Navigating Rape Culture at George Mason

Photo by Amy Podraza

Photo by Amy Podraza

This story was originally published in the April 13 issue of Fourth Estate.

Angela Woolsey, staff writer

A story in Rolling Stone embroiled the University of Virginia in a national controversy. Sexual assault allegations against students, including a star athlete, raised questions about how colleges and police handle reports of sexual violence. A student at Oregon’s Reed College was dismissed from a class discussion over his “disruptive” remarks about rape. A Mason student has sued the university for expelling him after an ex-girlfriend filed a sexual assault report against him.

Individually, these recent news stories appear to be isolated incidents, but taken together, they reflect an ongoing, nationwide conversation about sexual assault on college campuses and how university administrations and law enforcement should address this problem.

The term ‘rape culture’ was coined by feminists in the 1970s to describe a society that normalizes sexual violence, according to a 2014 Buzzfeed article about the subject.

“Rape culture is the pervasiveness of sexual assault and lack of respect for individuals’ bodily autonomy,” said Kellie White, president of Mason’s Feminist Student Organization and a staff member at the women and gender studies center.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. More than ninty percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.

A report published December 2014 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics said that eighty percent of the rape and sexual assault incidents that take place against students go unreported to the police. Titled “Rape and Sexual Assault Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013”, the report said that this number was significantly higher than the sixty-seven percent of incidents involving non-students, even though the rate of rape and sexual assault was 1.2 times higher for non-students.

White says that alcohol abuse among both of-age and underage students possibly contributes to sexual violence on college campuses.

According to a 2002 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, at least fifty percent of college students’ sexual assaults are associated with alcohol use.

“That’s not to place any blame on any individual who consumes alcohol and is then sexually assaulted,” White said. “Individuals who do commit sexual assault use that as an excuse to damage others and violate their bodies.”

Further complicating attempts to measure the scope of the problem of sexual violence on college campuses is the fact that schools sometimes underreport crime statistics to federal officials.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), only one-third of schools are fully compliant with the Clery Act, which requires that all colleges and universities participating in federal financial aid programs publicly disclose on-campus crime statistics.

A February 2015 study published in the American Psychological Association

The journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law showed a pattern of colleges and universities underreporting on-campus sexual assaults. Researchers analyzed the number of assaults reported by universities with on-campus housing and more than ten-thousand students that underwent U.S. Department of Education audits for Clery Act violations.

Reported numbers of sexual assaults rose on average by forty-four percent during the audits from previously reported levels, the APA study found. After the audits ended, numbers returned to pre-audit levels, suggesting that “some schools provided a more accurate picture of sexual assaults on campus only when they were under federal scrutiny”, according to a press release summarizing the study on the APA website.

George Mason President Angel Cabrera released a report on March 26 with recommendations on how to end sexual violence on campus compiled by Mason’s Task Force on Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence.

According to the task force’s report, Mason’s Wellness, Alcohol, Violence and Education Services reported seventy-seven sexual assault and interpersonal violence cases in the 2014 calendar year, up from fifty-seven cases in 2013 and sixty-two cases in 2012. Because WAVES is not obligated to report complaints, its numbers are higher than those reported to the University Police, which saw thirty-six cases in 2014 compared to thirty-three in 2013 and eight in 2012, which was before the police were required to report dating violence and stalking cases in addition to sexual assault.

According to its website, WAVES defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient”, ranging from rape to groping and voyeurism.

Mason has a mandatory reporting policy, meaning that all university employees are required to report sexual misconduct and harassment to Mason’s Title IX coordinator in the Office of Compliance, Diversity and Ethics.

Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex- and gender-based discrimination in education and has been established as the basis by which universities and colleges can investigate reports of sexual violence.

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating a record-high one-hundred and six schools suspected of violating Title IX due to their handling of sexual violence cases, according to a April 6, 2015 Huffington Post article. The list of schools under investigation includes UVA, James Madison University, the College of William & Mary and American University.

Mason’s Title IX coordinator is responsible for facilitating investigations and disciplinary procedures, which are carried out by the Office of Student Conduct for complaints against students and by Compliance, Diversity and Ethics for complaints against faculty and staff.

However, many students never report their assault or use the confidential services provided by WAVES, Student Health Services and Counseling and Psychological Services, which are the only offices exempted from the mandatory reporting policy, instead.

Describing an uncomfortable experience she had had with a faculty member last semester, a freshman who wished to remain anonymous said she initially did not want to go to any administrators and instead chose to keep a journal of her encounters with the faculty member.

“It was a small class and everybody joked with each other,” she said. “A lot of his jokes, I was like, okay, it’s a joke so take it that way.”

However, during a class movie screening for an extra credit assignment, the faculty member sat next to her and put his arm around her.

“That was incredibly inappropriate,” the anonymous freshman said. “I completely shut down, because I didn’t know how to interact with that.”

Another incident occurred later during an optional assignment involving clothes for the class when the faculty member insisted on helping her put on her outfit.

“It was in public and everything, but still, I’m like no, this isn’t cool,” she said.

She decided to report these incidents to WAVES after learning that another student had had similar experiences with the same faculty member. She asked WAVES to keep a file on the faculty member, who still works at Mason, and to keep students’ end-of-semester evaluations on record.

Vicki Kirsch, a department of social work professor at Mason who specializes in trauma recovery, says that it’s important for anyone who experiences sexual violence or any other kind of trauma to tell someone, whether it’s a trusted friend or a university service like WAVES or CAPS. While all individuals react to trauma differently, those who do not share their experience as soon as possible are more likely to get post-traumatic stress disorder.

“What happens during trauma is there’s a mind-body separation,” Kirsch said. “By putting words on that experience with someone who’s attending to you and listening, the chance of healing, which is bringing the mind-body together again, is much greater.”

Kirsch says that college can be a good time and place to help people deal with trauma because of the availability of medical and psychological services that students can access as result of paying tuition.

WAVES, for instance, offers psychological, medical, legal and judicial support and emergency housing assistance to survivors of sexual violence as well as information about sexual assault, harassment, stalking and interpersonal violence to both survivors and the general student population.

It also hosts regular events like ‘Sexual Chocolate’, an informative session about safe sex during Welcome Week, and ‘Turn Off the Violence’, a week dedicated to raising awareness about sexual and dating/partner violence.

The Task Force on Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence recommended that Mason form a program giving sexual assault survivors greater control over the reporting process.

It also suggested that the university implement educational and training programs focused on such issues as informed consent and bystander intervention for faculty and staff as well as target student populations like fraternities and sororities, student athletes and student employees. It recommended that the university develop specific educational programs for LGBTQ, international and undocumented students, saying that these groups may be at particular risk for victimization and are less likely to report or seek help.

“Education is really important,” Kirsch said. “It’s not these survivors’ responsibility to teach other people. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”

Educating students should start as soon as possible, according to Kirsch, who says that freshmen are especially vulnerable with many attacks occurring in the first week or month of school.

However, combating sexual assault can be challenging, because rape culture encompasses more than just physical acts.

White says that on college campuses, rape culture often appears in the form of casual jokes about rape or sexual assault and through the pervasiveness of media that contains a lot of violence and objectifies individuals’, especially women’s, bodies.

“Pop culture is very much alive and well on the campus, which means rape culture is alive and well,” White said.

The anonymous freshman says that, while she thinks Mason has a relatively safe campus, she has had some awkward or confrontational experiences at parties, such as when she declines men who ask if she wants to dance.

“They always get very angry,” she said, “or they say something like, ‘Then, why are you here?’ as if the only reason I can be there is to have sex when I’m just there for fun with my friends.”

Conversations about difficult topics like sexual assault can also create conflict between a university’s need to provide a safe environment for all students, including trauma survivors, and the desire to promote open discussions that allow students to express their own opinions.

Reed College, a small, liberal arts school in Portland, Ore., attracted some attention this past March after a humanities professor removed a student named Jeremiah True for making comments about sexual assault that made his classmates uncomfortable. True’s argument that rape culture doesn’t exist and that statistics related to the number of sexual assaults in colleges are over-inflated upset other students to the point where they had difficulties concentrating in other classes, according to a March 19th Buzzfeed article.

Because Mason is a public institution rather than a private one, it operates differently from a school like Reed College. In addition to being subject to local, state and federal laws, Mason has its own speech code.

Outlined in the 2014-15 Code of Student Conduct, Mason’s statement on the freedom of expression says that “through active participation in an intellectually and culturally diverse learning community, students will be better prepared to deal with the issues they will face in a rapidly changing and diverse society.” It also states that “the right to free speech and expression does not include unlawful activity or activity which endangers or threatens to endanger the safety or well-being of any member of the community.”

Beth Jannery, the director of Mason’s journalism program, says that all teachers get a faculty handbook that explains the university’s policies.

“I am one hundred percent an advocate for transparency,” Jannery said, adding that there can be a fine line between wanting to make classrooms feel safe and wanting to intellectually challenge students. “I would much rather have these difficult conversations weighing all sides, considering all sides of a topic rather than sweeping something under the carpet.”

White says that, although new policies and programs like the ones recommended by the task force report have the potential to create change, students can help by paying attention to aspects of rape culture in their everyday lives, even if it seems innocuous.

“Change doesn’t start with huge events or rallies,” White said. “It starts with a few people realizing, ‘Hey, this is not okay and this is how we’re going to fix it.’ That starts with the next time your friend makes a rape joke, tell him that’s completely unacceptable…[Challenge] ideas of what it means to be proper, the idea that if a woman wears a short skirt, is out in public and has had a drink, she deserves to be sexually assaulted. Just challenging that in the people around you, even when it’s hard, even when it’s uncomfortable, you can see the change it makes around you.”