Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Consenting to Change: As Colleges and Universities Nationwide Adopt New Policies to Stop Sexual Assault, Catholic Campuses Are Opting for a More Holistic Approach to Creating a Culture of Prevention

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Consenting to Change: As Colleges and Universities Nationwide Adopt New Policies to Stop Sexual Assault, Catholic Campuses Are Opting for a More Holistic Approach to Creating a Culture of Prevention

Article excerpt

Alice (whose name has been changed for this article) had always been a leader at school. The Marquette University student describes herself as "very Catholic," and says she chose the Milwaukee university because of its Jesuit identity She never feared she would be a victim of sexual assault.

So in the spring of her freshman year in 2013, when a boy she had been dating for three weeks assaulted her in her dorm room, she said nothing. "I did not report the assault because I wasn't quite sure what had happened," Alice says. He had forced her to engage in a sexual act, despite the fact she said no and resisted.

"I felt weak. I'd told myself that something like that would never happen to me," she says. "And then once I did realize it had happened, I thought it was probably too far in the future to report it." Alice joins thousands of college women who, for decades, have dismissed sexual violations as "bad nights" or "dates gone wrong"--or, perhaps more accurately, as "lost causes," since prosecuting such crimes can be so difficult. From 1995 to 2013, 80 percent of rapes and sexual assaults against female college students ages 18 to 24 went unreported, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Thanks to increasing pressure from the federal government, student activists, and concerned parents, colleges and universities in the United States are working to better prevent, educate about, and respond to sexual assault. And Catholic colleges and universities have unique opportunities to shift the culture of campus life in a positive direction.

Culture shift

Alice was in shock immediately after the assault. She collected herself and asked her assailant to leave. Two days later she ended their relationship.

More than a year passed. Then, in the fall of 2014, her attacker contacted her on Facebook and sent her detailed, degrading messages about the 2013 incident. Several of Alice's friends saw the Facebook messages and urged her to report her story to the university's Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Alice admits to trepidation approaching DPS. In the 2010-2011 academic year, the university was publicly criticized after it delayed reporting alleged sexual assaults by Marquette student athletes to the Milwaukee police. This violated a Wisconsin state law that requires security departments to report possible crimes to authorities.

"When I went to DPS," Alice says, "I said, 'I'm taking this to you. Is anything going to be done about this?' " She says the DPS officers were incredible. "They made sure I was going to the counseling center and had people supporting me," she says. "One DPS officer called me and gave me his personal phone number. They really took care of my case well."

The difference in the way Alice's case was handled was the result of an overhaul of Marquette's sexual assault policies following the 2011 controversy. Marquette turned away from what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls the "culture of protection" practiced by large institutions where perpetrators of sexual assault may be star citizens like student athletes.

"I think we have a good, comprehensive, community-based prevention and response program that all of our students can be affected by during all four of their years at Marquette," says Marya Leatherwood, Marquette's vice president of student affairs. She also notes that for the past four years, Marquette has trained all incoming freshmen--about 2,000 students per year--to help prevent and respond appropriately to sexual assault.

Marquette charged Alice's attacker with sexual assault and sexual harassment and found him responsible for the latter. As part of his punishment, he took a course on sexual violence and prevention, and he presented a project to the university committee on the meaning of a healthy relationship.

"He's basically a second-class student," Alice says. "He's doing what he needs to do to really become a better person. …

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