Obama targets sexual assaults

Ending sexual assault will demand mass participation.

Brian Reinken

President Barack Obama recently commissioned a task force of senior administration officials to develop new efforts for combatting sexual assault on college campuses nationwide.

The president gave his task force 90 days to draft a list of proposals to improve awareness of sexual assault on college campuses and to ensure that the federal government will intervene in the case that colleges fail to respond to an allegation of sexual misconduct.

The University of Minnesota’s Aurora Center maintains a detailed record of sexual assault on campus. Its findings suggest that the president’s task force has plenty of work ahead of it.

This school year alone has seen two crime alerts that reported sexual assaults on campus. These incidents were part of the recent uptick in crime that prompted campus-wide reforms designed to improve campus safety.

The University has bolstered the ranks of University police, extended the hours of the Campus Connector and Gopher Chauffer and updated the lighting on University Avenue.

In a recent email, President Eric Kaler cautioned students that they must remain vigilant if they wish to remain safe. His words assume a new significance in the context of sexual assault. The assaults detailed in the University crime alerts were high-profile incidents committed in public places. They were of the type that Kaler’s new reforms might prevent.

But the vast majority of sexual assaults are different. They are silent crimes, and their elimination will require constant vigilance from every student on campus.

Another kind of crime

While introducing his administration’s new campaign against college sexual assault, Obama said that he wants “every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women.”

Although these words may be somewhat vague and idealistic, the logic behind them is sound.

The truth is that realistic administrative reforms cannot prevent many sexual assaults. The majority of assaults happen behind closed doors, in private places. Most victims are acquainted with their attacker. Short of invading private homes and parties, there is little that administrative bodies will be able to do to prevent some of these crimes.

Thus, while the University’s ongoing security updates are commendable in their determination to see that students get home safely, the next step — making sure “home” is a safe place — is largely in students’ hands.

Last spring, the University received report of an alleged rape in a fraternity house during Spring Jam weekend. Unfortunately, it’s extremely doubtful that this was the only incident of its kind. The University police cannot be everywhere.

A timely administrative response to an allegation of sexual assault must become a worst-case scenario. Students need to help stop sexual assaults before they occur, either by intervening in a scenario that appears suspicious or by seeking a third party’s help. Beyond that, we must work to eradicate the mindset that legitimizes forced sex.

Crucial first steps

This sounds easier than it is. Great cultural shifts rarely occur as the result of a planned initiative, and rape culture’s prevalence presents a formidable obstacle to change.

But a culture only exists as long as we allow it to continue. To that end, Obama’s “peer pressure” and Kaler’s “vigilance” are the same concept seen from different points of view: Both are strategies to alter the cultural mindset over time.

The first step, as always, will be the most critical. The new federal campaign against college sexual assault will hopefully contribute the dollars and legitimacy needed to incite other awareness movements nationwide.

It goes without saying that campus officials must remain — or become — willing to respond promptly and efficiently to allegations of sexual misconduct. But merely responding to a problem after the fact is not enough to make it go away. For change to progress, we need both reaction and prevention.

Over the next few months, as the federal task force drafts its proposals to counteract sexual assault on college campuses, students should recognize that certain lifestyles are intolerable.

We must all take steps to ensure that sexual assault survivors have a place to voice their stories and get the help they require and deserve. Just as importantly, we must all take steps to ensure that there are no victims in the first place.