Peer education, not pepper spray, can reduce sexual assault at the U

Laura Pickrell, University student

In our fairytale-ridden culture, we grow up surrounded by stories in which men are burdened by the responsibility to protect and women are the auspicious recipients of their bravery. But these representations produce negative beliefs about the role of women, and they are a catalyst for sexual violence. While gender-based violence affects women of all ages, it disproportionately affects college-age girls.

At present, approximately one in four women will be raped during her college experience, which means that about 6,160 women on this campus face the possibility of falling victim to sexual assault by the time they cross the stage at graduation.

Most rapes that occur on college campuses don’t fit the traditional image of violent rapes by complete strangers lurking in deserted areas — which means the traditional means that women utilize to protect themselves (walking on well-lit streets, carrying pepper spray, etc.) may be futile. Acquaintance rape is more prevalent on college campuses than stranger rape; however, this stranger-acquaintance dichotomy disregards a third type of rape known as “party rape,” in which women meet men at a party or other event that’s part of the traditional college scene and end up coerced or forced into having sex. This type of incident is more like stranger rape than acquaintance rape, except that a certain degree of trust exists between the perpetrator and victim as a result of them being part of the same social network.

The role of alcohol in party rape on college campuses also bears scrutiny.

Fraternities and house parties control every aspect of their parties: themes, admission and access to alcohol. Women are, in turn, expected to be gracious and deferential, which increases their vulnerability to rape. However, this vulnerability precedes assault only if people are willing to exploit it (and many, but not all, are).

Many sexual assault awareness programs teach women physical self-defense and safety tactics to protect themselves against sexual violence. Efforts to educate women on how to avoid assault will not work if colleges remain non-interventionist in arrangements that allow sexual violence to continue. The University of Minnesota must do more to address this issue.

Education concerning sexual assault must change from emphasizing preventive measures to addressing both men and women in what constitutes coercive behavior and how victim blaming allows sexual violence to persist.

Colleges and universities across the United States have utilized peer education groups to address gender-based violence. One in Four is a national organization that focuses on decreasing both adherence to “rape myths” and sexually-coercive behavior among men. To date, it has successfully accomplished these objectives.

Sisters Standing Together at the University of Redlands was founded to help female sexual assault victims better understand the reporting system, but it has since broadened its mission to address gender representations that are implicit in a culture permissive of sexual violence. The latter aspect makes this organization unique.

Campus Advocates Respond and Educate at the University of Maryland strives to empower the campus community to act in ways that will reduce sexual violence, with a special focus on the LGBT community.

The University is more comparable to the University of Maryland in terms of the mixed-residential status of students, proximity to bars and clubs, as well as greek life. Thus, the CARE model may be the most natural to follow in the development of a peer education program here. The recognition of organizational and social arrangements that perpetuate sexual violence leveraged by Sisters Standing Together should not, however, be overlooked in its importance.

It is unacceptable for institutions of higher education to be places where women are predictably victimized. Whether a peer education program will be enough to mitigate sexual assault rates remains to be seen, but at present, it is the University’s best chance for addressing this issue.