Evan Walker-Wellsn

Sexual assault remains a problem in higher ed. Among a random sample of New York undergrads, 22 percent reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual assault since entering college (PLoS ONE, 2017). Women and gender-nonconforming students reported at higher rates—28 percent and 38 percent, respectively—while 12.5 percent of college-aged males reported experiencing sexual assault. In a recent Student Health 101 poll, 63 percent of students said they were aware of sexual assaults happening among their peers.

So what can we do about it? Part of the problem is recognizing that most sexual assault doesn’t look how we might expect it to. The US Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” That can include:

  • Forcing or coercing someone to have sex or do any sexual act
  • Penetrating a person’s body with any object without their consent
  • Unwanted sexual touching
  • Unwanted sexual comments
  • Anything that forces someone to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention

“Changing the culture around consent and communication is one of the best ways to prevent sexual assault,” says Evan Walker-Wells, a former communication and consent educator at Yale University and the cofounder of Scalawag, a magazine and website covering Southern politics and culture.

Cultural norms around sexual assault

Sexual assault among young adults is often associated with:

  • Social norms that make it harder to speak up in defense of oneself or others (e.g., a double standard that judges people differently for sexual activity).
  • A party culture that links alcohol with expectations of sex or hooking up.

How do we change the culture? Start with self-empowerment

Self-empowerment means identifying and learning to honor our own needs and desires. Helping students become self-empowered can help them get the sandwich the way they ordered it, help their friends and partners have their back, help them speak up when something’s not working, and help them feel confident in walking away from things when they need to. A key to satisfying relationships and interactions is being aware of and honoring our own feelings—which also helps us appreciate and honor others’ feelings.

4 ways for school staff to support self-empowerment

thoughtful woman in glasses

1. Work with students to normalize conversations about sex and sexuality

Faculty and staff can model thoughtful decision making, provide space for reflection, and introduce new ideas and norms. You can encourage dialogue, help find guest speakers, and incorporate these conversations and concepts into the classroom.

2. Encourage student leaders who are building a more positive culture

Student leaders help facilitate the environments in which their peers hang out, flirt, and sometimes hook up. By providing students with relevant training and resources on things like bystander intervention, sexual culture, and self-empowerment, you can help create an environment that’s less conducive to sexual assault and more conducive to thoughtful choices.

3. Help spread positive and diverse narratives

College plays a vital role in shaping narratives that students see and hear. You’re well positioned to introduce positive examples of self-empowerment and mindful decision making (e.g., when instructors select reading material for class).

4. Model empowerment

Students learn from their professors and school staff. Find everyday situations in which you can model polite boundary setting, make non-coercive requests, and affirm other people’s decision to say “no.”

Keep in mind that there are times when sexual pressure escalates into assault. No matter how good a person is at setting boundaries, it’s not always possible to stop that. A victim is never at fault for someone else’s choice to assault. When students learn to trust their instincts, though, it can make it easier to spot red flags early on.