To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Sheila McMahon addresses the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses

On Tuesday afternoon, scholars and professors gathered in the Women’s Studies Research Center to listen to Brandeis’ Sexual Assault Services and Prevention Specialist Sheila McMahon discuss the intricacies of addressing the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses. The discussion also explored prevention strategies and their effectiveness, responsibilities for faculty and staff at the university and how to best respond to disclosures.

McMahon started off her talk by speaking about the Rights and Responsibilities, which is the Brandeis code of conduct compiled by the Department of Student Rights and Community Standards. All students who enroll at Brandeis are required to abide by the rules and regulations from this code of conduct. McMahon focused on speaking about the sexual misconduct part of the Rights and Responsibilities, which she claims is “an umbrella term which includes all behaviors that do not have consent including sexual contact, sexual intercourse, sexual force or any type of sexual harassment.” She noted that Brandeis addresses consent very explicitly in its code of conduct, which is something that many other similar universities have failed to do.

“Consent is something that this institution takes very seriously,” McMahon said. “Violations of consent are a violation of the code of conduct. I think sometimes that’s news to students. They didn’t realize that is part of what they’re signing up for when they enrolled in the university.”

In addition to issues with consent, McMahon notes that matters around domestic violence are very prevalent on college campuses today, specifically because of definitions that could be misinterpreted by students. In the state of Massachusetts, domestic violence is defined by the relationships of people living with one another, not necessarily by the intimacy of their relationship. She notes that this can be problematic in terms of how cases can be adjudicated on campus. All colleges and universities around the country are now being required to incorporate working definitions of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking and consent.

McMahon went on to discuss how the university works to dispel myths when students first arrive on campus. One of the myths she mentions is about the date rape drug, Rohypnol, most commonly known as “roofies,” which she points out is less common than people think it is. She mentions that alcohol is the number one date rape drug on college campuses. One of the other important myths, according to McMahon, is that undetected campus rapists often use instrumental (rather than gratuitous) violence.

“What that means is that they [undetected campus rapists] often harm people by controlling their movements … for example, putting an arm across someone’s windpipe might not leave any marks on a body,” said McMahon. “So the use of instrumental rather than gratuitous violence is very important for us to keep in mind.”

McMahon continued to speak about how common sexual assault is on college campuses today. She cited that one in five college women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their college years. She notes that this is alarming, not only because of the statistic, but also because this is only referring to rape—and as noted, there are a number of other behaviors that fall under the category of sexual misconduct. She also stressed that rapists in college tend to be “people who lack empathy, cannot do perspective taking, are not remorseful about their behaviors, and they tend to both sanitize their violence and then blame the person whom they have harmed.”

In an attempt to further address the prevalence of sexual violence on campus, Brandeis, along with other liberal arts schools in the northeast of the same size, participated in the National College Health Assessment that was conducted last spring. McMahon said the data collected from the study raised more questions than answers. In the question, “Have you been sexually touched without your consent in your time at school?” 7 percent of males at Brandeis said yes, while 2.5 percent of males from similar size schools in the cohort said yes; 14.6 percent of females at Brandeis said yes, while 9.7 perecnt of females in the cohort group said yes. McMahon points out that while these rates are higher than their cohort groups, it does not necessarily suggest that there is more sexual assault happening on this campus.

“The question becomes, are the rates higher because our students are more able to label their experience? Or is it actually that students are having more of these kinds of experiences? It’s an empirical question and we don’t yet have the answer,” McMahon said.

Brandeis came under scrutiny in September when the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education filed a federal investigation regarding the university’s handling of a sexual assault complaint. The investigation was prompted by the accused student in the case, who filed a complaint with the university for noncompliance with Title IX. Since then, Brandeis has opened its Rape Crisis Center. Brandeis Students Against Sexual Violence (B.SASV), along with the Task Force for Sexual Assault Response Services and Prevention, have also worked toward bettering the services and resources available for students on campus. This week, the Office of the Provost released the campus climate study on sexual violence to the Brandeis community to gather students’ feedback regarding sexual assault issues on campus.

McMahon closed her lecture by discussing the many ways in which students can reach out if they are seeking help.

If a Brandeis community member you know has questions or would like additional support with concerns related to sexual violence, please contact the Office of Prevention Services at 781.736.3626, email sasp@brandeis.edu, check out the website at www.brandeis.edu/preventionservices or stop by the office in Usdan (room 106). The campus Rape Crisis Center is open until May 7, 2015. The RCC can be reached at 781.736.3370 or by email at rcc@brandeis.edu. Walk-in hours are posted on the RCC website: www.brandeis.edu/rcc.

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