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Campus Conversation aids sexual assault prevention education efforts

Through a series of workshops and open dialogue, members of the Ohio University community engaged in a second Campus Conversation to tackle tough discussions about sexual assault in a meaningful way.

"Campus Conversation: Men taking sexual assault seriously" led participants through thought-provoking talks about the meaning of consent and the role consent plays in a sexual relationship. Workshop leaders invited them to work through bystander intervention scenarios to better understand how they might intervene in sexual assault situations. The event took place in the Baker Center Ballroom on Nov. 18.

Susanne B. Dietzel, director of the Women's Center, said that this "second conversation successfully incorporated the voices of faculty into the discussion, and shows how we are all interested in making a difference." Dietzel said educational efforts such as workshops, lectures and discussion groups, whether they are integrated into the classroom or happen in more informal settings, will allow students to be better informed about sexual assault, consent, and bystander intervention and empower them to create a more respectful climate on our campus.  

Julie White, director of the Women's and Gender Studies program, opened the Campus Conversation program by reflecting on the meaning of consent in terms of equality. White suggested autonomy is the basis of consent, and said in a truly consensual experience both parties have the same ability to knowingly engage in the activity. Hollywood, she argued, has led many people to believe a conversation about consent doesn't need to exist.

"We tend to think it should unfold wordlessly," White said. "That implies a lot of tacit consent: you're here so you must want to be here."

In casual relationships or in fleeting moments, White said, it can be difficult to discern if a partner is giving their consent because an individual may be judging solely on non-verbal cues or signals. Even in an on-going relationship, consent is not a one-time thing, she said.

Following White's discussion about consent, Graduate Assistant for Bystander Intervention and Prevention Education Bill Arnold led the Bystander Intervention workshop to offer tips and suggestions about how to intervene in sexual assault situations. Arnold also advised participants to be ready to intervene even if they do not witness the actual act of assault.

"For most of us, we will be around when sexual assault or intimacy violence develops or we will hear about it in the aftermath. That's when bystander intervention takes place," Arnold said.

Grouped by tables, attendees worked through stories about sexual assault or intimacy violence that bystanders may encounter before and after assaults. Using Arnold's tools, they identified red flags and impediments, as well as strategized ways to intervene to prevent an assault or help a victim. Through the training, the group also learned that bystander intervention also takes place in cases where they witness offensive language, sexist comments and degrading jokes.

OHIO professor of sociology Thomas Vander Ven served as the Campus Conversation's keynote speaker, sharing his most recent research in a talk entitled, "Bystander Intervention in the College Drinking Scene." Vander Ven research interests include crime and delinquency, criminological theory, the sociology of alcohol, and the sociology of social problems. He is the author of "Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard." Vander Ven's books is based on more than 450 stories of drinking experiences from students at three higher education institutions of varying size and setting. He said approximately 30 percent of college undergrads have experienced sexual victimization.

Vander Ven proposed to the crowd that bystander intervention is most effective within groups of friends. College students tend to construct "drinking families" with their friends and find strength in those groups of five to seven people where roles are clearly defined, he explained. Victim ambiguity can often deter a person from intervening in a sexual assault, but Vander Ven said he found his research respondents reported they were more likely to step in if it were one of their friends being assaulted. He suggested bystander intervention education efforts focus on these "families."

"The support is already there, but there are ways I think we can be more systematic," Vander Ven said. "We need to recognize the drinking families and harness the power of the structure."

The next Campus Conversation won't take place until Spring Semester, but organizers are already seeking feedback from participants to help plan the theme. Monday's Conversation event ended with an hour of open table discussion, allowing participants to process what they had learned, ask questions and suggest topics for the next event. To offer thoughts or ask questions about the next Campus Conversation, contact the Women's Center at womenscenter@ohio.edu. For additional information about bystander invention training, contact Bill Arnold at 740-593-9625 or by email wa321112@ohio.edu.