Lessons From Steubenville

This piece was originally published on the Kenyon Observer blog, describing the importance of comprehensive sexual assault education and bystander intervention. 

Trigger Warning: The following includes descriptions and links to content that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.

For four consecutive years I’ve attended the training session necessary to host parties on this campus. Most often, when I’ve worked campus parties I have been assigned to serve as a door worker, or as a“floater.” A floater is technically someone assigned to keep their eyes and ears on the party and ensure a safe environment which complies with the regulations outlined in the Student Handbook, the College’s party policy, and the set of expectations outlined on the Event Registration forms one fills out before a party can be held.

What I can’t get over, in the wake of the recent conviction of two students in Steubenville, OH, is that sexual assault was never mentioned; neither in any of those training sessions I attended, to my memory, nor is it explicitly mentioned in the protocols governing party hosting.

Why is that a problem? The campus has a clearly written, (if at times controversial) sexual misconduct policy. Shouldn’t that be sufficient? Here’s why I beg to differ:

Every 21 hours someone is raped on an American college campus. Furthermore, 90% of all campus rapes occur under the influence of alcohol. If you’re in college or you’ve been in college, chances are you know someone who has been sexually assaulted or raped. The chances that they knew their perpetrator prior to the attack are at least as likely.

How many Jane Doe’s have you laughed at as they stumbled away from a party instead of seeing if they needed help? Has anyone you’ve known wondered, had regrets about if they should’ve followed through on a hook-up because of their partner’s level of intoxication? Have you? How many people, if assaulted, don’t tell anyone (let alone press charges), because they’re embarrassed or ashamed, because they think it’s their fault? Ever seen a couple dancing and wondered if they’re both actually “into it?”

If you’re shocked by the images that went viral across the internet, if you’re horrified and stunned that anyone could treat a peer that way, if you’re offended, outraged that the media would place more emphasis on the consequences for the accused than the trauma endured by their victim, you’re not paying attention.

But isn’t the DFMO and the drunken hookup just how college is these days? Here’s the issue: When we hear stories like those of the young woman in Steubenville, it’s easy to mark the case and the role alcohol played in it as exceptional. She was clearly passed out, so the morality of such an act can’t possibly be questioned, right? But what happens when s/he’s not passed out, when s/he’s black-out, when s/he’s brown-out, when s/he’s tipsy? The law is very clear; any decent code of conduct is clear: intoxication means non-consent. I think it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of people in our community agree that rape is a bad thing. But how many people truly recognize that jokes, comments, and song lyrics about sex, alcohol and partying necessarily contribute to a culture that tacitly or explicitly obfuscates the definition of rape?

The message to college students should be clear and be supported by educational programming and dialogue-fostering events made possible both through student activism and initiatives undertaken by the administration. This year’s performance of Real World Gambier during First Year Orientation was an excellent example of that sort of messaging. Of course, much simpler steps can be taken as well. The freshman hall cliche of the buddy system is neither as obsolete nor as childish as its reputation.

For Kenyon students, a major takeaway from the media-saturated rape trial in Steubenville may be this: our understanding of participating and engaging in a community must include stepping in if the safety of a peer is in question. To put it in the language of party training here, everyone can and should be a floater. See something? Say something. I’d much rather be a “cock-block” than stay silent, and I reserve my right, and recognize my duty to do so as long as Kenyon students don’t feel safe. If nothing else, hopefully Steubenville can serve as a wake-up call. Every single member of this community can contribute to a shift in the way sexuality, alcohol, and safe behavior interact on this campus. There are lots of questions to be raised surrounding this issue, but here are a simple few with which we may begin:

“Hey, want me to grab you some water?”

“Can I call SafeRides for you?”

“Are you ok?”

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