Sexual assault awareness and prevention is not solved through buttons for your backpack

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Recently I took a coronavirus test at one of USC’s testing sites, and after dropping off my saliva sample, I was offered a button “to spread awareness and prevention around sexual assault.” Suffice it to say, a button will not assist in the plight to combat the systemic problem of sexual assault on college campuses.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 26.4% of undergraduate women, 6.8% of undergraduate men and 23.1% of transgender, genderqueer or gender nonconforming students experience rape or sexual assault. College women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than robbed, a ratio disproportionate to that of all women. 

Year after year, students and the public are bombarded with alarming statistics about the prevalence of campus assault. Yet, the solutions proposed by our institutions remain a far cry from offering tangible, meaningful change.  

Veiled behind performative emails, marketing campaigns and buttons seeking to call out sexual violence, USC consistently misses the mark on protecting its students and holding perpetrators accountable. 

To begin with, the University fails to provide adequate networks that support survivors. The Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Service (RSVP) office on campus remains inaccessible to students, with the USC Sexual Assault & Survivor Support website offering a phone number that takes you to the Student Health mainline. If a student is seeking emergency assistance, they must wait for a series of extensions and transfers until reaching the RSVP office. 

After ongoing attempts by students to engage the University in offering this service, rape kits are unavailable on USC’s campus. The nearest location is eight miles away, and the University states that they do not have their own sexual assault response team/center as these programs must demonstrate “specific requirements approved by the County of Los Angeles.” Whether or not it remains the jurisdiction of the county, the University fails to make its interest towards establishing one of these centers on campus readily available. 

Additionally, it remains highly uncertain where the University stands on holding perpetrators accountable. 

In Spring 2020, a Google document circulated the Greek community, which compiled the faces and names of alleged perpetrators of assault involved in Greek life, gathered from an anonymous Google form. According to the document, a number of the accused crimes had been made known to the chapters where the perpetrators were members, and yet the accused not only remained active members in Greek life but also kept their status as USC students. 

The intention of the document was not to report students but rather provide others with the known faces and names of potential abusers for their own safety. 

While it is distressing to hear that such a document had to be developed in the first place, it is clear that its circulation was symptomatic of a community’s failure to demonstrate adequate action around the matter. 

Campus sexual assault is severly underreported, with only 20% of female student victims choosing to report to law enforcement. In 2019, only 43 rape and 86 sex offenses on University Park Campus in total were reported to the University. These statistics, paired with the presence of a Google document providing the names of perpetrators, suggest that reporting may not be in the interest of students since it is widely affirmed and perceived that our institutions will not actually take action or support survivors and that it is the responsibility of students themselves to ensure that they are safe. 

Students have also taken to proposing policies that may prevent assault on campus to remedy the dismal preventative action taken by the administration. This past spring, Alexandra Gill, a USG presidential candidate, ran a campaign on student safety advocating for students to be allowed to arm themselves with tasers or pepper spray on campus. 

While well intentioned in her platform, Gill’s proposals highlighted the problematic nature of students’ choice to take protection into their own hands. Rather than demanding the University amend its existing policies around sexual assault prevention, Gill assumed the role of adjusting and accomodating to an otherwise sick system. It suggests that complex dynamics of power and force must win out, rather than seeking to address the issues at the core of sexual assault and violence. 

Sexual assault — like all other forms of physical violence and abuse — remain deeply interwoven in issues of power, agency, exploitation and privilege. Combating the problem, raising awareness and taking preventative measures, is not found through use of the same tools that challenge the aggressor with force or with preparing the next victim with knowledge beforehand, as was done with the Greek life Google document. It is not found through emails; it is not found through passive online courses. It is also not found through buttons given out at coronavirus testing sites. 

It is found through the necessary dismantlement and improvement of systems that allow abuse to happen in the first place. This begins when the institutions responsible for perpetuating violence look within themselves to deconstruct the multifaceted ways they allow perpetrators to remain protected and safe while simultaneously denying victims a truly adequate chance at recovery with inaccessible systems and a credible chance that their story will be heard and believed. 

A cultural, political and social shift, in which students know that aggression and harm done onto others will not be tolerated and that survivors’ stories will be championed and understood by the institutions they call home, is one place to begin to remedy this problem.