Sexual violence on college campuses increases dramatically during the first six weeks of each fall semester. Graphic by Elizabeth Hein.
ELLIOTT ROBINSON | OPINION COLUMNIST | email@example.com
Content warning: Discussions of sexual violence are included in this article.
The beginning of the fall semester heralds many things, from packs of identically dressed first years roaming the sidewalks at night, to eagerly awaited appearances of pumpkin spice on the Starbucks menu. But the next six weeks are also known by many universities as the “Red Zone,” due to the drastic, annual spike in sexual assaults on college campuses across the country.
As hundreds of families are busy sweating over dismantled IKEA furniture in diminutive dorm rooms, or snapping pictures with their fresh-faced first years next to important Butler landmarks, the dangers of college life are likely the last thing on their minds. However, more than 50% of reported sexual assaults on college campuses occur within the first four months of the semester, and although these crimes can affect anyone, first-year women are the most vulnerable population by far during the Red Zone specifically.
If these and other staggering statistics regarding sexual assault among college students were more widely circulated, would we finally regard this for what it is: an epidemic of extreme and unjustifiable violence? If female students are five times more likely to experience sexual violence than any other age demographic, how can we, in good faith, treat places like Butler University as a safe educational environment for all?
Of course, simply discouraging women or other vulnerable populations from entering spaces of higher education couldn’t be farther from the solution. While we must be transparent in regards to the state of sexually violent crimes on campus, we also need to treat the problem itself, instead of merely attempting to mitigate the damage.
For instance, during first-year orientation, Butler University requires incoming students to complete a course about sexual assault and consent. This type of education is likely intended to provide students with information about healthy sexual practices, as well as detailing the resources available on campus to survivors of sexual violence.
Although Butler’s effort to reach incoming first years is both crucial and commendable, it often gets lost in the excitement of orientation week and the sheer volume of new experiences. When considering my own time as a first year, I can recall very little about the information provided by these modules. Instead, my education regarding campus resources for sexual health, assault and prevention came largely in the aftermath of my own encounter with sexual violence.
Therefore, in order to prevent my experience from becoming the norm, I believe continuous outreach and engagement is necessary to familiarize students with the resources and support available to them. Education concerning sexual violence and health should continue throughout a student’s entire time at Butler, rather than remaining isolated to a single week at the beginning of their first year.
For example, all students should be made aware of the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention (SARP) office, which focuses primarily on creating a safer campus culture through education and community outreach. The SARP office is responsible for providing the seminars that incoming first years receive about consent and sexual assault — but it serves the Butler community in a wide variety of other ways, too.
Jules Grable, the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Specialist for Butler University, described some of these duties, explaining how she works to support survivors and increase sexual health education across campus.
“My first role is serving as a victim’s advocate for those who are survivors of sexual misconduct,” Grable said. “I help them understand what their next steps might be, and I help them get connected with resources that can assist them as they begin their healing journey.”
Grable is a confidential resource, meaning that she does not report instances of sexual misconduct that are disclosed to her. So for students who aren’t sure if they want to make an official complaint to the Title IX office or BUPD, this can be an invaluable resource.
Additionally, Grable is responsible for continuing students’ education concerning issues of sexual health and safety.
“The second half of my job is making sure that I never have to do the first half again,” Grable said. “We [the SARP office] do different events and workshops, training, outreach tables, just anything that we can to reach students and let folks know what the signs of sexual misconduct are, how to look out for other folks and how to celebrate healthy relationships and healthy sexual communication.”
Grable partially attributes the Red Zone to a lack of education in topics such as consent, healthy relationships and boundaries. Although, at the end of the day, sexual misconduct is never the fault of the victim, proper education can help to combat a culture that overwhelmingly prioritizes harmful, patriarchal ideas of sex and romance. Instead of relying on mainstream media to teach us about relationships and sex, Grable seeks to arm students with more accurate knowledge that can help them avoid abusive situations or people.
Undoubtedly, the SARP office is a crucial resource that works tirelessly to improve sexual health by spreading awareness of important issues. At the same time, students also need to be prepared in case the worst should happen to them.
Thinking about the aftermath of sexual violence is an understandably terrifying prospect for many. However, familiarizing students with next steps, resources and support systems is absolutely essential, as it normalizes and reinforces healthy responses to an otherwise extremely traumatic situation. Often, survivors of sexual violence recount the confusion that colors the days, weeks and months following their experience, distorting their perception of what happened or preventing them from seeking help. Having a clear plan of action and a strong support system can combat these feelings and potentially alleviate some of the pain.
I spoke to Sophie Knue, a junior sociology, criminology and music major who works as an intern in the Title IX office, about some of her tireless efforts to help survivors of sexual violence on campus.
“One of the things I did recently was help [Title IX coordinator Georgia Hensley] with the new Sexual Misconduct Policy,” Knue said. “We worked a lot on clarification because sometimes it wasn’t very well understood what the policy actually meant.”
At 21 seemingly dense pages, Butler’s Sexual Misconduct Policy is likely universally ignored by all students, not just first years. But it contains vital information concerning the parameters of different types of misconduct, as well as the process to report a violation and pursue a case. If incoming students can complete modules about alcohol, drugs and internet safety, they can certainly spend a few minutes reviewing the policy.
Still, Knue’s most incredible contribution actually lies outside the Title IX office. Last year, she created the Butler Survivor’s Alliance, or BSA, a student organization which offers unconditional support to survivors of sexual violence.
“We’re trying to make a community on campus for survivors of any kind of violence, but especially sexual violence,” Knue said. “We want to make sure that if something happens to you — we hope it doesn’t, but if it does — you know that there are people who understand what you’ve been through and you are not alone on campus.”
Like the SARP office, BSA also works to build community by offering a plethora of fun events throughout the year. Some are educational, others simply establish connections and camaraderie — but all are amazing resources for students who aren’t sure where to turn.
However, while Butler has certainly been improving in their efforts to facilitate sexual health and safety among their students, the fact remains that there is always work to be done.
Abby Retz, a senior history and anthropology major, represents the SARP office as the Student Advocacy Fellow, and, like Knue, also works closely with the Title IX office.
“I would love to think that Butler is the safest place on Earth, but the reality is that it is a college campus, and college campuses are places where rates of violence, especially sexual violence, are higher,” Retz said. “In the past, some students have had a hard time with reporting incidents to the offices that are there to support them.”
Retz also acknowledged that many students are just unaware of the options available to them. Her story is painfully similar to my own: when she encountered sexual violence on campus as a first-year student, she had no idea that the SARP or Title IX offices could help her. As a result, she’s since dedicated herself to improving the accessibility of these resources, as well as spreading awareness.
“Our new Title IX coordinator, Georgia Hensley, has taken a stand for students in her short time at Butler,” Retz said. “Though she’s only been here for a little over a year, she has certainly brought with her a passion for helping students, no matter the case. I think some students in the past have felt unrepresented by Butler. But I know that Georgia, Jules and myself each have personal missions to ensure that violence is always reported at the will of survivors, and that proper management of each case is the biggest priority to all of us.”
Finally, when asked if there was any advice they would give to survivors of sexual violence, Grable, Knue and Retz all echoed a nearly identical sentiment: that there is always support available on campus, no matter the situation. From community-oriented organizations such as BSA to official university institutions like the Title IX office, no student ever needs to navigate these traumatic experiences by themselves.
“There is help available on campus,” Grable said. “You don’t have to do this alone. You are believed. You are supported. You are loved. There are a lot of places and resources available for you here.”