DAVIES | Cornell’s Efforts to Stem Sexual Violence Aren’t Working–What Will?

The social atmosphere associated with college life makes it nearly impossible to thoroughly address and eradicate sexual violence

As this academic year has tragically proven to us, high-profile sexual assault is no rarity on Cornell’s campus. Here is a recap of some notable incidents so far this year:

9/27/15: An unknown male gains entry to a Collegetown apartment owned by Cornell students at approximately 3:00 AM, and attempts to remove clothing from a sleeping female. His is discovered and escapes without capture. (Source: Cornell University Police Department)

10/8/15: Two female residents of the Young Israel House are awoken at approximately 5:15 AM by a male intruder standing at the foot of their beds. Upon being discovered, he flees. Two hours later, a female student is awoken in her Stewart Avenue apartment by the same intruder, who again flees upon discovery.
(Source: Cornell University Police Department)

1/31/16: Psi Upsilon fraternity president Wolfgang Ballinger allegedly assaults and attempts to rape a female after bringing her to a bedroom in the Psi U fraternity house. Ballinger turns himself in several days later, but initially pleads not guilty to several felony charges. He has since been banned from campus, and the top-tier fraternity has been suspended as the case progresses. (Source: New York Daily News)

3/6/15: Freshman varsity basketball player Xavier D. Eaglin is arrested for raping a female in Balch Hall on 2/15/16. Eaglin confessed to the rape both on police video and in a recorded phone call, allegedly choking the victim and muffling her screams with his hand while forcing her to engage in a variety of sexual acts. (Source: The Ithaca Voice)

As if this list is not perturbing enough, rape and sexual assault are commonly considered to have the lowest rates of reporting among crime victims. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public Website, as few as 30% of sexual assaults and 16% of rapes were reported to law enforcement in recent years (the percentage for rape reporting was even lower among college women). Another recent study found that as many as 1 in 6 first-year college females were raped during their first year at school while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Evidently, not only are rape and sexual assault widespread issues, but they are also most likely more widespread than perceived, due to underreporting by traumatized victims.

With the problem laid out comes the commonly-posed, million-dollar question: how do we stop rape and sexual assault on college campuses around the nation and here at Cornell? Unfortunately (and quite obviously), there is no clear, simple answer. As highlighted in an article published earlier this year, Cornell has taken rather questionable approaches to addressing the issue. From hiring 20 student “social consultants” whose role is of questionable efficacy to requiring freshmen to undergo “Speak About It,” a comedy sketch-based show which tries to light-heartedly approach the ups and downs of sexual relationships, the University has proven unsuccessful thus far in bringing about vast change to the climate of sexual violence on campus (as reinforced by the assaults of this school year).

Considering Cornell and other campuses from a psychological and social standpoint, the answer to the ever-looming question of sexual violence prevention becomes significantly more complicated. College campuses are, by default, dumping grounds for sexually curious and hormonally-driven adolescents, free at last from the confines of family life and ready to embrace the myriad liberties that accompany newly-gained independence. Add the desire for extrinsic approval and social acceptance, and the popular “party life” and search for a significant other become almost irresistible for many.

With this desire for social enjoyment and intimate relationships comes the formation of social groups. These groups, which include both informal peer groups and formally-structured Greek organizations, help reinforce sexual desires, as young adults are among many other people of their own sex. The logical result of large close-knit groups of guys and large close-knit groups of girls is social competition among group members and the manifestation of “manly” or “girly” sentiments, namely the desire to impress and attract the opposite sex. A Cornell Daily Sun editorial published immediately after the Psi Upsilon scandal applies a similar idea to demonstrate how sexual violence can occur:

“The bonds of brotherhood — often cited as a crucial benefit provided by fraternities — can create social conformity and exclusivity…As a vehicle of hegemony, brotherhood can promote groupthink, creating a social environment where sexual assault may become allowable behavior.”

To clarify, this is in no way intended to be an attack on fraternities or sororities, but rather simply a theory attempting to explain why sexual violence can arise on college campuses. As has been shown, group sentiments can encourage sexual behavior, or even (in limited cases) the acceptance of acts of sexual violence.

Considering the social and psychological implications of college life, it becomes clear that to address the problem and bring about prevention requires not just the stricter measures encouraged by administrators, but a complete undermining and restructuring of college social interaction. How this would be possible through university-imposed policies is simply baffling.

To conclude, sexual violence has become a household term on college campuses across the US, especially here at Cornell. Every day, we hear more and more about the problem and proposed solutions. However, assaults still occur, and lives are still permanently traumatized. Unless a massive transformation of social structures and attitudes is somehow implemented in a manner accepted by the college students it will affect, sexual violence will continue to wreak havoc on college campuses nationwide. Evidently, this epidemic will rage on unless addressed from a new standpoint.

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