culture surrounding sexual assault at Georgetown allows a greater misunderstanding than at other institutions because many students believe that sexual assault is always a man attacking a woman.
While LGBTQ relationship patterns at Georgetown mirror heterosexual ones — from long-term dating to casual hookups and everything between — sexual violence is more often silenced for gay couples.
“I don’t think that most people within the community necessarily recognize that this is also a form of sexual assault or sexual violence,” Subbaraman said.
Subbaraman attributes this silence to the difficulty of interpreting sexual assault outside a mainstream gender binary and Georgetown’s relatively small and close-knit LGBTQ population.