Opinion | Preventative sexual assault measures needed on campuses


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Emergency blue light phones can increase student safety on campus.

By Genna Edwards, For the Pitt News

With school back in session, I must return to my usual routine of holding my pocketknife in my sweaty palm on my walk home from night classes. I carry a rape whistle in my pocket. I wear running shoes. I don’t listen to music — I have to hear every rustle around me.

I didn’t always do this.

A female Pitt student was chased up to Ruskin Hall this past spring. She had been walking home after a night of studying and ran for what she thought was her life, after two Denison University students on a scavenger hunt — ordered to “scare somebody” — jumped out of a car and ran towards her. Although this event didn’t end in an assault, it’s indicative of how hypervigilant women are forced to be on campus. There needs to be a way to lessen the constant fear women feel.

Though the University did release an official statement, give safety tips and increase access to bus services and Safe Riders, it does not feel substantial enough to prevent these incidents in the future. The overarching safety issue was not, and is still not resolved. The ubiquitous worry remains.

College campuses have become hotbeds for the sexual assault and rape of their female student bodies over the last few decades, creating an environment where women feel a heightened sense of fear. We need to prevent these incidents from happening in the future, and that means improving education and resources.

Universities as a whole need to provide students with more information regarding sexual harassment and assault. And as the Ruskin incident has taught us, perpetrators aren’t always aware of the effects of their behavior. Universities need to increase preventative measures and diversify educational tactics, and not only right after an alarming event takes place.

Pitt placed the men on persona non grata status, meaning they are not permitted on any University property except in the case of permission from the Vice Provost and Dean of Students, according to the Pitt Student Code of Conduct. Further disciplinary actions against the men were left up to Denison University. Answers remain foggy regarding Deninson’s actions following the event. The students involved were sent to the school’s disciplinary board.

The public still remains unclear about the repercussions of the event for students involved, but according to an anonymous source, two students have been expelled who were directly involved with the incident at hand and other expulsions are being processed,” Deninson’s university paper noted on June 10.

This year, Pitt Public Safety is piloting a walking escort program for students from Hillman Library to lower campus areas from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Allied Universal guards will be the escorts, according to Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick. This is a start, but it isn’t enough. 

Studies and programs have been implemented to test what good assault prevention might look like. A study by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015 documented a program that cut the chances of attendees being raped by almost half. The program taught women self-defense and problem-solving techniques when faced with sexually aggressive men. A year after the program ended, the group who participated had experienced far fewer non-consensual encounters than the control group. A program like this could be easily implemented at a university level, as the test subjects themselves were first-year college students from the Universities of Calgary, Windsor and Guelph in Canada.

Another program likewise proved effective in lessening a woman’s chances of being assaulted, teaching her to detect risky behaviors in men and respond accordingly. The Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance program empowered participating women to engage in proactive behavior to increase their safety and ability to talk about their sexual desires. While this did decrease the likelihood of attempted rape by 63%, it’s not enough.

The issue with these programs, as many feminists before me have noted, is that it puts the responsibility of ending sexual assault on women. Tools to fight back help, but programs like these still have a malicious undertone. Because unless every single woman participates in these programs, the reality is that the perpetrator will likely just move on to a less prepared woman. On a more general note, prevention programs targeted towards women don’t fix the reason assault typically occurs — a man doesn’t understand boundaries or decency.

In programs that have been made specifically for sexually aggressive males, the outcomes haven’t been satisfactory. Researchers at the University of California found that when men susceptible to engaging in coercive behavior are put through interventions, a “boomerang effect” occurs. The men feel their freedoms to have sex with whomever they want are being threatened, and thus to assert their autonomy they become even more hostile.

With studies like these, the future seems hopeless. What we need is a massive cultural shift and it will not happen overnight. We need programs and tools that combine general sexual education and bystander intervention training for all genders. If we can’t teach aggressive men that their attitudes are wrong, we need increased safety on campuses — more blue light phones and more police patrolling at night and near party-heavy areas.

Although I hate to say it, we may need required self-defense classes for all women. Though Pitt does offer a free self-defense class on a few occasions, it’s optional, and therefore not attended by everyone. Sexual assault isn’t our fault, but I would rather be safe by putting in work I shouldn’t have to than at further risk because those around me are still generations behind. Combining this sort of training with programs for men and bystanders will possibly allow every base to be covered. Only then can we move forward.

On a cultural level, we need to stop this behavior from developing early on. Children should be taught about consent. Learning that “no” does, in fact, mean “no” from a young age is vital. The lessons we teach our children amplify with time — everything starts with them. While campuses are not in charge of children, campuses do contain the future parents of America. The cycle can stop with us but we need to dig in.

We are currently not digging in. While Pitt’s actions may have calmed students and faculty after the incident, once a few weeks went by the past was in the past. Colleges are supposed to be places for learning, but living in fear of classmates, whether or not they’ve done anything wrong, stunts learning. This anxiety, paranoia, culture and practice of sexual assault on campuses all across the nation stunts learning.

Pitt handled the Ruskin incident. The case is closed. But we cannot forget about what happened. We cannot let the past stay in the past. With the start of a new semester comes more chances for tragedies to occur.