SU officials work to open the discussion on sexual abuse on campus

Faculty members weigh in on the issue of sexual abuse on campus and work to get more of the campus involved in combating this issue.

Young women are often told: Don’t walk alone at night. Always keep an eye on your drink at a party. And please, don’t dress too provocatively. These tips are for women to avoid being attacked, assaulted or raped by men. But, SU officials are working to get everyone involved in the preventative measures.

“There’s an acceptance of a rape culture and that we expect it to happen, and we have to get outraged and say that it’s not going to happen.”
Janet Epstein, director of the Advocacy Center

Janet Epstein, director of Syracuse University’s Advocacy Center, said violence against women should not be considered a women’s issue – rather, it is everyone’s issue. She said in the past, prevention education was from the perspective that it’s up to women to prevent sexual assault and that there are things they can do to prevent themselves from being attacked.

“It puts it all on their shoulders, and if it happens, that can lead to victim blaming,” Epstein said. “This also does not recognize that men and transgender individuals can also be sexually assaulted.” Teaching certain safety precautions can possibly reduce risk, but won’t stop somebody from sexually assaulting, she said.

There were 13 “forcible sex offenses” in 2011, according to SU’s Department of Public Safety. DPS defines the category as any sexual act directed against another person forcibly and/or against his or her will, as well as situations where the victim is incapable of giving consent. There were 10 offenses in 2010 and 15 in 2009.

The Advocacy Center provides support and assistance to any SU student who is impacted by sexual or relationship violence. Epstein said she usually sees about 60 to 70 students per year, which not only includes students sexually assaulted on campus, but also those impacted by relationship violence and harassment and those impacted by events that happened at home or years ago.

Epstein said it’s crucial to address how we intervene to prevent people that are going to sexually assault from acting on that. The first step is talking about it and having forums for open dialogue, she said.

SU students, however, may not be aware that there is anything to talk about. Students may know the nationwide numbers – the Department of Justice estimated that one in four college women will be victims of rape or attempted rape before they graduate – but information about assaults or rape is not highly publicized on campus.

Students are used to getting emails about robberies or mugging incidents, but they usually do not include sexual violence. Laura Hollahan, the president of Students Advocating Sexual Safety and Empowerment, said she thinks the emails should be clearer. An August 23, 2012 public safety notice email said, “A student reported she was forcibly touched by a male while walking through Thornden Park.”

“That sounds like a tickle fight, when it should have been labeled as sexual assault,” Hollahan said. “It’s not something you can avoid saying to the campus when it could be a friend around a corner.” She said it’s not “forcible touching,” but sexual assault, and that is uncalled for and must be addressed.

Chief Anthony Callisto, the director of DPS, said his department sends public safety notices via email if there is an ongoing threat to the campus community. He said these incidences are like “apples and oranges” because the victim knows the persecutor in most cases of sexual assault, whereas DPS usually needs help finding the suspect in a street robbery or mugging,

SU abides by the Clery Act of 1998, which requires colleges to give timely warnings of crimes that “represent a threat to the safety of students or employees,” as well as enforce public campus security policies. As part of the Act, SU discloses data on reported crimes on campus and on public property near the campus. This information is available on DPS’s website, along with a daily crime log that lists all crimes and cases on campus over the last 60 days.

Students aren’t exactly looking through the DPS website to find these records. Epstein said it’s important to have a dialogue and bring violence against women out into the open and say it cannot continue. “There’s an acceptance of a rape culture and that we expect it to happen, and we have to get outraged and say that it’s not going to happen,” she said. “As a society I think we need to be more outspoken about it. I think it’s very much silenced.”

Epstein was part of the SU Rising panel on Feb. 14 in Hendricks Chapel. This was SU’s nod to the One Billion Rising movement, a global action to end violence against women. The day’s dialogue, ceremony and candlelight vigil served to remember and honor the victims and survivors of abuse.

Jennifer Shaw, Project EMERGE director at Vera House, was also part of the panel. Vera House is a Syracuse non-profit aimed to end domestic abuse and sexual violence, to empower abused women and children, and to promote equality and respect in relationships.

Shaw said she thinks it’s important to look at this issue both locally and globally. “Being on a college campus is not a cause for there being more or less sexual violence,” she said. “It really is one person’s decision to act abusively, to use that power and control over another individual.”

Randi Bregman, the executive director of Vera House, also said violence against women is a cultural issue. “Our culture still blames people for what they wear, what they said, and any activities that they may have had leading up to or following a sexual assault,” she said. “I think culturally, campuses kind of parallel our larger community.”

One active advocacy group on campus is A Men’s Issue, a men's group focusing on re-thinking masculinity and getting men to stand up against sexual gender and relationship violence. The president, Eric McGriff, said this group is important because it promotes the view that sexual violence is not only a concern for women – men can be allies and work to stop the abuse, too.

This group is facing the same struggle as other advocacy groups and programs on campus. “We still have to get out of the chamber of people interested in those issues and see people who don’t do this work, because they may be blind to what is happening,” McGriff said.

SU’s major weapon to combat this violence is the empowered bystander approach, which involves talking with people about how they can prevent sexual assault. “Most people aren’t going to be victims and most people aren’t going to be perpetrators,” Epstein said. “But everybody witnesses things and hears things that could lead to violence, and by not intervening we can create an environment that allows sexual assault to happen.” She said if students recognize those things and think ahead about what kind of action they are comfortable with, they will be more likely to act when those things happen, which can interrupt or prevent the violence from happening.

"We have to make sure our silence doesn’t get taken as approval of that kind of behavior,” Epstein said. SU has started talking – it’s time to continue the conversation.


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