The Problem of Sexual Assault on Campus
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The Backstory | The Backstory | Episode 6
The Problem of Sexual Assault on Campus
Jia Tolentino reports on a new study at Columbia that could make schools safer.
Read the story.
Released on 02/05/2018
There's an analogy where you say that sexual assault
is like an iceberg.
You see that 10% that makes it to the surface.
In college, you know, the 10% that people feel
comfortable reporting to the school.
There's a lot of the topic we don't see, and research
projects so far have not fully gotten to the complication
and the texture and the extent of what that part
of the iceberg that's below the water contains.
(subtle dramatic music)
Since the Weinstein story, I have been completely
unsure of everything.
One of my friends said that she felt like a Google map
that was recalculating.
And that's what I felt like since the story broke.
We are absolutely in a time where the importance
of equal treatment and gender equity as it relates to sex
and workplace power, and just the way we live; it's never
been more kind of, universally understood
as a cultural priority.
College is a place where boundaries get messy.
College, there is a kind of embedded culture
of binge drinking.
I went to the University of Virginia, and I was
in the Greek system, and their highly valorized behavior
in college is blacking out and having sex.
Emma Sulkowicz was an art major at Columbia.
The first week of her sophomore year, she said she
was raped by a student, and she didn't report it
until about a year later.
They found the accused student not responsible,
which is the official term for Columbia.
So in the fall of 2014, she started carrying a mattress
around Columbia like a twin XL, standard,
50 pound dorm mattress to sort of signify the burden
she felt by having her alleged rapist, you know,
be walking around campus.
And she carried the mattress all year until she graduated,
even across the stage.
Her text messages with her, you know, alleged rapist
were all over the news, and people were questioning
all this stuff.
And she just said, you know, I can't believe I did it.
I can't believe I did that.
But she did.
She carried that mattress everywhere she went for a year.
Later on the accused student sued Columbia over that,
saying that her mattress project was a form
of gender discrimination.
There were massive protests at Columbia.
It was national news all the time.
People dropped 28 mattresses at the door
of Columbia's president.
You know, they taped a list of demands about
the sexual assault policy to his door.
This was like, a big, you know, kind of unprecedented
wave of student led activism that pushed this issue
into the spotlight that year.
I think that Columbia knew, I think that they knew
they had to do something.
This is not just a white woman's problem.
This is not just a Columbia problem.
This is not just a women's problem.
This is not just cis woman's problem.
SHIFT stands for the
Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation.
It is this enormous multidisciplinary multi method
research study on undergrad sex behavior at Columbia.
It was this big, community based participatory
research project that was trying to get past the part
of the iceberg of sexual assault that was above the surface,
and map the full contours of it at Columbia.
These ethnographers of Columbia, most of whom were closer
to student age, they would just hang out where they spent,
you know, year and a half just hanging out with students.
Going to parties, hanging out in their dorm rooms,
watching them fold laundry, drinking club soda
at student bars.
They interviewed, I think, over 150 students one on one
to ask about their sex lives and their
experience of Columbia.
What is to come from this study, almost none of it
has been revealed yet.
It just concluded.
We could change the way we think about sexual assault.
Possibly it's not only a problem of individual misconduct.
That it's also a public health problem that is produced
by a social environment.
You need new laws, you need new procedures, you need
new social norms, you need new all these things at once.
You need to change the environment.
The idea that people could be spared these experiences
that they've been sitting with for their whole lives,
it's part of the reason that...
It's part of the reason that, you know, although I wish
I didn't write about sexual assault all the time,
I, you know, there's still nothing else I think
is more important.
I'm not easily disheartened, but I've had a couple of
moments over the last couple of months where I was like,
am I gonna be doing this for the rest of my life?
You know?
And at the same time, it's always worth it to try
to do justice to the complication and the importance of it,
which is why I was attracted to the study
in the first place.
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