By Jessica Portner
Chrissy Keenan was sexually assaulted when she was 17. Now 22, and in her fourth year at UCLA, Keenan has devoted her college years to doing everything she can to stop that from happening to someone else. “I was assaulted at my 17th birthday party in Pennsylvania, where I grew up and I was not met with a lot of support from my peers,” she says. “I spent the rest of high school keeping my mouth shut and waiting to leave.”
Now the human biology and society major co-directs the Bruin Consent Coalition, a student-run UCLA group devoted to education, awareness, and prevention of sexual violence on campus. She hosts survivor speak outs and silent protests. She also interns at the Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) a counseling center for survivors of sexual assault. And Keenan is as one of the student representatives on the UC President’s Task Force on Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault, which in 2014 unveiled a system-wide plan to combat sexual misconduct on campus. This fall, all incoming University of California students were mandated to take sexual assault prevention education and training within their first six weeks of class. All freshman students, transfer and international students are also required to take a few hours of in-person education on this all-too-common crime before arriving on campus.
More than one in four female college seniors say they had been sexually assaulted during their college years, by force or when they were incapacitated, according the largest survey of its kind released this fall by the Association of American Universities. In four years of college, 27.2 percent of women said that they had experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact—from touching to rape. Nearly half of those, 13.5 percent, had experienced penetration, attempted penetration or oral sex. More than 150,000 students at 27 colleges and universities participated in the survey.
“There’s quite a number of people who are impacted and we definitely think it’s important for us to have the awareness heightened and for students to understand our expectations and know how to help each other to prevent sexual violence from happening,” says Susan Allen Ortega, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Health and Wellness at UC Riverside, where 5,000 incoming students were trained this summer and fall. “We are making sure we are a leader in the nation in addressing sexual violence.”
Lesson #1: What is Consent?
If these sexual assault prevention education and training programs can be summarized in one word, it’s “consent.” In the workshops, students watch a video featuring actors who discuss the definition: “Consent is knowing your partner wants you as much as you want them.” The actors in the video play out ways to ask, such as “is this OK?”, “What would you like me to do to you?”, and “Do you want to have sex?” Besides the terminology of sexual assault, they learn about bystander intervention. College students are encouraged to speak up and diffuse a potentially harmful situation, whether it’s someone telling a rape joke, making a sexual innuendo, or touching someone in an inappropriate manner.
On top of these trainings, some UC campuses have established formal support systems for survivors of sexual assault. UC Berkeley this year hired Confidential Survivor Advocates, which is developing a comprehensive plan to rid their campus of gender, sexual, and relationship violence. Mari Knuth-Bouracee, who oversees the Confidential Survivor Advocate’s office, says it’s very important to trust that survivors know what’s best for them, whether that means pausing their coursework following the trauma or going back to class the next day.
“Unfortunately our society has created some narratives around what is the appropriate response after being victimized,” she says. “Whether that involves reporting it or not, or talking with their families, or keeping the incident more private or seeking counseling, their choice is an opportunity for survivor to regain their power and enact control in their life.” Knuth-Bouracee hopes all these interventions can have the cumulative effect eliminating the all-too-common incidents.
Impetus: Student Complaints
The UC system’s mandatory training initiative come in the wake of U.S. Department of Education investigations of Berkeley, UCLA and several other campuses and also after students filed federal complaints alleging the schools mishandled their sexual misconduct and assault cases.
One of those complaints comes from Aryle Butler, a 21-year-old who graduated in May from UC Berkeley who says that a guest lecturer sexually molested her during the summer of 2012 when she participated in an Alaska Wildlands Studies Program. This trauma “affected my ability to sit down and study and to have fun with friends,” says Butler. “I have had a very different college experience.”
Meghan Warner, a senior at UC Berkeley, who is not involved in the lawsuits, says she works hard every day to change that. Warner is one of the six student representatives, along with Keenan at UCLA, on the UC Sexual Assault Education and Training Task Force. She leads consent workshops in Berkeley classrooms and created her own PowerPoint presentation to share with her peers in cooperative housing unit.
“I was sexually assaulted my freshman year at a fraternity and I thought it was all my fault,” says Warner, who also organized a group called Greeks Against Sexual Assault to galvanize fraternities to become knowledgeable about sexual violence. “My peers rely on ‘rape myths’ like it must be a stranger in the dark in an alleyway with a weapon, but that’s a very small percentage of overall sexual assault,” says Warner. “I never reported it and I didn’t know I could. Now I have invested myself in helping prevent similar situations from happening.”