Dartmouth Punts on Sexual Assault

Sylvia Spears speaks at a community presentation on Tuesday, November 30. Photo by Chloe Teeter.

By Svati Narula

Tuesday evening, Acting Dean of the College Sylvia Spears hosted an update on the College administration’s initiatives to address alcohol use and sexual assault on campus. The public unveiling of the College’s new approach to these contentious issues has been long-anticipated among students; on the topic of sexual assault, that has been doubly true since early this fall, when Dartmouth was once again reported to have a distressingly high rate of reported sexual assaults compared to other college campuses. How the College should, or plans to, proceed in order to effect a positive change has often been unclear, despite much discussion and reporting on the issue over the past few months. Spears’s Tuesday presentation did little to clarify the College’s intentions.

Much student attention has focused upon the findings of the College’s most recent Clery Report, which tracks campus crime rates, including reported sexual assaults. The report indicates that in the years 2008 and 2009, the combined number of reported sexual assaults at Dartmouth were the highest in the Ivy League. In 2007, the College saw 19 incidents of forcible sexual offenses; in 2008, 23 cases. That compares with 8 cases and 13 cases at (the much larger) Yale in 2007 and 2008, respectively. The number of sexual assaults at Dartmouth did decline in 2009 to 10. 

Nevertheless, many students, faculty, and alumni were distraught by the negative publicity the College received from a column in the New York Times, titled “Preparing Children to Be Safe at College,” published on September 10th of this year, which said that a report by a private security firm, Insite Security, showed that Dartmouth had the highest rate of sex offenses among all campuses (all Ivy League schools, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Duke, and MIT) surveyed. Distressingly, Dartmouth topped the list among a number of schools where the rates of sexual assault are already abnormally high: three-quarters of these elite institions reported rates of sexual assault that were over 80% higher than the national rape average.

But those numbers can be difficult to track, notes the Chair of the Student Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault (SPCSA) Katie Lindsay ’11. “People quote numbers here and there,” Lindsay said in an interview with The Dartmouth Review. “We really don’t know what our numbers are; we don’t know how they compare to other schools, because there’s such a high percentage [of cases] that goes unreported.”

In interviews with both the Times and The Dartmouth Review, Spears said that the College’s high incidence of sexual assault reports might actually be an indicator of progress. “The number of reports is never an accurate portrayal of the number of sexual assaults,” she said. “While it’s counter-intuitive, sometimes the better programmatic footing you’re on, the more sexual assaults come forward. Some people might say, ‘Well, why wouldn’t you want the number of sexual assaults to go down?’  We recognize that nationally, sexual assaults go underreported, and the better systems you have in place, the number of reports, not instances, goes up.”

Not everyone agrees with the use of that reasoning. “Implicit in that message is that there isn’t a problem, which is just false,” said SPCSA member Mattie Govan ’11. “There’s a problem on every single university campus in the country.”

Spears’s Tuesday presentation focused on a few concrete solutions to the issue of sexual assault at Dartmouth: expanding Dean’s Office staffing to improve the effectiveness of clinical care to sexual assault victims; creating a shuttle program to provide late-night rides to students; implementing a student sexual assault hotline; and developing a handbook that would outline legal and other options facing sexual assault victims. Spears also pledged to “increase education, resources, and outreach related to sexual assault,” as well as to “expand the current program for campus-wide dialogue about sexual assault.”

Dartmouth’s sexual assault problem has recently come to the fore as a subject of heated debate on Dartmouth’s campus, not only due to the release of annual statistics. On September 28th of this year, an email with “blitzjack” in the subject line was distributed to all student inboxes from the Google Mail alias of “Expecto Petronus.” It was presumably targeted at freshmen, and included an attached song titled “Out of Control.” Lyrics included: “the Dartmouth frat bro will steal your soul… he’s a rape case waiting to happen to you, and the College doesn’t care.”

Campus reaction to the email was strong. Annie Lape ’13 called the song “completely unproductive” because it singled out a part of the student population (fraternity members); “the last thing you want to do is get a huge portion of students on the defensive,” she said. An editorial in The Dartmouth on October 1st condemned the message for “employing fear tactics and demonizing a campus constituency;” both The Dartmouth Review and The Dartmouth published several more opinions regarding the email and the larger topic of campus sexual assault throughout October. 

The administration has made some attempt to get its own message out. On October 6th, an email with the subject line “Community Message on Sexual Assault” was sent to the entire campus from Dean Spears. It included six bullet points detailing current efforts to expand and enhance sexual assault resources on campus, and three bullet points encouraging students to show zero tolerance for sexual assault, take responsibility for helping others, and to ask for help from S&S. It also provided contact information for Kris Baxivanos, the interim coordinator of the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program (SAAP). 

Lape, who said that she listened to the “Out of Control” song when it landed in her campus email inbox, but did not read Spears’ email until the Review asked her to comment on it, said, “Okay, so there is some information in there. It sounds like they have some good programs. But…they have people figuring out what to do next, and talking about what to do, and I’ll be interested to see what they actually end up deciding to do.” 

Some students suggest that one problem has been a lack of official communication from the College detailing the steps it’s taking to prevent assault. When pressed on this point, Spears said, “We could have campus dialogue all day long, you know? And higher ed does a lot of that. For me, the action that we need around the issue of addressing sexual assault is more important than a statement that lasts all of 15 seconds in our community and goes away.” And while there has been little communication from the administration since early October, it is possible, as Lape’s comment suggests, that many students demanding more information from Spears did not even read the information she has distributed.

Indeed, the administration, along with a core group of students, was working to address the issue of sexual assault long before the campus debate erupted this term.  Last spring, shifts in staffing in the SAAP program and the Center for Women and Gender prompted concern among some students who thought that there was a gap in student resources for sexual assault. At that time, according to Lindsay, President Kim suggested forming a committee.

According to Spears, even though the SPCSA was not completely formalized until this term, students on campus during the summer term “identified a number of things that we were able to move very quickly on,” including upgrades to the SAAP website, hiring Baxivanos, and revamping the sexual assault education that freshmen were to receive during orientation. Spears said that the administration and students both saw the need for enhanced orientation education, and over the summer Dartmouth faculty members actually proposed bringing in a program called “Sex Signals,” which was implemented and “received very positively” by the ’14s. 

A series of follow-up education sessions was also scheduled “because we all know that one-shot education around any topic does not do it,” Spears noted.

Student interviews with The Dartmouth Review indicate that Spears’s assessment of “Sex Signals” is shared among some students on campus. Vanessa Trinh ’14 said that the actors put “a really interesting spin” on the issue, adding, “I thought that the discussion at the end was really good for all the students because they made it really comfortable for people to speak out and be open about it.” 

Trinh said the presentation provoked private discussions among groups of ’14s after they walked away from the show, which might indicate that it had the desired effect. However, she added that the follow-up facilitations in the days and weeks afterward “started to feel like overkill. It was like, ‘Okay, we get it.’” 

“Sex Signals” is certainly not without its own controversy. In his column in The Dartmouth titled “Explicit Signals,” Roger Lott suggested that the College goes too far when it forces “ostentatious and sexually charged material” upon students for the sake of education. Lott mentioned the Sex Signals event, in addition to the role of Sexperts on campus, as an example of “lewd” content presented in a “lighthearted manner.” 

While students such as Trinh may tolerate this kind of programming in small doses, too much of it may be unwelcome. Also, striking a balance between programming that is informative versus programming that is too explicit or that trivializes serious issues is a continuing challenge. A student at the open SPCSA meeting on October 18th said she thought that “Consent Day,” held at the end of summer term, “trivialized” the idea of consensual sex with its free t-shirts and carnival-style games. 

Right now the SPCSA is working on implementing a more consistent and effective response system for victims of sexual assault. Lindsay said, “A very important issue that we’re working on is trying to publicize resources, and trying to streamline first response.” Govan said that the committee hopes to publish a flowchart-like document that victims can use to navigate the process of getting help after an assault, with options for approaching different people who they feel most comfortable talking to first. This flowchart was one of the concrete action items to which Dean Spears pointed during her Tuesday discussion.

An additional measure advocated by the SPCSA, and included in the roster of Dean Spears’s planned changes, is expanding the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program office, with the creation of a new staff position, so that Baxivanos is not working alone. 

There is a subcommittee of the SPCSA dedicated to reviewing the dispiclinary process for sexual assault cases and making recommendations for changes to it. Govan is a member of this subcommittee, but at the time she spoke with the Review, she said she didn’t know much about the disciplinary process at all, since the subcommittee had not yet had its first meeting.  “From my perspective,” she said, the COS [Committee on Standards, Dartmouth’s disciplinary hearing board] process “is very shrouded in secrecy, so I’m hoping that through this review process I’ll get to learn a lot more.” According to Govan, the plan is for this evaluation to get underway “in a couple weeks.” She acknowledged that it may seem as if things are proceeding slowly. “It’s still the research gathering stage right now,” she said, but “it’s the most critical stage. We don’t want to just dive in headfirst, making recommendations with no idea whether they’ll work.”

Yet, in her presentation Tuesday, Spears de-emphasized the importance of gathering new information. She said “there’s nothing new out there” that can help solve the problem. She also hinted that the COS process would not be coming under review any time soon, noting that an evaluation was done three years ago. As for whether another review will prove necessary, Spears said, “we’ll see.”

In the meantime, students continue voicing their concerns. “There’s a sense of frustration that all anyone’s doing is telling people that sexual assault is bad, which we already know,” Will Bishop ’12 said. “I think that almost everybody on campus really cares. But I also think there’s a lot of inertia, and a lot of blame-assigning.”

“I think it’s perceived as radical or man-hating to even acknowledge that there is a problem – there’s sort of this association with feminism,” Elisabeth Ericson ’11 said. “And also this sense that if you’re saying there is a problem with sexual assault on this campus, then, by extension, you are accusing individual frat brothers of being rapists – they get very defensive and say ‘Oh, but I’m not like that,’ or ‘my friend wouldn’t do that.’ There’s this personal defensiveness that I think gets in the way of maybe acknowledging that there might be systemic factors.”

Lindsay hopes her work with the SPCSA will help students move from just discussing sexual assault to caring about it to eventually feeling like they are equipped to handle the issue when they face it. She said, “We’re not asking everyone to take this on as their cause, but we want to create a community where people will want to step in when they see situations that aren’t safe,” and will feel an obligation to do so. 

“This problem exists on every college campus. I don’t think it’s the fault of the Greek system,” Lindsay said. “There are attitudes that exist in the Greek system, and it allows certain things to happen without people stepping in. I think what exists in our culture inhibits people from stepping in, and then on the other side inhibits people from feeling like they can report something and be supported by the community.”

Others on campus point to “low self-esteem” as a major factor in students’ treatment of one another. “One of the main problems that we have is that a lot of students, especially female students, are not confident enough,” Ahmad Nazeri ’11 said in an interview with the Review. “One of the things sororities can do is kind of work on this and encourage their members to be themselves, and not to feel pressured in any situation,” he said. 

Lindsay, who is not affiliated, said, “I do think that there is a lack of a strong female community on this campus that pervades everything. I wish it were stronger. I think sororities are one way to go about doing that – I don’t think it’s the whole answer.” 

Bishop wonders if sororities might actually exacerbate the problem. “The social atmosphere of, or in, sororities is probably a contributor to the non-reporting of sexual assault,” Bishop said. He noted that he had heard “remarks about women in sororities being pressured by their so-called ‘sisters’ not to report an instance of sexual assault.”

But Ericson, who is a member of Kappa Delta, said, “I’ve found [Kappa Delta] to be a very supportive environment and a very positive environment.”  She said she has never heard of a sorority discouraging reporting of a case, and that both unreported rape cases with which she is familiar – she personally knows two students who have been victims – have gone unreported because of situational ambiguity. “She either wasn’t sure that what she had experienced was bad enough or that it was really rape or because she didn’t want to ‘ruin the guy’s life,’” Ericson said. 

“And the first reason might be, well, she agreed to go back to his room, and she did want to make out with him, but she didn’t want to have sex, and he kept going, she said no. So at that point she was like, ‘Well, I’m drunk, I agreed to go there, so is it my fault? Did I deserve that; did I implicitly agree to have sex when I went back to his room?’” Women’s unwillingness to report these cases, Ericson believes, allows tacit permission for men on campus to act more aggressively than they might otherwise. “I think that mentality also maybe encourages guys to go farther than they probably should because everybody knows that the lines are so blurred, so who really knows what happened, right?” 

Spears noted that on college campuses, alcohol is the crucial enabler of sexual assault. She said that, at Dartmouth, “people don’t have to use force, because what is used, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is alcohol. You can’t consent if you’re intoxicated – you just can’t.” 

Some students also hurry to add that alcohol is hardly the only aggravating factor in campus sexual assaults. According to Lindsay, “It’s not alcohol that makes it different on college campuses, it’s the fact that people know each other, more than anything. In our minds, that means it’s somehow less than the violent stranger rape we hear about – but it’s really not. In my opinion, the difference on college campuses is that it’s people who know each other, and alcohol is involved, but it’s more the fact that it’s acquaintance rape rather than stranger rape. And the issues are related, and I think we need to figure out a way to incorporate alcohol education and sexual assault education together.”

Bishop said that people at Dartmouth “don’t want to give up our partying culture. And I think a lot of people are just sort of maybe talking themselves into the idea that we can solve this problem without a fundamental change in Dartmouth’s partying culture and I don’t really believe that to be the case.”

In response to that assertion, Spears said: “If we say ‘the solution is changing the culture,’ I would ask people, ‘what does that mean? How does one ‘change the culture?’ Because that seems like some giant, nebulous something.” Instead, she suggested, “How about changing behavior one student at a time?”

August Oddleifson ’13 agrees that “changing Dartmouth’s culture” is not a reasonable goal. He said that what is reasonable is “to critically evaluate the parts of Dartmouth culture that lead to sexual violence and then think about ways to turn those specific factors around.”

Similarly, Lindsay said, “Everyone talks about the ‘Dartmouth culture’, but what’s more important is to pinpoint specific attitudes and work on changing those.”

Some students point to a perceived double standard regarding what passes for acceptable behavior, “inside the classroom versus outside the classroom,” as Nazeri phrased it. To illustrate this, Ericson said we need look no further than the “Bored at Baker” website. She said the website and “the sexist bullshit that people write on there” makes her “despair about Dartmouth culture and society.” How can it be that the same students who spend off-terms feeding the poor and helping the sick are also using their time to write “I’m horny as f**k” and “I prefer waxing to shaving” for all to see online?

Regarding this issue, Spears said, “President Kim has articulated many times his vision of Dartmouth students using all their talents, and expertise, and this incredible education that they get here, to go out and solve the world’s biggest problems.” However, “in order for students to be effective leaders in the world, they must be effective leaders on our campus, which means looking out for one another [and] using the same kind of critical analysis of situations that we use in the classroom in life outside of the classroom. And not having two sets of standards for how we operate.” 

Spears explains that, after increasing awareness of an issue such as sexual assault on campus, the next step is to help students build and practice the skills they need to confront the issue. The hope is that when an individual is in a certain situation, he or she knows how to take action and also feels comfortable doing so. Spears insists that “there [are] really very simple ways to engage in bystander intervention” and that “it can be done in a way that’s not perceived as embarrassing people.” She added, “People can still have great fun, have fantastic parties, and have a vibrant social life, while still exercising a certain level of integrity and social responsibility for one another.”

Whether Spears’ words will translate into tangible changes remains to be seen. Govan, like many others interviewed for this article, said, “I just want to examine the administration with a critical eye, because I know that universities want to protect their reputation first and foremost.”

Lindsay said, “President Kim really does care about this issue, and he has made himself available to work on it, and he is making the funds available to be able to do what we need to do. I don’t think students should refrain from criticizing the administration, but sometimes we don’t recognize how hard people are working for us.” She added, “they know how this institution runs better than we do, so we can provide our perspective as students, but at the end of the day, they’re the ones that can say ‘this will work,’ or ‘this can’t work’.”