By Mark T. Harmon-Vaught || Contributing Writer
If you go to the doctor complaining of a sore throat, they might prescribe medication to deal with the pain and swelling you feel. If they discover that the cause of the sore throat is a bacterial infection, the will also prescribe an antibiotic to attack the root cause of the sore throat. The doctor will treat both the cause and the symptoms of the medical problem.
In the same way, our responsibility in preventing sexual misconduct is dual: we must address the symptoms of sexual misconduct through prevention efforts and adjudication, while also confronting the underlying causes that bring it about.
An editorial published in this paper on February 15, 2015, discussed the endemic sexual misconduct on college campuses, as it relates to fraternity life and the institutions of F&M. Much of the article was stimulating, overdue discourse on responsibility in sexual misconduct prevention. Included also, however, was a critique of the College administration’s response to sexual violence that struck this reader as somewhat reductive. In the words of the original article, “It is time for the administration to recognize that sexual assault needs to be addressed aggressively as a whole, and that it cannot and should not be pigeonholed into the responsibility of a singular fraternity.” The authors suggest that the administration of the College had been too targeted and symptomatic in its efforts to combat sexual assault.
This assertion leads one to ask, what is the administration doing in response to sexual misconduct? When we examine the measures that the College has taken on this matter, we find them to be decidedly more robust than the original article suggested.
In terms of policy and processes for adjudication, Franklin & Marshall has been ahead of the national curve since 2006. The College provides sexual assault prevention programs to first years, sponsors campus events like Take Back The Night, and hosts all-campus alcohol- and consent-positive programs like Speak About It. Last fall, the College hosted forums for both students and faculty on issue relating to Title IX, and has continued these conversations, including through weekly Q&A publications in this newspaper.
Several years ago, the College formed a Committee on Sexual Misconduct to review relevant campus policy, and it has established a Bystander Intervention Committee that has implemented the national It’s On Us Pledge on our campus. The College has also sponsored student groups like SAVE (Sexual Assault and Violence Education) and MUASA (Men United Against Sexual Assault) and has responded proactively to threats of sexual violence made on Yik Yak.
These efforts aren’t creating pigeonholes: they are broad, dynamic, and tireless attempts by the College to educate students about sexual misconduct, encourage positive consent and safer sex practices, confront social norms of sexual misconduct, and, when it occurs, discipline student offenders appropriately. We must be careful to avoid rhetorical pitfalls in our discussions of sexual misconduct, a major one being deferring of blame to our institutions.
When we criticize the administration’s efforts to prevent sexual misconduct, we often belie our own responsibility in doing the same. The original article makes very clear the important point that hosting parties at which alcohol is supplied means assuming responsibility –legal and moral— for what goes on at the events. It means we must understand the effects of alcohol on capacitation and on consent.
It means we must be careful how much we serve of what and to whom. It means we must use good judgment in bystander intervention. We are also responsible for understanding how to assist victims of sexual misconduct, no matter their gender or circumstances. And, like the original article stated, this responsibility does not fall only to Greek organizations or sports teams, but to all of us.
Important as these efforts are, they are symptomatic treatments, not causational solutions. We are also charged with shifting the discourse about sexual violence. We must avoid language that makes rape acceptable or that sexually objectifies others: not because it is illegal per se, but because it defies the basic standards for civil communities, and propagates rape culture.
We must be cognizant of the effects of group mentality and must have the courage to challenge our peers when they treat sexual misconduct as permissible or sexual threats as comedic fodder. When any group or subculture within our community demonstrates approval or even indifference toward sexual misconduct, our response should be targeted condemnation.
Nevertheless, we cannot indict any one part of our community without accepting our own failure to address the causes of sexual misconduct. The overwhelming majority of students here believe that sexual misconduct is unacceptable. Our goal must be to translate these beliefs into commitments to confront it within our community.
There is no panacea to sexual misconduct. As such, the responsibility for preventing it cannot fall only to our institutions. Instead, those most empowered to combat the symptoms and causes of sexual misconduct are the students who comprise our community. For this reason, it is on us.