Rape Crisis on Campus

I found this article on the Chronicle for Higher Education and thought I’d share it here on my blog….

Amherst College tries to answer outrage, avoid tokenism, and engage everybody in a discussion of ‘sexual respect’

By Sara Lipka

The harrowing account of rape and disregard that has consumed Amherst College for two weeks isn’t going away—and nobody there seems to want it to. But in fact, the story of Angie Epifano published in the student newspaper didn’t start a dialogue about sexual violence on the Massachusetts campus: It took an evolving discussion and accelerated it.

That’s uncomfortable but crucial, says Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, president of Amherst, who has praised Ms. Epifano’s courage. “All of this has created an opening,” Ms. Martin says, “for which I am very grateful.”

It’s an unusual response for the president of a campus in crisis. “Many universities, when news breaks, tend to dismiss it or make token efforts,” says Laura Dunn, a survivor of sexual assault and advocate of security in higher education. The approach of letting a controversy pass and moving on is disappointing, say Ms. Dunn and other advocates impressed by Amherst’s apparent resolve. But to confront outrage, and to engage and satisfy various constituencies, will require sustained effort.

As on many campuses, concerns about sexual misconduct had long loomed at Amherst. Last spring a fraternity promoted an annual event with a T-shirt depicting a nearly naked woman, bound at the wrists and ankles, roasting over a fire. A student frustrated with what she saw as the college’s inadequate response wrote on a campus blog in early October: “This is what sexism and misogyny look like at a so-called progressive, elite, liberal arts institution in 2012.”

A few days later, Ms. Martin, a scholar of German studies and gender theory, sent an e-mail to all students. Since arriving at Amherst last fall, she said, she had heard concerns about sexual misconduct and respect. She outlined some progress, committed to more, and asked for help, inviting students to an open conversation that Sunday evening. The following Wednesday, The Amherst Student printed Ms. Epifano’s account of why, feeling unsupported, she ultimately had withdrawn from the college.

“I reached a dangerously low point, and, in my despondency, began going to the campus’ sexual assault counselor,” Ms. Epifano wrote. “In short I was told: No you can’t change dorms, there are too many students right now. Pressing charges would be useless, he’s about to graduate, there’s not much we can do. Are you SURE it was rape?”

Pledges or Platitudes

Web traffic crashed the newspaper’s site. Personal stories of students and alumni poured out in online posts and e-mails to Ms. Martin. “This wasn’t just something that had happened to Angie,” says Brianda Reyes, editor in chief of The Amherst Student.

The college responded fast and forcefully—Ms. Martin, in a statement issued the next day. “Clearly, the administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served,” she said. “That must change, and change immediately.” Two days later, the Board of Trustees pledged “all necessary resources.”

But students were wary of such statements, Ms. Reyes says. “Everybody was reading them and saying, ‘Are they just saying this so we don’t riot, or are they saying it because they truly mean it?'” It’s hard to persuade a group leery of platitudes.

Amherst officials resolved to be direct, not defensive. “What encourages people to come forward,” says Ms. Martin, “is the acknowledgment that there are problems.” Maybe students have troubling tales to tell, or maybe they are misinformed on colleges’ obligations under antidiscrimination law. The president says she still wants to hear them.

The college has held a series of open meetings, not only for all students, but also for first-year students, staff, faculty, and parents visiting for family weekend. But while the opportunity to share experiences and opinions is vital, Ms. Martin says, it’s insufficient.

The president, a newcomer off a rocky tenure at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has to prove that she is listening. At one meeting, students set ground rules: two minutes per speaker, with a timekeeper, a role the president declined. When everybody had spoken, she took time to summarize their recommendations.

On a new Web page dedicated to “sexual respect,” Amherst details actions taken and planned, with checkboxes. Now, for instance, students sit on the college’s Title IX committee, named for the federal gender-equity law; its Sexual Respect Task Force; and a new body, formed on Wednesday, to take stock of the campus culture and recommend improvements in student affairs and sexual education. The goal is not just to have students’ representation, but to draw on their expertise.

‘Willing to Try’

Guiding Amherst through those issues is Gina M. Smith, a lawyer who consults with colleges on sexual misconduct. A former sex-crimes prosecutor, Ms. Smith started working with the college in July to review its policies and procedures. Lately she has traveled there more often, and lingered longer. “I have not seen a response in my history of doing this quite as robust,” she says.

Some students, though, remain skeptical. A couple of Fridays ago, several of them met with trustees. Others rallied, walking from the Robert Frost Library to the Lord Jeffery Inn, which brought out coffee and cookies. Protesters felt like “the administration was just trying to shut us up,” says Ms. Reyes, the newspaper editor, to “treat us like children.” (In fact, the snack was the inn’s idea.)

When the students in the meeting emerged, their classmates were frustrated to learn that the board hadn’t immediately agreed to a series of demands, such as redesigning the first-year seminar, a required course, to cover race, gender, and sexual respect.

But despite their impatience, students have noted Ms. Martin’s openness, and her sincerity. “The trust is not back completely,” Ms. Reyes says, “but I think people are willing to try.”

In doing so, they will keep the pressure on. Students are pushing for more information on an investigation by Ms. Smith of Ms. Epifano’s case, and on the recent unexplained resignation of Gretchen Krull, a long-serving health educator and sexual-respect counselor at Amherst.

In the meeting with trustees, students named four deans they say have “breached certain ethical boundaries or have simply not been able to support survivors appropriately.” And more than 250 students and recent graduates signed a letter calling the college’s mental-health services “inadequate.”

Amherst officials acknowledge a need for better integration in student affairs, particularly between the dean of students and the counseling and health centers. A permanent dean has not been in place for a couple of years, and an open search will involve students, Ms. Martin says. So will the revision of the college’s sexual-misconduct policy, including a move away from hearing boards composed of faculty and students, which can complicate privacy on a small campus.

Rising Expectations

Changing campus culture—the big aim at Amherst—is more often a catchphrase of controversies than an achievement. And the pursuit of that goal, says Lauren Bernstein, coordinator of a sexual-respect program at Emory University, can’t be led by administrators. “We need to be working in tandem,” she says, “with students at the center.”

The endurance of both sides will be essential. Amherst plans to maintain its checkboxes, and on Wednesday it held the first of four Webcasts with Ms. Martin. The new committee will report to her in January, and its chair, Margaret R. Hunt, a professor of history and chair of women’s and gender studies, understands the college’s work ahead.

“There are definitely some ways,” she says, “in which this is a revolution in rising expectations.”

Most students are attentive now, but a challenge to change over time is indifference, says Mark Kahan, a senior biology major who plays on the tennis team and serves as a peer advocate for sexual respect. “Some people maybe feel like this is hype,” he says. “They start to shut some of it out.”

But many students have started taking more seriously their responsibility to look out for one another, especially around alcohol, says Ms. Reyes. Touchy topics, such as how much is OK to drink and whom it’s a good idea to go home with, now come up more easily, she says.

Last week Amherst tried to start more difficult conversations by canceling classes for a day of dialogue. The event, dubbed “Speaking to Silence: Conversations on Community and Individual Responsibility,” was set for Friday, November 2. But then came Hurricane Sandy, and talk of postponing the program.

Organizers polled faculty and students, who said, in essence, No way. And so the college said it would stick to its plan.

Should You Confess to Cheating?

I read a post on Sexy Tofu’s blog about whether confessing to cheating is always right thing to do.  I thought she had some good insights and made some good points.  I decided to copy her post and share with you her thoughts on this topic:

I’ve written before on infidelity; It’s a big “no no” in my book—which, in case you were wondering, probably closer resembles a dog-eared trashy paperback than a manual on ethics.  But I’m going to get into ethics now.  Bear with me.

Most of us already know that when it comes to emotions, not everything is in black and white.  We all have feelings, and these feelings can make a bigger mess than a two year old with a white wall and a box of crayons.

However, if we want to get ethical, are there shades of grey when it comes to right and wrong?  Are moral standards based on the eye of the beholder?  Does right and wrong change situationally?  Is a hero still a hero if he only saved that little boy from the well because he knew he would be showered in praise?

Oh man, that was some rapid fire questioning.  Back on track.  I think that cheating is always the wrong thing to do.  If you’re unhappy or unfulfilled in your relationship, get out of it.  Don’t cheat.  But no one can be right all the time, and so let’s consider what happens after you have cheated.  Most would consider that the “right” thing to do would be to tell your partner.  Come clean.  You’ve already been unfaithful, let’s not double the offense with dishonesty.  Right?

I think it depends on both the situation and motive behind your confession.

As for situation: How big is your offense?  If you meet with an old flame or a stranger and share a fleeting kiss, a one time mistake completely regretted, is that something worth uprooting your partners’ self esteem and your relationship?  Some would say no, and others would say yes.  You made your bed, now lie in it—crumbled relationship and all.

What if you’ve cheated but plan on leaving anyway?  Is it better to just leave and save your partner a bit of dignity (being left is bad enough, being betrayed and left is even worse), or should you tell them before you go?
What if you’re a habitual cheater?  That sort of dishonesty is often a personality trait; someone who tends to veer toward the hedonistic side of things.  Should Sir Tryst A Lot come clean while someone who kissed a stranger at the bar should keep their lips sealed?  Does it matter the level of offense, or is a cheater a cheater a cheater?

And as for motives, what if in your confession you lift your own burden of guilt only to place it on the shoulders of your partner?  You may feel better, but they all of a sudden feel betrayed and hurt. And anyone who has ever been cheated on knows that even if you KNOW the offense had nothing to do with you or your actions, you cannot help but take it personally.  It will make you insecure, even if only momentarily.  It’s insanely difficult, even for the most logical and mature of us, not to turn betrayal inward.  And on top of the pain you put on your partner, the relationship will suffer, trust will have to be rebuilt, if possible.  So in this light, is it always right to be honest?

I think the righteousness of a confession can also depend greatly on the motive behind the confession.  A friend of mine recently brought up the concept of acting out of love vs. out of fear.  Not to get all new agey on you, but I think that could have a lot to do with what makes coming clean the right or the wrong thing to do.  Are you telling your partner because you love them truly, because you’re truly sorry, and you want to correct your dishonest behavior and rebuild? Or are you telling them because you’re trying to remove your own guilt, which some may argue is a product of fear.  Or on the other end, could you argue that in staying quiet, you are acting on fear–the fear of your partner leaving you if they find out what you’ve done?  UGH I know this stuff has some merit but I really can’t talk about love and fear without thinking about Donnie Darko.

Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion

So let’s take this into pop culture, shall we. Recently to the horror of all those Twihards, Kristin Stewart admitted to cheating on R-Patz (nose wrinkle) with the MARRIED director of Snow White and the Huntsman. However she only admitted to it after some photos of her and director Rupert Sanders surfaced. Stewart regrets it, Sanders regrets it, lots of tears all around. But neither of the offenders came clean without the pressure of being found out, which makes their admissions completely fear based. Double fail for this shady lady.