Davidson president: Solutions to campus sexual assault start with culture change

Davidson students gathered last week in silent protest about sexual assault cases on the small campus.
Davidson students gathered last week in silent protest about sexual assault cases on the small campus.

Here is the difficult truth about the struggle against sexual assault on college campuses: No one has the solution.

Colleges and universities are doing a lot: effective education through bystander intervention training; vocal, more helpful survivor advocacy; and clearer mechanisms for perpetrator accountability. We are gaining some ground. Yet deeply ingrained tensions within our culture keep dramatic progress out of reach.

In sexual assault adjudication, our values crash into one another.

Although the unicorn exception gets a lot of press, the overwhelming majority of women do not make up rape. Even with support, speaking out takes courage and comes at a high cost. This is one reason why most assaults go unreported.

When a woman tells you she’s been assaulted, believe her.

Crash. Our criminal justice is founded on due process and the possibility of innocence. Nothing about due process says to a rape survivor, “I believe you.” How can we best support her when a district attorney declines to prosecute? How can we assure each survivor that we believe her while also insisting on an impartial investigative process? And, most difficult of all, how can we help a survivor feel believed when we can take no action because she chooses not to file a complaint? Acting as if we believe survivors while respecting their right to choose a course of action collides head on with our equally strong commitment to due process. And in this collision, what is right?

In sexual assault prevention, the culture we inherit quickly overwhelms the culture we are trying to create.

Campus sexual assault cases most often involve alcohol and a man and a woman who know each other. They thus take place in a context shaped by assumptions about how women and men interact when they are drinking. Here, our advice to students flies in the face of what they read, hear and watch all the time. Try naming one popular movie or song dealing with men, women, alcohol and sex that models how we want young people to behave. The best known scripts about dancing, dating, sex and even marriage still assume a man speaks and a woman replies. The very term consent can position women as the guardians of sexual propriety. When advocates talk about a culture that condones rape, this is what we mean.

Changing this culture and the assumptions about sex and gender that maintain it will take time and college students themselves – men and women – will participate.

Perhaps our most elusive challenge, the one that is hardest to talk about, is this: In preventing sexual assault, you are our most crucial ally. Drinking and sex don’t color within the lines. The same things that make these activities alluring also make them difficult to contain. Our students need opportunities to grapple intellectually with these facts so that they are equipped to make informed decisions, on our campuses and throughout their lives.

Colleges and universities are learning to manage the tensions in adjudicating sexual assault. To prevent sexual assault, we must undertake the long, hard work of dismantling deeply ingrained assumptions within our culture to which we, in spite of ourselves, remain perversely attached.

Carol Quillen is the president of Davidson College.