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On Changing SLU’s Culture Surrounding Campus Sexual Assault

A graphic from the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.
Written by Emma Hennessy

By EMMA HENNESSEY
COLUMNIST
and
SARAH HEATHERTON
GUEST WRITER

Last week, there was a front-page story on the Hill surrounding the discussion that erupted at that week’s Thelmo meeting when the bystander intervention group Stand By Me sought organizational status. The group faced questions from Thelmo Senators regarding the lack of diversity and training of its club members. Even more crucially, there were (at the point of this publication) unconfirmed rumors that some members had participated in sexual misconduct, allegations we find particularly alarming due to the group’s mission if true. However, we do not wish to comment on the veracity of these charges. Instead, we would like to focus on the discussion of character assassination when prosecuting sexual assault spurred by a comment made by Dean Tolliver. We found his comment equating accusations of assault with reputation slandering disturbing, especially when compounded with his insistence that a fear of harming personal reputation was “the most passionate thing [he was] thinking about.” Shouldn’t we feel more passionately about the victims of assaults on this campus or preventing future attacks?

Photo: Olivia White Thelmo senators listen to Stand by M representatives at their March 1st meeting.

Photo: Olivia White
Thelmo senators listen to Stand by M representatives at their March 1st meeting.

The issue here is larger than any particular group on campus; this is about how we as a school deal with sexual assault charges. While we have made great strides in the awareness of and support for victims, we are still missing the critically important other half of the equation. For every sexual assault on this campus, there is both a survivor and at least one perpetrator. It is unfortunately the case that these perpetrators are often our classmates and friends, discouraging us from openly discussing their misconduct. Naturally, the ultimate goal when prosecuting sexual assault is justice for both the victim and the assailant. We are not arguing that assault allegations should be thrown around recklessly. Instead, we wish to underscore that the fear of character assassination should not eclipse the need for an open dialogue about sexual assault: one that not only includes the victims, but the perpetrators as well. We need to be willing to call people out.

There is often wonderful communal support for survivors at our school, shown through the boisterous attendance at our biannual Take Back the Night and enthusiasm for events like Teal Week and Purple Week, as well as campaigns like “I support survivors because….”. St. Lawrence has made great progress in being more cognizant of the number of survivors on our campus. We know the statistics now: 1 in 5 women on college campuses. And it hurts to learn that such horrific things happen to 1 in 5 women that we care for. Or even more, that these horrific acts of violence that happen to 1 in 5 women we care for were committed by students that we care for as well. It is easier to think of this epidemic in abstraction. However, we will never be able to make progress if we acknowledge the victims without condemning the real, breathing perpetrators among us, the ones about whom it is somehow still taboo to discuss.

Again, this is not a comment about Stand By Me, this is a comment about St. Lawrence and a culture that we have the power to change. Real people in our lives are impacted by acts of sexual violence. It is not some stranger, a distant other: it is your friend. It is all of our friends. Imagine all your peers you can think of who are from Massachusetts, then consider that roughly the same percentage of SLU students are from Massachusetts as have been victims of sexual violence. It is your lab partner in class, the guy who lives down the hall who works at ODY, your bubbly housemate, and your CA. And if we are ever going to find justice for these people, we need to stop pretending that we don’t see their assailants every day as well, at the Pub, in Physics, or on our way to the gym after class. We need to pay as much attention to the actions of perpetrators as their victims are forced to, and we cannot protect fellow students for fear of character assassination, or not speak about it because we feel it is not culturally acceptable. We need to say the names. So don’t be afraid to speak up. In a world where your chances as a girl on a college campus are roughly the same as someone’s batting average, it is more vital than ever.

About the author

Emma Hennessy