An Open Letter to Miss USA 2014

Dear Miss Sanchez:

First, congratulations on your win this past weekend. After many years of working toward this moment, I'm sure you are proud of your accomplishment.

Although I did not watch the show nor am I supporter of beauty pageants, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the final question that contestants were asked. The question was, "Recently, Time magazine revealed that 19% of U.S. undergraduate women are victims of sexual assault in college. Why has such a horrific epidemic been swept under the rug so long, and what can colleges do to combat this?"

Sexual assault on college campuses is a serious topic that needs much exposure and discussion. I am no expert on the Miss USA competition but I would suspect that the demographic watching it is made up of quite a few young girls and mothers. So for the Miss USA organizers to select this question, I was hopeful when I heard about it and thought how it would be a golden opportunity to educate viewers.

But sadly, I was disappointed in your answer:

"I believe that some colleges may potentially be afraid of having a bad reputation and that would be a reason it's swept under the rug, because they don't want it to come out in public. But I think more awareness is very important so women can learn how to protect themselves. Myself, as a fourth degree black belt [in Tae Kwon Do], I learned from a young age that you need to be confident and be able to defend yourself. And I think that's something we need to implement for a lot of women."

I wholeheartedly agree that college officials would like to sweep this problem under the rug, who wants to admit that they are unable to keep their students safe? And I also agree that the crime of sexual violence needs much more awareness and discussion. But, it is troubling that the conversation often moves to what women need to do: "learn how to protect themselves" and to act in self-defense.

Yes, self-defense, such as Tae Kwon Do, can be a useful skill if one is attacked. But it is not the answer to sexual violence on campus -- or off campus, for that matter. What colleges need to focus on is creating an environment where violence against women is not tolerated and where perpetrators of such violence are held fully accountable. Addressing rape culture on campus, reviewing policies and procedures, educating students about rape culture and consent, and taking corrective action on how colleges adjudicate rape cases is what colleges need to do to combat the violence.

I encourage you, as part of your reign as Miss USA, to consider making sexual assault one of your platforms. You have an opportunity to speak with young girls and adults around the country with your new title. But I encourage you to please become informed about the crime of sexual violence, about rape culture, bystander education, and about the efforts underway. HAVEN is one such organization that would be happy to educate and support you in the effort.