Moving Dartmouth Forward’s Approach to Sexual Assault

President Hanlon pledged to reduce sexual assault as part of Moving Dartmouth Forward.

President Hanlon pledged to reduce sexual assault as part of Moving Dartmouth Forward.

It seemed like a social experiment. I was waiting for all my camp counselors to emerge from the crevices of my seventh grade memories and sit me down to discuss what we felt and dissect our reactions to her announcement. He’s rape-y.

It was an otherwise quiet Saturday morning; students were taking in the pervasive hints at the rowdiness of the previous night’s parties—Keystone cans and throbbing headaches, as usual. For one girl however, the night had taken a rather dark turn.

Listening to her describe the awkward encounter in the unisex bathroom the previous night, my stomach sank as I realized it was not a social experiment. She finished detailing the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by both her and her aggressor, the text-message conversation planning the late-night rendezvous, and the ultimate plunge into ambiguity as his sexual advances crossed the unclear threshold of tolerability into assault. His foot was against the door as he lay on the bathroom floor. He grabbed my wrist and pulled me on top of him. I kissed his neck to distract him, then ran out.

Questions shot to my mind and even burned in my throat, but I remained silent as I listened to her depiction: “Did you express discomfort?” “Why didn’t you leave as soon as you walked in on him naked?” At this point, these relevant and clarifying questions didn’t matter. It was simply her word against his. Choose.

Sexual assault is one of our campus’s most notorious social issues. Under President Hanlon’s Moving Dartmouth Forward plan, the College is implementing several new policies to eradicate sexual misconduct. While some of these tools are warranted and may prove essential, others seem more catered toward improving Dartmouth’s image than the problem itself.

“Dartmouth will introduce a comprehensive and mandatory four-year sexual violence prevention and education program for students…”

While the scope of this program has not been detailed, a community-wide discussion about what sexual assault is and how it can be prevented is essential to campus dialogue and action on the subject. Ideally, this program’s fundamental purpose will be to provide the student body with a healthy, holistic perspective on sexual assault encompassing the effects it has on both parties and the dangerous ambiguities that students should strive to avoid.

“[Dartmouth] will create an online ‘Consent Manual’, including realistic scenarios and potential sanctions, to reduce ambiguity about what is acceptable and what is not.”

This is a natural next step in the College’s attempt to codify and taxonomize sexual encounters. But this path seems problematic. Sexual encounters can only be scrutinized so much and ambiguous cases—which can quickly devolve into “he said, she said” impasses—will always persist.

“We will develop a Dartmouth-specific safety smartphone app for students to easily and immediately seek assistance if they ever feel threatened.”

An ode to the future, the digital rape whistle is a necessary idea, if an ineffectual one. Most victims of sexual assault at Dartmouth are not pinned down, struggling, or desperately grasping for a non-existent emergency button. If intoxication is as intrinsically linked with sexual assault on campus as the hard alcohol ban would suggest, then most victims can only reach out for help hours after the assault occurred. The definitions, policies, and acronym guides that might also be available on the app have become so mangled in the fruitless pursuit of the eradication of “ambiguity” that they cease to be helpful as a tool in the prevention of actual sexual assaults.

“The College will continue to enhance our partnership with WISE, the Upper Valley advocacy and crisis center for victims of domestic and sexual violence. This partnership will strengthen our existing confidential resources for survivors of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking.”

WISE (Women’s Information Service) provides an essential service to those who’ve been traumatized by domestic and sexual violence. Dartmouth’s affiliation with this volunteer organization is a benefit to the greater community. It is good to see President Hanlon continue to emphasize its importance in his future plans.

“We will pilot Dartmouth Thrive, a transformational College-wide program that develops leadership skills and encourages every student to focus on his or her development as a total person—in and out of the classroom, at Dartmouth and beyond, in mind, body, and spirit. In building Dartmouth Thrive, we will make use of existing leadership and wellness programs.”

This is one of the more mysterious and idealistic proposals that President Hanlon distilled from the steering committee’s recommendations. Its pervasiveness and actual effect are directly related to the money and energy poured into this new project. Certainly there is nothing wrong with the ambition or the goal, but fostering such intrapersonal growth in students is far more easily said than done. Unless this project is provided with the serious financial and human resources required to accomplish its lofty claims, it might just be more for appearances than anything else.

This is perhaps the proper junction at which we should offer Hanlon some sympathy. The recent, negative media attention that Dartmouth has received in the wake of a string of alarming events—see Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy—has placed enormous pressure on the administration to instigate change. But the students’ experience at Dartmouth must be paramount when policy decisions are made. While grand gestures and movement titles do not contribute in a positive way to that experience, a renewed focus on Dartmouth’s ultimate purpose, academics, is a much-needed recalibration of campus ideals.

“We will increase the presence of faculty and other positive adult influences in the lives of students.”

Certainly a positive concept. Our school is lucky to boast the quality of faculty that it does, and the more opportunities that students have to form relationships with and learn from these mentors, the better. The extent to which the positive influence of faculty might contribute to a decrease in sexual assault is difficult to estimate. This attribute of Hanlon’s plan is aimed at fostering a holistic community among all those who enjoy our school. In conjunction with the plans for residential housing, these efforts to create a healthier, more inclusive, and more respectful campus culture are promising and could initiate a lasting, positive transformation in the Dartmouth student experience.

In addition to these policy proposals, Dartmouth launched a new website to serve as home base in its fight to end sexual assault on campus. One tab, titled “Definitions,” specifies the exact meaning of terms that are always seen in conjunction with ambiguous cases of sexual assault. “Consent.” “Coercion.” “Incapacitation.”

While we appreciate these efforts and think many of them represent a step in the right direction, we worry about their overall efficacy. In this day and age, where sexual assault seems inextricable from colleges and universities, it is difficult to impose top-down changes through a grand master plan.

A central part of problem is the levity with which the word “rape” is now employed. While the notion itself is as old as society, its modern definition has undergone a transformation into something almost unrecognizable centering on the furtive or manipulative means through which one might obtain consent. But while the definition of rape has recently evolved, the stigma associated with it did not follow suit. The crime simply does not match the punishment anymore.

As a campus, Dartmouth is far from alone in experiencing issues with sexual misconduct. Nationally, about one in five women will be assaulted during their college experience. The issue is indicative of a larger societal problem that stems from gender attitudes and the sexual objectification of women. Many college administrations choose to cover up or ignore the “rape culture” being cultivated on their campuses.

It is commendable that our school will not abide by this path of willful ignorance. The safety of the student body and the emotional health of those traumatized are paramount as our campus attempts to eradicate sexual assault. However, there must be a delicate balance between the justice sought for the victim and the protection of the legal rights of the accused. The current attempt to minimize the space for ambiguity by assigning rigid definitions and zooming in on specifics will put the focus of sexual assault case reviews on the minute details of the event and not the overall intentions of the parties involved. Put more simply, if the result of every accusation of sexual assault comes to depend upon on the vocal expression of consent, then surely every case will devolve into each party vehemently debating whether the consent was or was not spoken.

To avoid this, we suggest that the strategy of our battle with sexual misconduct be adjusted. Campus sexual assault is a nationwide problem, and if we purport to lead the nation in its eradication, we must first examine the course of best response. The complete termination of sexual assault through the annihilation of “the ambiguity” is a foolhardy ambition and exposes the disconnect between the administration’s perception of Dartmouth social culture and its reality. Rather, we advocate for a more committed and holistic approach toward improving campus culture at Dartmouth. Perhaps residential housing will have a major impact, but a more exhaustive and realistic examination of the current social scene and potential alternatives should be the basis of our actions as we mark our course.