By Lily Dayton
When Phuong-Thao Nguyen attended a sexual assault prevention program at California State University, East Bay in 2014, she realized that her abusive ex-boyfriend had sexually assaulted her almost daily over the five years they were together. “I’d be sleeping in the middle of the night and he’d get on top of me,” she says. “I didn’t know it was sexual assault.”
Nguyen met her abuser the summer before her freshman year of college. Soon after they started dating, he isolated her from family and friends and discouraged her from going to college. He then began physically assaulting her, sometimes pushing her to the ground and kicking her, once wrapping his hands around her neck and strangling her until she passed out.
She had never encountered any sort of educational program about sexual violence until she arrived at CSU East Bay. Though she had left her abuser by then, she still suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from the abuse. The campus had resources readily available for victims of sexual assault, but Nguyen found few resources for victims of relationship abuse. “CSU East Bay has been great with sexual assault prevention, but more can be done for dating violence,” she says.
Though abuse within a relationship isn’t discussed in a university context as often as sexual assault, these behaviors are part of a continuum of sexual violence that occurs on college campuses.
Studies have found that the prevalence of domestic violence and dating violence among college students is on par with the number of female college students who’ve experienced sexual assault. “About 21 percent of college students report they are experiencing violence from a current partner,” says Jessica Merrill, communications manager for California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.
Responses to sexual violence on campus have become the subject of national attention in the wake of ongoing accusations that universities have not responded appropriately to cases of sexual assault. As a result, some universities have changed or clarified their policies for responding to sexual violence. On Jan 1, for instance, all University of California campuses adopted a uniform policy to prevent and respond to sexual violence.
Those changes have followed pressure from the federal government as well as activism on the part of students and advocacy groups such as End Rape on Campus. In 2011, the Obama administration issued a clarification that Title IX protections also apply to sexual violence. Under Title IX, “federally funded schools must ensure that students are not denied or limited in their ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s educational programs or activities on the basis of sex.”
Since 2011, 243 investigations have been launched by the federal government in response to complaints about the mishandling of sexual assault cases, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Dating violence and sexual assault often go hand-in-hand, as in Nguyen’s case—just one indication that domestic violence and sexual assault are different aspects of the same problem. “Sexual assault, domestic violence and dating violence are related, as well as stalking,” says Merrill. “These are all examples of [sexual] violence and they are all about maintaining power and control.”
While the continuum of sexual violence, including domestic violence, is covered under Title IX, universities find it more challenging to deal with relationship violence than sexual assault, says Stanford law professor Michele Dauber. “We don’t have the same level of detailed guidance from the federal government on dating violence and stalking as we do for sexual assault.”
Kathy Moore, executive director of California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, says that cases where she’s seen universities respond most successfully to intimate partner violence have been in situations where the campus has cultivated a strong partnership with local service providers. “That’s where we’ve seen the strongest progress and most enduring work.”
For instance, UC Merced’s CARE program, a confidential advocacy resource for survivors of sexual violence, works hand-in-hand with the local Valley Crisis Center, a dual-crisis agency that serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The CARE center contracts with Valley Crisis Center to provide a full-time advocate on campus in order to give survivors confidential support and help them go through the campus adjudication process if they choose to do so. The two centers help each other with trainings and constantly exchange resources.
“It adds to the offerings we can provide to survivors.” says Kari Mansager, director of the CARE program.
In addition to recommending that universities partner with local service providers, Moore suggests that universities look to students to help take the lead in creating a culture where intimate partner violence is unacceptable. “We want to continue to support student leadership in turning the tide on this issue,” she says.
Now in her senior year of the health science program at CSU East Bay, Nguyen is working with a campus confidential advocate to develop two presentations to educate other students about dating violence. If she finds enough interest, she plans to start a support group on campus for students who have experienced relationship abuse.
When asked about the university’s response to sexual assault versus relationship violence, Terri Labeaux, Title IX coordinator for CSU East Bay, responded that both are covered under the large umbrella of topics that her office deals with. “We are trying to do some positive things on campus and we are currently moving the ball forward on all aspects of [preventing and responding to] sexual violence.”
At Stanford, student activists are also finding ways to cultivate more awareness and prevention of intimate partner violence on campus. After taking Dauber’s immersive, three-week summer course, “One in Five: The Law, Policy and Politics of Campus Sexual Assault,” sophomores Stephanie Pham and Matt Baiza decided to continue student engagement with the topic by forming a student group called “One in Five.”
Pham and Baiza are planning a series of weekly teach-ins for the winter quarter, each exploring different aspects of sexual violence—including dating violence, domestic violence and stalking.
“A lot of activism hasn’t focused on dating violence or stalking, and that is a huge chunk of the problem, so we will give it the attention it needs in our community,” says Pham.
Baiza adds, “This is one major area we have to address—this idea of creating a culture of respect for each other.”