Sexual assault awareness month programming pushing for change

By Grace Manthey

April is sexual assault awareness month. With the rise of the #MeToo movement and the number of high profile people accused of sexual misconduct, experts at Quinnipiac University feel a shift in awareness.

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“(The faculty) have talked about feeling like there is a little bit of a wave and a push toward addressing and talking about these issues and acknowledging them and trying to change culture,” Courtney McKenna, the director of student affairs at QU, said.

But according to women’s studies professor Melissa Kaplan, the push is not enough.

“Women aren’t equal yet,” Kaplan said. “When women will feel equal is when women no longer fear rape.”

As the director of student affairs, McKenna sees herself as the overseer of the “care team,” which helps students who have concerns including those related to rape and sexual assault. She also organizes the online prevention programs students take at the beginning of their freshman year as well as all the sexual assault events on campus.

She said her trick to juggling so many responsibilities is to not go it alone.

“The goal is to find students and organizations and offices and programs on campus who are equally as interested in the topic and engage those folks to do the programs,” McKenna said. “Do events to bring awareness in the ways that make sense to their members.”

However, according to Kaplan, those events have a narrow audience and they are largely optional.

“When you make things that are optional you’re most likely going to be speaking to students who have been survivors or victims or know somebody who has,” Kaplans said. “Predominantly it’s only going to be students, or students that are told to go because of the courses that they are taking.”

McKenna agrees.

She said many classes in the college of arts and sciences like health science, psychology and sociology have higher participation in sexual assault awareness events. But more recently she has tried to expand that audience.

“I think some of the ways we need to move forward is looking at like, the school of business,” McKenna said. “Statistically it’s the school that has the most amount of men so we (need to) look statistically at those who may need to make sure they are aware of expectations, policies, how they can play a role to shift culture.”

The role of men in sexual assault awareness and feminism is something that Kaplan teaches in her women’s studies classes. She also feels like it’s not always talked about in the right way.

“Even the structure of consent is problematic because it is positioning women as kind of the gatekeeper, and puts the responsibility on women to say no. Rather than putting the responsibility on men to read women,” Kaplan said.  

From McKenna’s point of view the issue of consent is one of the biggest issues surrounding sexual assault because many students coming to college don’t have any education about it before they move in.

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“We have have sex ed, but we don’t have consensual sex ed. We don’t have ‘how do you talk about what you want from a partner’ and ‘how do you know when you should engage in activities and when you shouldn’t’ and ‘what is a healthy dating relationship?’” she said.

One way the student affairs office can get information about the knowledge and behaviors of the incoming freshmen is through the AlcoholEdu and Haven programs. These are short online courses required by all students at the beginning of their freshman year.    

“We have good data that shows even if some folks are just clicking through it and think its stupid that there is an increase in knowledge from before someone takes it and after someone takes it," McKenna said. "We get good static data about each incoming class."

For example, McKenna said she can find out that 30 percent of students in an incoming class are what would be considered binge drinkers before even coming to college, or that 15 percent have experienced some sort of sexual assault.  

Through the company that puts out AlcoholEdu and Haven, the student affairs office is looking to roll out smaller, ongoing courses. McKenna said they wouldn’t be the “heavy lift” one that freshmen do, but it will give the office more data about the change over time.

According to Kaplan, this is essential because “we have to put pressure on everyone to end this kind of violence and this epidemic.”