UT's AAU survey could help fight campus sexual assault

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Colleges and universities in every corner of the U.S. are trying to fight the problem of campus sexual assault, but it’s unclear whether any of their efforts are actually working. That’s why it’s so encouraging that UT, along with several other schools, will implement a survey designed by the American Association of Universities to evaluate the scope and nature of the epidemic. 

The survey UT bought will probably be more useful to the rest of the country than it is to UT, because our sexual assault policies are already considered very strong.  

UT’s Voices Against Violence provides extensive counseling services for victims, and unlike many schools, the University treats sexual assault as a criminal matter that should involve police rather than an internal problem adjudicated by campus officials. If UT’s survey results look good relative to those of the other participating schools, that adds to the burgeoning body of evidence that our system works, which would hopefully lead universities across the country to adopt similar measures.  

That being said, a school of roughly 50,000 students almost certainly still has problems with sexual assault. That’s why the administration is correct to commission its own survey in addition to the national one, designed to paint a more accurate picture of how sexual assault manifests itself at UT.  

That survey should gather information on the locations of assaults, to compare the nature and the frequency of attacks in different residential communities, both on and off campus. It should also carefully evaluate whether or not participation in Greek activities correlates with higher rates of assault, which would toss some much-needed evidence into a fiercely ideological nationwide debate. 

At the same time, it should avoid seeking to provide quantitative data. Unless the administration mandates participation in the survey, as it does with the AlcoholEdu course, it will have trouble obtaining valid results. Self-reporting bias, especially online, is a powerful force, and there’s no value in a study whose numbers are unreliable.  

Instead, UT should offer a completely open-ended questionnaire and evaluate each individual’s personal narrative. From there, qualified experts can try to identify patterns and draw conclusions. That’ll be a lot more useful than a multiple-choice questionnaire with a skewed sample. 

But while surveys can provide some useful diagnostic data, they can’t do anything on their own to reduce the incidence of sexual assault. That burden falls on policymakers, who, to the detriment of victims, are increasingly diverting their attention toward attempts to implement broad cultural reforms.  

Such reforms may very well be necessary — I lack both the expertise and the experience to contribute anything useful to that debate — but regulations designed to govern people’s personal lives rarely work as intended, which is why I fear that well-intentioned “affirmative consent” laws like California’s, which requires active approval from both parties during a sexual encounter, may cause more harm than good. 

Instead, legislators on all levels — from student governments to the U.S. Congress — should focus on ensuring that young men and women know how to avoid putting themselves in compromising situations and how to properly defend themselves should things go awry.  

A lot of activists oppose that strategy, arguing that the promotion of prevention techniques legitimizes rape and that schools should instead focus on teaching potential rapists that their behavior is wrong.  

But that’s a dangerous line of reasoning. Acknowledging the possibility of wrongdoing is not the same as condoning illegal or immoral behavior, and teaching self-protection techniques to vulnerable parties doesn’t legitimize a potential crime any more than teaching people how to swim “legitimizes” drowning.  

While it makes a lot of sense to incorporate lessons on the nature of consent into high-school health classrooms and college orientation sessions, not everyone will understand or internalize the message, and a malicious few will consciously choose to ignore it. 

So in order for that message, tailored to possible attackers, to actually reduce the incidence of rape and sexual assault, it must be supplemented with an equally important message about self-preservation delivered to possible victims. That requires making sure that people know how to fend off predators using self-defense tactics like krav maga, which is taught by campus groups and university police departments all over the world. It also requires that people learn to recognize and avoid danger, especially when they’re too intoxicated to have a great sense of situational awareness.  

On that front, a number of different policies could prove effective, depending on how well they respond to the primary causes of sexual assault.  

For example, if researchers can establish a link between frat parties and assault, sororities should consider following the lead of Dartmouth’s independent Sigma Delta, which serves alcohol on its premises. That would provide female students with greater control of the college social scene. And if the incidence of assault is lower in public spaces like bars than at covert house parties, the U.S. would be well-served to abandon its puritanical drinking age, which would allow college underclassmen to consume alcohol through safe and legal avenues. 

Without a greater body of data, we can’t know if any of those plans will work. UT deserves credit, then, for understanding that the best way to gather information is to simply ask. 

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Conn. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar