While this column is Yale-specific, it contains some strategies that could be adopted by students on all college campuses.
The new semi-annual report on sexual misconduct is out, with more reported cases — and more details — than ever. The language is dry, but the emotional weight of the incidents described is undeniable. After the uproar following the last report, we all know we’re supposed to respond. But how? What should students do with this new information? After the last report our community came together in crisis — now, how do we come together in growth?
The University can and must provide us with a solid infrastructure for response: forums for discussion, resources for support and tools for shaping positive culture. But in that last area it is students who ultimately have the largest influence; we mold and shape this culture based on our own experiences and ideals. Each of us must take responsibility in ensuring that everyone on this campus feels welcome, safe and respected. In prompting our peers to act against sexual misconduct, we too often say, “imagine if it was your sister, your brother or your friend.” But we cannot act only due to imagined bonds of friendship or kin. Rather, we should act because we are a community that aims to support its members. If we all adopt this philosophy, the aggregate potential for change is astounding.
Though the number of reported cases of sexual misconduct has risen to an all-time high, there are still likely many incidents that go unreported; as a community, we can address this ongoing problem. The first step is to make sure we are all knowledgeable about campus resources such as the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, the Title IX Coordinators and SHARE. Education regarding this array of campus resources likely contributed to the diversity of situations included in the latest report. As the University confronts cases that range from stalking to sexual harassment to assault, community members appear to have realized that any violation of their right to a safe environment warrants attention and appropriate action. It is particularly critical that students in Yale leadership positions learn about accessible resources, as they play a role in setting the tone for interactions on campus.
But simply educating our campus about available resources is not enough. Study after study has found that survivors of sexual assault do not reach out for support or take action because they fear they will not be believed — they fear they will be abandoned by their friends and communities. Administrators have to send a strong message of support, but so do students. We need to make clear to our friends that we hold ourselves to the high standards that we so often discuss, that we are truly committed to treating each other with dignity and respect.
We can accomplish this goal and encourage more reporting by showing that sexual misconduct is not acceptable on this campus, that we as students will not tolerate this behavior. This can mean merely speaking more openly about the topic or actively taking efforts to create safe spaces. In the context of a student organization, that might mean more communication to establish everyone’s comfort level regarding group activities. At a party, it might mean providing an alternative to alcohol or striving to create an environment in which people can stand by their personal wishes for the night without pressure.
To really convey the depth of our support, we need to be active immediately when problems occur, not just afterwards. One of our most powerful tools of prevention is bystander intervention. One might imagine someone intervening as a knight in shining armor, but that’s not what typically occurs — instead, it’s usually a check-in with a friend, a well-placed joke or raised eyebrow, a willingness to step in and change the dynamic when we see pressure or disrespect. In some rare situations, that might involve calling in someone with more authority (another student, a master or dean, even the police), but we shouldn’t underestimate our own personal power to intervene.
By paying attention to the people and situations around us, we can address problems the moment they arise — and at the same time, make our high standards visible to all. The recent report, like the last, is a reminder that every member of our community can be a part of our effort to end sexual misconduct.