“Sexual harassment : uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate (as an employee or student)
Sexual assault: illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent (as because of age or physical or mental incapacity) or who places the assailant (as a doctor) in a position of trust or authority.”
-from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary online
Even when defined, sexual assault and sexual harassment can become ambiguous in real-life situations. As a result of the sexual assaults that were reported on campus two weeks ago, discussions around campus have been taking place about what constitutes sexual assault, the way it should be reported and how it can be prevented. Due to the public discussions, such as the many comments on Knox PostSecret about the issue, one thing seems certain: we don’t have a clear image of what sexual harassment or assault looks like.
Stereotypically, one thinks of sexual assault as happening in a dark alley or parking lot when a strange man attacks and rapes a single woman. This happens sometimes, but in reality sexual assault often occurs under very different circumstances.
While men are often considered the “attackers,” women can just as well be the assaulters. Many times, especially in a college community, the assault happens in private rooms, even spaces that the individuals are familiar with. Additionally, the assault can happen between two people who are friends, even two people who are in a committed relationship, and often it does. This is not the picture we want to see of a potential assaulter, because it could be any one of us, but we must accept this image to be the case.
So, how can Knox help us with this? We all went through freshman orientation – we saw “Sex-Signals” and sat through presentations urging us to not to be assaulters or victims. Somehow, we still hold on to our old conceptions about sexual assault and we still have questions about how we can define it within our community.
Is it still “sexual assault” if alcohol is involved? Where is the line between flirting and inappropriate interaction? What if the victim didn’t consent, but didn’t say “no” either? Something happened last night and the victim didn’t want it to, is that sexual assault? Why am I instructed to report “sexual harassment” or “sexual misconduct” to the Grievance Panel instead of the Galesburg Police? It is a real crime, isn’t it?
For some students, these questions stay with them long past freshman orientation. They come up while dancing at a party, watching a weekend movie with more-than-just-a-friend, or even drinking with people at our own apartments. Except for a few talks hosted by groups here and there, no large forum for discussing and educating us about sexual assault exists after our first week on campus. There should be more to help us learn how to recognize sexual harassment and assault in our community and more knowledge about how to prevent it through our years. We need a better image of what sexual assault is.
A campus-wide discussion would be good, but we need to make sure it is available and attended by many different people so we can come to a better understanding about the different images and perspectives that make up our community. The defense courses offered by Campus Safety are excellent, but we also need something that goes beyond physical defense in the moment. We need to know how to prevent that moment and how to react if we are bystanders. We need more opportunities for counseling on the issue, both as individuals and in groups. The Counseling Center we have now is great, but it’s no secret that those services are often at capacity.
This isn’t a man’s issue or a woman’s issue. It isn’t an organization’s issue or an individual’s issue. It is something every person could benefit from talking about. It is something all members of our community should be concerned about. We need to help each other in order to prevent the hurt that hasn’t happened yet and care for the hurt that already exists.
Last year, Rachael Goodman-Williams did an Honors Project on the image of sexual assault. If you are wondering about it, perhaps that would be a good place to look.
Let’s work together on this because if we don’t have each other, who do we have?