In Sexual Assaults, Awareness Key to Prevention

Advice to Teens: Don’t judge. Speak up. Don’t blame the victim.
A sexual assault awareness event hosted by the Retreat on Monday at the East Hampton Library included the exhibit “What Were You Wearing?” — a collection of clothing depicting what survivors of sexual assault wore at the time they were attacked. Judy D’Mello

“Sixteen percent of women at colleges are sexually assaulted,” said Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, an East Hampton Town Board member, as an introduction to a screening on Monday of “The Hunting Ground,” a 2015 documentary that uncovered the epidemic of sexual assault and rape on America’s college campuses.

This is the third year the documentary has been shown at the East Hampton Library as part of a monthlong series of programming by the Retreat, a nonprofit group that offers services to victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, held during April, which is Sexual Assault Prevention Month.

On Monday evening about 15 high school students were present — only one a boy — for the screening and a panel discussion that followed.

The documentary presents a string of interviews with college women, and a few men, who recount their experiences of rape, and the institutions’ often tepid, sometimes shockingly indifferent, responses. The film, directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015 where it received a standing ovation. The New York Times called it “a must-watch work of ciné-activism,” and it went on to be screened at the White House and shortlisted for an Oscar. Lady Gaga won a Grammy for the film’s title song she co-wrote with Diane Warren.

Most important, however, it awakened the nation to a grave issue. Since then, a student-led national network has emerged, promoting awareness campaigns and education programs. Hundreds of related online help groups, advice centers, and advocacy websites now exist, including one started by Vice President Joseph Biden in 2016. For most of these organizations, the goal is always the same: to press colleges to improve often haphazard procedures surrounding sexual assault allegations; to provide clear rules about what constitutes consent and to publicize those rules on campus, and to encourage students to look out for one another.

On that last point, Kim Bryson, a senior investigator of the Campus Sexual Assault Victims Unit of the New York State Police, offered advice to the teens at the library during the panel discussion that followed the screening, which was moderated by Loretta Davis, executive director of the Retreat. 

“Don’t be judgmental,” she said, explaining that asking things like, “Why didn’t you run?” or “Why didn’t you scream?” only makes a victim feel that he or she was to blame, that had they acted differently, they could have avoided it. 

“Be a good friend,” said the police officer. “Stop the victim blaming. Just let them know you’re sorry about what happened and you’re there to help.”

Joining her on the panel were Julie Goble, the Retreat’s project coordinator for the Enough Is Enough college program; Joshua Franklin, the rabbi of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons; Aimee Geehreng, a licensed social worker with the Family Service League, and Helen Atkinson-Barnes, the Retreat’s prevention education director.

Rabbi Franklin spoke about the need for more men to see the documentary and to become more aware of the issue. “Men need to be part of this conversation,” he said. “We need to be discussing how men should be behaving towards women. We need a culture change.” 

Much of “The Hunting Ground” does highlight what Ms. Goble called “toxic masculinity.” One scene depicts a group of young men from the Yale chapter of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, outside a women’s dorm chanting, “No means yes! Yes means anal!”

In another clip, a male college student speaks on camera, clearly indignant over what defines a rapist. “If a girl didn’t say yes and someone still has sex with her, that does not make you a rapist,” he insists.

Ms. Bryson, the police officer, then pointed out a startling statistic: “One in 16 males are raped on college campuses. And they don’t feel they have a voice because it is a predominantly women’s issue,” she said. Ms. Bryson works with all schools and colleges in Suffolk County, some in Nassau County, and others in New York City. “We must educate everyone about sexual assault,” she urged.

“How can I get involved?” asked Anna Rafferty, an 11th grader from East Hampton.

There are many organizations to join, answered Ms. Goble, such as Mr. Biden’s It’s On Us (itsonus.org), Know Your IX (knowyourIX.org), A Call to Men (acalltomen.org), End Rape on Campus (endrapeoncampus.org), and, more locally, the Retreat (theretreat.org). 

The movie also focuses on an apparent failure of colleges and universities to press charges against sexual offenders for fear of damaging the institutions’ prestigious reputations. At the University of Virginia, the film reveals, there were 205 reported assaults between 1998 and 2013, and zero resulting expulsions. Yet, there were 183 expulsions for cheating and other honor code violations during the same time period. Punishments doled out to perpetrators at other universities in the film are equally egregious: a one-day suspension, a $25 fine, and a response paper assigned for the perpetrator to reflect upon what he had done.

In the three years since the film was released, and despite an apparent low-level campaign to discredit it, there has been unprecedented progress on the issue. The awareness and activism of students has led to furthering prevention and intervention strategies. The engagement of male students in anti-sexual assault campaigns has made a significant impact as young men step forward and speak out about honoring the necessity of “consent.” A cultural shift appears to burgeoning. 

Colleges and universities nationwide are also rolling out mandatory tutorials for students about consent and training programs such as bystander intervention, which teach them how to intervene whenever they witness situations that could lead to assault. 

The film has also been a catalyst for legislative reform. United States Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand have led a bipartisan group in co-sponsoring a campus sexual assault bill in the Senate that would create a standardized university process for dealing with cases of sexual violence, with disciplinary proceedings conforming to national standards.

And yet, statistics show an increase in the number of sexual assault on campuses.

“Actually, it’s not the number that’s rising,” said Ms. Bryson. It’s the number of reports as a result of increased awareness and education, she explained.

Vice President Biden repeatedly said that even one sexual assault is too many, and that is inarguably true.