Taking Decisive Action regarding Campus Sexual Violence

My organization Empowering Victims sent this note today to every college president, dean of student affairs, athletic director and coach we could reach throughout the United States. Its message is simple: it is time we stop merely talking about the campus sexual violence problem and started taking real actions to put a stop to it. Taking action means taking the risk that feelings will be hurt and that boundaries will be actively asserted around what students do. The main contributor to the campus sexual assault problem is a set of habitual behaviors which our students exhibit: namely being neglectful of their responsibility to treat one another with respect, to responsibly communicate both desires and boundaries, and to make communication with other than intimate partners as explicit as possible. Our college environments are much too tolerate of these bad habitual behaviors. The open letter which follows outlines a definitive action plan which can work to eliminate the 90% or more of the sexual assault problem which stems from these very habitual behaviors.

Awareness campaigns are not enough. Talk is not enough. Bad behaviors have become habits and they create the very environment in which campus sexual violence occurs. College is a time and place when young people get the opportunity to learn about and correct bad habits and behaviors. The question is whether college leaders are willing to confront their students about these behaviors so that the sexual assault problem can be mostly solved or will they shy away from any such confrontation? A significant solution is possible — but it will require leadership. Allowing our students to assert their “right” to habitual behaviors which undermine mutual respect and promote self-centeredness seems contrary to the very educational mission of each college and university.

**************** The Open Letter ***********************************

Sexual Violence Prevention Action Plan -- Open letter to college and university presidents, athletic directors, student affairs officers, and coaches

The time has come to take direct action to prevent campus sexual violence and related hostile environments. By adopting the "Respectful Behavior Program" you can remove over 90% of the current risk of sexual violence on your campus.

Sexual assaults on your campus (or any campus) will not be solved through well-intentioned "awareness" campaigns. Our students have learned instinctively to "say the right things" when it comes to discussing campus sexual assault without actual behavioral change. As a result, campus surveys may announce "improved climate," but that is not enough to effect real change in behaviors. It's time we deal with the root problem - negligent and disrespectful behavior. These behaviors must be confronted. Leaders must find a way to change the habits these behaviors have become for too many students. This is what Title IX requires. And it is the right thing to do.

Of course, no awareness campaign or behavioral program can protect any campus from those with a premeditated intention to commit rape. Fortunately, intentional perpetrators are rare. The vast majority of assault-related trauma and disputes arise, not from the realm of criminal premeditation, but instead from ambiguous areas of behavior. Awareness campaigns without behavioral shifts allow students to substitute talk for actions. Words are not a substitute for personal vigilance, developing mutual respect in relationships, and explicitly discussing individual choices with prospective partners.

It's time for campuses to shift into producing better interpersonal behaviors. This requires changing the environment in which these behaviors occur. For example, when we enacted seat belt laws, compliance never got over 30% despite expensive awareness campaigns. The solution: change the behavioral context by requiring car companies to install self-fastening seatbelts (attached to both door and seat). A few short years after that context change, compliance rose to above 80%!

This Action Plan proposes you adopt a similarly effective environment change -- the "Respectful Behavior Program."

It has three integrated parts (which must be implemented together to ensure success):

1. Orientation programs focused on both mutual respect and affirmative consent should be held every semester and remain mandatory for everyone on campus - students, faculty and staff - without exception. Repetition is important. If your program is to be meaningful to the students, it must distinguish between behavior that occurs within the boundaries of a mutually respectful relationship and that which occurs in the absence of such a relationship. The students make this distinction every day. In a mutually respectful relationship, a significant portion of communication between partners occurs implicitly - including that regarding sexual interactions. Your standards regarding "affirmative consent" must explicitly recognize the prevalence of such implicit communication. To insist on explicit step-by-step, act-by-act permissions within a mutually respectful relationship is to demand communication which is both unlikely to occur and which could, if repeated over time, work to undermine the relationship itself. By contrast, explicit step-by-step consent must be required across the board whenever an existing mutually respectful relationship cannot be recognized or assumed. Your students will have no trouble accepting the notion that acceptable behaviors differ between the two situations. We are happy to share with you our materials regarding mutual respect from our partner the Affirmative Consent Project.

2. Every student who "represents the school" (through every program such as athletics, model UN, choir, or any other activity) needs explicit instruction that such representation is conditioned upon their use of the We-Consent app to document consent with any sexual partner. If the student stays out of trouble, great. But, if the student faces a Title IX accusation without using the We-Consent app, their ability to continue to represent the school will be suspended immediately - no exceptions. That level of visibility will lead awareness that promotes real behavioral change. This rule may find the bulk of its initial application in athletic departments, which is why athletic directors and coaches are copied here. Students who represent your school must understand that such representation includes the overt responsibility to serve as a positive role model for the other students. A critical component of the Respectful Behavior Program is legitimized when these students are seen using (or at minimum discussing use of) the We-Consent app.

3. In similar fashion, every school-sanctioned festivity or party must condition admittance upon the use of the Party-Pass app. This app involves hanging a poster by the door with a QR code that every student scans upon entry. By scanning, each student reaffirms the following pledge: "I pledge that for the next eight hours I will not engage in sexual relations UNLESS I have first had an explicit discussion about them with my prospective partner." The app sends each student an email reminder of their pledge the next day. While the pledge itself need not be legally enforceable, over time the continued reminders coupled with the physical act of repeated swiping creates a behavioral understanding: sexual activity is preceded with discussion and shared understanding of boundaries and respect.

If a school rigorously implements these three steps, we are confident that it will reduce campus sexual violence incidents by 90% within two years. These steps serve as the campus equivalent of mandatory self-fastening seat belts. The goal is behavior change, and the method promotes repeated and measurable action.

Some naysayers will object to each of these steps. Many may claim they have no need for multiple sessions or messages. Advocacy groups may argue that the We-Consent app inhibits a sexual partner from withdrawing consent. Privacy groups may argue the campus has no "right" to data that can be used to determine who attended a campus party. Your leadership (and our assistance) will be required to overcome those objections. Title IX requires you to take steps to eliminate the possibility of hostile environments. The behavioral changes that result from implementation of the Respectful Behavior Program will do just that.

The bottom line is that "Awareness" campaigns alone provide only partial answers and minimal protection for your institution and your students. The time has come for action.

OUR NO COST PROPOSAL: We currently are seeking a small number of campuses to serve as initial pilot locations for the Respectful Behavior Program - without fee or charge. Once initial pilot campuses are approved, additional campuses will be able to participate at minimal expense.

Title IX requires that you act to prevent hostile environments -- action not just talk. You need to change your campus's environment regarding sexual interactions if you are to change real behavior. Please partner with us to end the scourge of campus sexual violence, once and for all. Together we can make your campus a role model for safety.

Contact us today to find out how your campus can be among the first to act to slash risk and enjoy a truly safe environment for all.

Links:  Affirmative Consent Project   http://affirmativeconsent.com We-Consent  http://we-consent.org Party-Pass  http://we-consent.org/index.php/41-apps-abcd/104-party-pass-app **************************************************************************************

Full Disclosure: I am the executive director of Empowering Victims, a 501(c)(3) non-profit which works to assist the victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and bullying through technology. The opinions above are the result of two and a half years dedicated efforts at trying to help end the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses. See http://empoweringvictims.org for more information.

See also two prior Huffington Post articles:

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