Flaws found in Sexual Assault Policy


Author: Faryn Borella

Following up on a series of on-campus sexual assault awareness programs, a voluntary student-faculty group plans to submit an evaluation of the college’s sexual assault policy to the administration. The group, spearheaded by Politics Professor Caroline Heldman and made up of many students who have been through the sexual assault reporting process, has been working on the evaluation since the fall.

Included in the evaluation are critiques of the college’s current reporting process, investigation and adjudication procedures, survivor support services, prevention programming and institutional features. The evaluation offers remedies to all of the problems that it finds with the current sexual assault policy.

One of the largest critiques the evaluation offers is that Occidental’s sexual assault policy tends to blame the victim.

“The Oxy policy is rife with victim-blaming language that likely discourages survivors from coming forward,” the evaluation reads.

One of the largest problems with the policy that contributes to victim blaming, according to the evaluation, is the part of policy that provides “risk reduction tips” for possible victims to avoid being sexually assaulted and for males to avoid becoming a sexual aggressor.

“The Oxy policy includes ‘risk reduction tips’ that suggest that potential victims can control the criminal actions of others, and if they are sexually assaulted, they are at least possibly to blame (Risk reduction efforts don’t work, but do promote victim-blaming and the stranger rape myth)” the evaluation reads.

The evaluation also posits that Occidental’s sexual assault policy does not emphasize the high incidence of sexual assaults committed by acquaintances.

“The Oxy policy does not discuss the prevalence of non-stranger sexual assault,” the evaluation reads. “In fact, the Sexual Misconduct Policy actively downplays this norm by focusing on relationships between people with unequal power and defining rape as perpetrated by a ‘sexual aggressor,’ which doesn’t fit with the typical experience of acquaintance rape.” According to the evaluation, in 90 percent of college-campus assaults, the victim knows the perpetrator.

The evaluation also argues that the sexual assault policy is hard to locate, scattered throughout various different links, while also noting that reporting procedures are inadequate.

“Instructions for whom to contact are buried at the bottom of the FAQ link to the Sexual Misconduct Policy. Additionally, instructions do not include a phone number or names of staff members to contact,” the evaluation reads. It suggests that contact information and reporting procedures be listed at the top of the policy.

Other critiques point to problems in the investigation and adjudication procedures such as not providing timeframes within which investigations and adjudications must be completed. It also argues that the Occidental policy does not allow perpetrators to learn from their actions and instead just disciplines them.

“Oxy should establish standard restorative justice procedures based on the perceived level of threat to the community that encourages the responsible respondent to learn about the origins of his/her behavior, how he/she is responsible for this behavior and how he/she can choose not to engage in this behavior in the future,” the evaluation reads.


The submission of this evaluation follows the completion of nearly three weeks of sexual assault awareness programming put on by a variety of student groups and individuals around campus.

The programming began on April 10 with a “Men in Solidarity” discussion, open only to those who self-identify as male, to discuss how men can take responsibility in ending sexual assault and violence on the Occidental campus.

“A lot of what we do and what we did was talk about what it means to be a man and what society says it means to be a man,” Assistant Director of Intercultural Affairs Dominic Alletto said.

This is the second year that Occidental has held a “Men in Solidarity” event. Participation more than tripled from last year, from nine student participants to 30 student participants.

“What I can tell you is that it has been difficult to get men engaged in this work,” Alletto said.  “It could be because they don’t like to talk about the subject. It definitely is, I think, because many men do not feel like it effects them and also because many men feel like they are being blamed so they don’t want to go into a space where they are going to be accused and seen as potential predators.”

Events such as “Men in Solidarity” are created to combat such feelings, said Alletto.

“A great thing is that what we’re really trying to communicate now is that men can play a huge and active role in preventing assault, both sexual and domestic violence, against other men and against women so they don’t have to be just perpetrators,” Alletto said.

The event went very well, according to Alletto.

“It was good to see them come together and talk about something that’s very vulnerable and difficult for men to talk about,” he said. “Those are hard things, I think, for men to talk about and they did an exceptional job of it.”

During the week of April 16-20, sexual assault awareness group Project SAFE held Take Back the Week, an annual event at Occidental since 2000. The highlight of Take Back the Week, which attempts to raise student awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, is Take Back the Night.

“Take Back the Night is this feminist led movement that was started in the late 70s that was really to give survivors of sexual assault a venue to talk about their experiences,” Programming Assistant for Project SAFE Kaitlin Kelly (senior) said. It has since become a national movement, and many college campuses have transitioned into providing a full week of educational programming.

There were four main events that Project SAFE held during Take Back the Week. On Monday, they had a solidarity rally in the quad where different student groups wore purple and gave short speeches to show their support for ending sexual violence on campus.

An ally and bystander training followed on Tuesday night, teaching students both how to intervene in situations that could lead to sexual assault and how to act as an ally to survivors of sexual assault.

On Wednesday night, Project SAFE held an Open Mic night in the Green Bean where students could also express their support.

There was also the clothesline project, held throughout the week, where students could make t-shirts with messages of support to be strung up in the quad. The different colors of the shirts represented the shirt-maker’s relation to sexual assault, such as survivor or ally.

However, Thursday night’s Take Back the Night Vigil, held in the FEAST garden, marked the most important event put on during Take Back the Week.

“It’s called Take Back the Night because it’s a metaphor for not letting these hate crimes go unnoticed—saying that it would just fade away and be swept under the rug. It’s kind of for survivors to get this experience of taking that back and taking their power back,” Programming Assistant for Project SAFE Bianca Di Marcello (senior) said.

Take Back the Night provides a venue for survivors of sexual assault to come together and share their stories and mutual experiences.

“It is an intense night, and it is a necessary night, and I’m really glad we have it, and it’s a very powerful experience to participate in and to go, but that’s something that we only want people to be there who really want to be there,” Kelly said.

This past week marked Denim Day, held both on Wednesday and on Thursday, in which students wore jeans to show support for survivors of sexual assault. Denim Day is an internationally celebrated day, protesting a 1998 Italian High Court ruling that found an alleged perpetrator of sexual assault innocent because the female he allegedly assaulted was wearing tight jeans and helped to take them off, even though it was under the threat of death.

“In protest to and in solidarity, every year there is Denim Day to say, ‘no, this isn’t provocative, it’s a piece of clothing.’ She wasn’t asking for it is basically the main thing. Nobody asks to be submitted to any kind of sexual violence,” co-organizer of Denim Day Leah Trujillo (junior) said.

The organizers of Denim Day put on a campus wide campaign, asking students to submit messages of support, which they then turned into posters and displayed all over campus.

“Our main thing is we want to give voice,” co-organizer of Denim Day Maggie Caneng (sophomore) said. “Our message is sexual assault happens. It happens anywhere. It happens to anyone. And you can’t forget that.”

The organizers of Denim Day alhoped that the event would spur students to think more critically about sexual assault not only during such programming but all the time.

“This happens every single day. It happens every single day on this campus. Just be aware of it and keep it on your mind,” co-organizer of Denim Day Hailey Jures (sophomore) said.

Prevalence of Sexual Assault

According to the campaign Take Back the Week, one in four women are sexually assaulted during their time in college. In a 2009 study conducted by Sociology Professor Lisa Wade and Heldman, nine of 44 participants in an Occidental case study were sexually assaulted in their first year.

“Eight women and one man volunteered stories in which they were sexually assaulted. Four of the women were unsure of or did not believe that their experience qualified as sexual coercion,” the study reads.

Out of the 20-25 percent of women who are sexually assaulted in college, only five percent are reported to the authorities, according to the Sexual Assault Policy Evaluation. The evaluation attributes the lack of reporting to many factors, including the stigmatization of sexual assault, the pervasive rape culture that exists in today’s society, the prevalence of acquaintance rape and the lack of promising adjudication procedures on college campuses.

“I think the general culture here is one of denial that anything even happens,” Project SAFE Programming Assistant Tyler Kintz (junior) said. “It’s one of those things that people just don’t know about or maybe refuse to know about or refuse to accept.”

Heldman believes that this denial stems from the culture in which we live.

“We live in a rape culture. When you’re coming from a rape culture to a contained campus environment, rape culture becomes amplified,” Heldman said.

Many students noted that, at Occidental, there is a general misunderstanding of what constitutes sexual assault.

“Sexual assault is really an umbrella term . . . It’s a spectrum of things from unwanted touching to unwanted penetration of any kind with a foreign object—a finger, a tongue, a penis . . . [Sexual assault] can be any kind of unwanted sexual act or an act that was performed without consent given,” Di Marcello said.

Studies find that students tend not to think of an experience as sexual assault if penetration was not involved.

“You tend to quantify your experience, like if I wasn’t raped, then it wasn’t sexual assault; it was just something that happened, everyone goes through it, but that’s nothing that anyone should ever have to go through ever,” Jures said.

Students also noted that there is a general misunderstanding as to who tends to commit sexual assault and what consent is.

“I think students really are hesitant to speak openly and honestly about consensual sex. I think there’s really sort of a problematic culture around consensual sex and then that turns around and creates really problematic culture when sexual assault does occur,” psychology major Marina Rosenthal (senior) said.

Rosenthal conducted a study of 201 female Occidental students to assess women’s perceptions of sexual assault on campus. She found that in all situations women are likely to use language that blames the victim of sexual assault over the perpetrator but even more so in ambiguous situations where the victim knew the perpetrator and alcohol was involved.

In addition to blaming the victim, many women did not find the ambiguous situations to even constitute sexual assault.

“This was a big finding in my study that has just been blowing my mind, that for students who say that the ambiguous scenario is consensual sex, my first response was, well gosh, it’s not legally, so they’re miseducated; we have to educate more about what sexual assault looks like. But then my second thought was, well gosh, set aside whether or not it’s rape, it doesn’t look like good sex. It doesn’t look like sex that anyone would want anyone they care about to be having,” Rosenthal said. “If students thought consensual sex looks really kind of brutal and uncommunicative—that there’s no consent involved, there’s no communication—then what does that mean for what they think sexual assault looks like?”

Other students agreed that there tends to be a lack of communication when it comes to sexual activity on campus.

“People are really scared of vulnerability and being honest about how they’re feeling . . . And I think that that contributes to sexual assault sometime in that we’re so scared of being honest with each other and checking in with people and making sure that when you’re in a sexual situation, you’re both willing and happy to be in that sexual interaction,” Kelly said.

This lack of communication leads to a lack of consent when engaging in sexual activity.

“If you can’t get a verbal ‘yes’ before sexual activity—if that’s going to be too awkward—then why are you having sex with that person in the first place?” Jures asked.

Students argued that the lack of consent in sexual activity today has led sex to have a negative connotation.

“Sex is a pleasurable thing, and it should be a positive thing, and right now we just categorize it as negative, negative, negative . . . Sex itself isn’t a bad thing, and we should try to find ways to make it consensual, to make it enjoyable and to have those positive relationships,” Jures said.


Hook-Up Culture


Many of the common misperceptions as to what constitutes sexual assault stems from the fact that teenagers and young adults now live in what Heldman and Wade describe as a nation-wide “hook-up culture.”

In a 2010 article entitled, “Hook-Up Culture: Setting a New Research Agenda,” Heldman and Wade argue that, although the idea of casual sex has existed for a long time, the existence of a hook-up culture emerged in the 1990s.

The emergence of this culture stems from a variety of factors according to the article, including “changes in the nature of alcohol use,” “access to and consumption of pornography,” “the ‘pornification’ of mass media” and “self-objectification.”

The hook-up culture at Occidental is stems from the national epidemic, and is therefore an issue on many college campuses.

In a 2009 study entitled “Hooking Up and Opting Out: Negotiating Sex in the First Year of College,” Heldman and Wade followed the sex lives of 44 first-year students engaged in their “sexuality-related” Cultural Studies Program (CSP) over the course of their first year.

Out of the 44 students, 27 participated in the college hook-up culture, but only five self-identified as doing so “enthusiastically.” The rest identified as participating “reluctantly.”

“Most respondents, both those who did and did not participate in the hookup culture, were highly dissatisfied with sex on campus,” the article reads.

Heldman attributed participating in the hook-up culture to “pluralistic ignorance,” which is the false understanding of students that all other students are enjoying the hook-up culture.

“There is some evidence that men, too, find hook-up culture constraining, feeling pressured to have casual sex even if their preferences are otherwise,” the article read.

The hook-up culture necessarily requires that both parties in a sexual interaction not care for one another, according to the study.

“More than simply casual, students reported a compulsory carelessness: norms of sexual engagement required students to have sex without caring for their sexual partner,” the article read. This “compulsory carelessness” stems from the use of alcohol.

“More than simply disinhibiting students or excusing their behavior, alcohol replaced mutual attraction as the supposed fuel for sexual interaction,” the article read. Students did not consider advances by the opposite gender to be “real” unless the advances were made while sober.

The hook-up culture also made cross-sex friendships impossible, according to the study.

“Because hook-up culture positioned everyone as a potential sexual partner, friendships were sexualized. Female students reported that it was impossible to have male friends. Ultimately, they believed that all men wanted sex from all women,” the article read.

This new hook-up culture, according to the article, normalized male sexual coercion, and thus normalized sexual assault to the extent that many students do not realize when they are sexually assaulted. One student, under the pseudonym of Rachelle, reported a situation in which she “hooked up with two guys to prevent her unconscious friend from being raped.”

“Ultimately, she had intercourse with one because she was ‘too wasted to say ‘no’ when he pulled off [her] pants,’ and the other assaulted her friend while she was unable to protect her. Reflecting on the night, Rachell said that it had ‘bad moments,’ but it ‘overall wasn’t bad,’ even as she questioned whether she was raped,” the article read.

Possible Remedies

Not only did Heldman and Wade’s study find the hook-up culture and sexual assault to be related but so did many students.

“Rape and sexual assault is a problem on our campus, and it is not something to be taken lighthearted, and it also is something that is deeply intertwined with the hook-up culture on this campus,”  Di Marcello said. All interviewed students agreed that, in order to prevent sexual assault, a lot of changes need to be made on campus.

“I think our culture here needs to change completely,” Jures said. “We’ve normalized assault, and I think that is one of the scariest things.”

All students suggested that continued programming will slowly lead to a change but questioned whether or not this was enough.

“From a cynical point of view, it’s not going to change overnight. It’s not going to change over a year. We can make individual changes, and we can cause people to critically look at what they’re saying and examine their actions . . . I think movements like this [Denim Day] help to change the individual but the campus culture—and as we’re changing every four years there’s going to be new people—is going to be a continual process,” Jures said.

Many students argued that the sexual assault policy needs to change in order for a change in campus culture to be possible.

“I think one of the first steps towards changing the culture is to change the policy and change the reporting process because that’s so much of a deterrent to a lot of the women that go through these horrible experiences,” Kintz said.

Heldman argued that the only way that the culture will change is if the college enacts mandatory educational programming for all students throughout their four years.

“Any lecture that is voluntary generally speaks to the choir,” Heldman said. “If we want to shift campus climate we need to establish healthy norms as soon as students arrive on campus.” Heldman acknowledged that Orientation programming currently does include sexual assault educational programming, but that it is not adequate to address the problem.

“Oxy provides sexual assault programming during Orientation, but these programs tend to value entertainment over substance, reinforce heteronormativity, sometimes include rape jokes, sometimes engage in victim-blaming and universally do not establish or shift campus norms,” the Sexual Assault Policy Evaluation reads. The evaluation also suggest that this mandatory programming be continued throughout a student’s time in college.

Caneng cited the upcoming FYRE program, a mandatory peer-to-peer advising program for first-years, as a possible platform from which students can be educated on this topic.

Despite the prevalence of a rape culture and a lack of awareness about the culture on behalf of some of the student body, many students and faculty expressed hope for the future.

“What’s great about Oxy is that we’re talking about utopia . . . Oxy is unique and magical in ways we generally don’t appreciate because we’re constantly struggling with these issues, and we don’t think we’re there yet,” Heldman said.

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