Speaking of Women's Rights: The Culture Club: Evaluating Campus Culture's Impact on Sexual Assault

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Culture Club: Evaluating Campus Culture's Impact on Sexual Assault

By Kelsey Martin

It can be easy to distance yourself from news reports of gun violence and threats when they happen across the country. But when it happens at the school you call home, it feels very real and very dangerous.

When I saw that a University of Washington student was arrested for his online threats to kill women, I felt deeply shaken. His comments responding to the recent UC Santa Barbara killings were extremely disturbing. He promised he would be the next mass killer but he would get it right and kill only women—and more of them. Luckily, he was apprehended before he could act on these threats, and he’s now been charged in federal court for his interstate threats to women.

This arrest is just the latest event calling attention to the culture of violence that pervades college campuses. Under Title IX, educational institutions have a legal responsibility to prevent and respond to sexual assault on campus. However, statistics indicating that one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college suggest that many schools are failing to keep their students safe.

To combat this discrepancy between the law and students’ real life experiences, President Obama recently created the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which released its first report in April. Additionally, the Department of Education is currently investigating 55 colleges across the country—including University of Idaho and Washington State University—for the way they’ve handled sexual assault cases. And the Department of Justice recently reached an agreement with the University of Montana that will require local police to improve their response to sexual assault cases. With the federal government getting serious about enforcing Title IX, the movement to end gender violence on college campuses may be closer to a solution than ever before.

But where does that leave the individuals currently attending higher education institutions? What role can students play in creating a safer environment in which they are not afraid of school shootings or campus assault?

In my opinion, the answer lies in the creation of a college culture. Even as women become equal members of college communities, campus culture still reinforces discrete roles for men and women. From "CEOs and Corporate Hos"“ themed parties to the notion that many college females are just seeking eligible bachelors rather than bachelor’s degrees, college students are constantly bombarded with the message that women should be beautiful, available objects for male consumption, even while furthering their education. At the same time, the fanaticism over college sports reinforces societal conceptions of masculinity: men should be strong, violent, and desired by women. Most colleges don’t teach male and female students how to form healthy, expressive relationships with each other; instead, the culture glorifies the chase of casual sex without lessons on establishing boundaries or enthusiastic consent. Together, these societal scripts create a dangerous environment in which women and men who do not conform are at risk of violence.

While institutional memory may seem to be a large hurdle to overcome, students have a tremendous amount of power to inform the culture around them. They don’t have to stop going to college football games or dressing up for Halloween parties, but they can be mindful about the impact their choices make on the community around them. By always communicating about consent, speaking up about dangerous behaviors, and challenging assumptions about gender roles, students can contribute to a campus that is safe for all men and women.

Kelsey Martin is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising third-year student at the University of Washington School of Law. She has big dreams of single-handedly dismantling the patriarchy through her legal career.

Photo by Joe Mabel