It’s in the Delivery: How College Sexual Assault Prevention Workshops are Getting the Message Wrong

Sept. 28, 2016

By Christina McBride

This fall, millions of students across the United States are entering their first year of college. As a part of new student orientation, many of them will participate in workshops to help them adapt to college life that might include a session on sexual assault prevention.

According to the Association of American Universities Campus Climate Surveys, 1 in 4 college women experience unwanted sexual contact while in school. To address this increased risk, the Department of Education began enforcing the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act in 2014, which requires campus-wide prevention education programs in all universities that receive federal funding.

At my university, we participated in an online course and were presented with skits and PowerPoint slides to inform freshmen on healthy relationships and behavioral expectations. Although I am grateful that my school provides education on these topics, I found that these positive efforts were undermined by a lack of engaging content and careless language perpetuating the notion that survivors are at fault for their assaults, particularly if they are inebriated.

One of my first nights on campus, I had a conversation with male students from my floor discussing the online class we took before arriving on campus. One was called AlcoholEdu, a lesson explaining the effects of different types of alcohol on different body types, and another was called Haven, a course about sexual assault prevention, healthy relationships and being an “upstander” instead of a bystander.

When someone mentioned Haven, the boys rolled their eyes. “Haven was such a drag,”

When someone mentioned Haven, the boys rolled their eyes. “Haven was such a drag,” one told me, and when I asked why, he said, “It was such a waste of my time.” Being the only female in the group, and frankly too tired to argue, I pushed the comment aside with a casual, “not really,” and pointed the conversation in a new direction. Although my college checked the box of sexual assault prevention education to be in compliance with the Campus SaVE Act, this valuable opportunity to engage young men in sexual violence prevention was lost.

How did it end up so off the mark? In the orientation seminar, we watched a series of skits depicting healthy and unhealthy situations in a relationship. One pair who had just met got too drunk and decided to wait before they had sex. Another couple had to break up when one got too clingy. The last couple went on a date where one character, Tanner, did not obtain consent with the other, Riley, and went further without asking. Presenters failed to acknowledge Tanner’s behavior as problematic and went on to discuss the choices each pair made. With a heavy emphasis on alcohol-facilitated assault, this program suggested the best way to prevent assault is to watch how much you are drinking, instead of stressing that you should not assault people.

Sexual assault is never a “mistake” on the part of the survivor or the perpetrator.

Sexual assault is never a “mistake” on the part of the survivor or the perpetrator. Alcohol is used as a tool by perpetrators to commit assault – either by identifying those who may be too intoxicated to consent or intentionally feeding an individual drinks so they are unable to resist an assault. When discussing such heavy matters, attention to context is essential.

As an advocate for survivors, I was disheartened by my university’s inferior sexual assault prevention education until the last presentation. Our final freshmen workshop was dedicated to sexual assault prevention and awareness. We discussed alcohol-facilitated assault, bystander awareness and the pillars of consent. The group also analyzed different scenarios and pointed out where consent was or was not given and why. We were given every resource we need for confidential advisement or non-confidential reporting. And most importantly, we had a safe space to discuss the issue without putting survivors at emotional or psychological risk.

Navigating through the first few weeks of college and experiencing the different approaches people use to talk about sexual assault has shown me that not everyone knows the right way to deliver information and education that engages students (particularly young men) and keeps survivors safe from emotional harm. Consciousness of survivor-friendly language is cardinal to effective prevention education.  The way we present sexual assault prevention and awareness education is just as important as the content itself.

christina-mcbride-sAbout the author: Christina McBride is a freshman in college and an intern for Promoting Awareness | Victim Empowerment (PAVE), a sexual assault prevention and awareness nonprofit. She is also a writer for GrrlPunch, an online feminist magazine. In the future, she wants to continue to cover advocacy issues and work toward creating positive change for women and girls.