Columns, Opinion

RYAN: Obama on offense

President takes a small step in the right direction on collegiate sexual assault

As the semester winds down, I’ve packed up my Communist Manifesto and pictures of Karl Marx. My Femi-Nazi t-shirts are neatly folded next to the condoms I’ve been handing out to middle schoolers and the SPF 100 sunscreen for my white privilege. However, amid all the packing and “studying” for finals, there was time for this last column for The Daily Free Press. As college students, we could not be more affected by this topic that I have chosen to write about this week.

On Tuesday, President Obama announced a new initiative to limit on-campus sexual assault, according to a TIME article from the same day. The initiative is not compulsory, but recommends a variety of measures to meet federally suggested standards. This includes conducting surveys to assess the current environment on campuses, prevention strategies, response suggestions and more transparent enforcement.

While I think the measures are valuable and good-natured, they fall short of my expectations. We need a more holistic approach to sexual assault on campus, addressing the cultural causes in addition to these steps.

Obama’s first suggested step is to evaluate the current campus climate. This is an incredibly important move for any program. If a college does not know the size or extent of a problem, how can it solve said issue? While this step is critical, it can also be the most difficult. College officials will have to ensure the highest degree of accuracy. Sexual assault victims are often scared or embarrassed to admit what happened; sometimes, they justify the perpetrator’s actions. These young women (and men) are more likely to answer incorrectly, thus giving a less accurate picture.

Obama’s next point focused on prevention. While the report briefly mentioned the areas related to sexual assault (attitudes, behavior and culture), the main focus was on the role of men in preventing sexual assault. It notes that men can step in to stand up for women in danger. I can’t decide how I feel about this point. On the one hand, it creates an expectation: no one should let something less than consensual intercourse happen, regardless of involvement.

However, on the other hand, it also limits individual responsibility. The vast majority of men do not take advantage of women. However, the report argues that they should step up and claim responsibility for those who are about to assault someone. What about the rapist? Where’s his (or her) responsibility? We have just started to push against the idea that victims are somehow responsible for crimes against them.

Now instead of that, we are giving the responsibility to the only other non-guilty party: men who do not sexually assault others. This kind of action, while a solid short run solution, is not sustainable. Instead, we need to work toward changing how our culture views women and sex. The cliché, but still widely held, view of women as sexual objects persists in our culture. There is certainly a movement to humanize women (note the irony — women are people too!), but it has not been completely successful yet.

We need to show perpetrators that sexual assault is never an option. There needs to be a cultural standard that declares women as equals, rather than as objects used for sexual gratification. I am mortified that this is not yet the case in the 21st century. People have been conditioned to view women as sexual objects, and this a value that can no longer be tolerated.

The third and fourth steps of Obama’s report are equally as important: response and transparency. The report argues that there must be a safe, confidential outlet for the victim and a reformed system for investigation. Both of these points provide a solid foundation for a sexual assault response team that has structure and consistency. I believe an enumerated set of consequences for perpetrators would decrease the likelihood of the guilty getting away.

Transparency is also incredibly important. Too often we hear about athletic coaches or college boards sweeping the dirt under the rug. By showing how well schools are adhering to the guidelines, the federal government can give students a clear picture of where they should be most safe. Obviously, this will not solve all of the problems, but it will certainly give students peace of mind.

Not only are both men and women victims in these crimes, but each incident also affects the families and friends of the victim and offender. Although it is not nearly enough, Obama’s report is a step in the right direction. I sincerely hope that BU exceeds all federal expectations outlined in this report. Our nation needs to create a system where perpetrators are responsible for their actions in clear terms. Sexual assault is not a feminist or women’s issue. It is a people’s issue.  And the sooner we act like that, the better.

Sara Ryan is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences studying political science and math. She can be reached at [email protected].


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