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Empowerment revolution: Society's approach to sexual assault is morphing, and Cal Poly's ahead of the curve 

Think about sex like you would a corndog. If you buy someone a corndog at the Mid-State Fair, and they don’t want it, you aren’t going to force them to eat it with ketchup and mustard. 

Now trade that corndog in for tea and you have “Tea Consent” by Blue Seat Studios, which uses a cup of tea, stick figures, and humor to illustrate the concept of sexual consent. The
2 1/2-minute video (posted on YouTube) opens with: “If you’re still struggling with consent, just imagine instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea.”

It’s a simple message. If someone doesn’t want tea, or changes their mind about wanting tea, or passes out, you wouldn’t make them drink tea. 

click to enlarge LOVE IT:  Cal Poly’s Safer hands out T-shirts with the words “I [heart] consensual sex” emblazoned on a black background. “Yes means yes” has replaced “No means no” when it comes to sexual consent, meaning as sexual acts progress, it’s important to check in with your partner. They might not always have the ability to say no. Getting consent doesn’t have to be awkward, according to Safer. It can be sexy. Don’t you want to know whether the person you’re with is having a good time or not? - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • LOVE IT: Cal Poly’s Safer hands out T-shirts with the words “I [heart] consensual sex” emblazoned on a black background. “Yes means yes” has replaced “No means no” when it comes to sexual consent, meaning as sexual acts progress, it’s important to check in with your partner. They might not always have the ability to say no. Getting consent doesn’t have to be awkward, according to Safer. It can be sexy. Don’t you want to know whether the person you’re with is having a good time or not?

Cal Poly’s Safer—which address the issues of sexual violence, dating violence, and domestic violence by providing services like preventative education, confidential crisis counseling, and advocacy—uses the video as an icebreaker. It’s the lead-in to that seriously uncomfortable discussion about sex and sexual assault during Safer’s presentations to students. And it’s definitely going to make an appearance, or 10, during the university’s upcoming Week of Welcome for incoming freshmen. 

Those fresh-faced 18-year-olds are also likely to come across T-shirts and pins emblazoned with the saying: “I [heart] consensual sex.” 

Safer Coordinator Christina Kaviani said she tries to get through to students using every angle she can to prevent sexual assaults from happening, to try and change what she sees as a culture that is society’s enabler: media images, gender stereotypes, sexuality and intimacy that isn’t discussed, victim-blaming, and sex education in high school and junior high that doesn’t do much more than preach abstinence. 

By the time most freshmen hit Cal Poly’s campus, Kaviani said ideas about sexuality, intimacy, and how they view gender are already formed. It’s the thing, for her, that’s the most challenging part of her job.

“[It’s] a feeling that it’s coming too late: That they should have been having these conversations when they were in junior high,” Kaviani said. “These are deep-rooted issues, and at 18 years old, students have ingrained ideas about these issues. … We do reach some, and I know that.” 

She attended a conference on sexual assault during the first week of September  and said every time she attends one, she gets the impression that Cal Poly’s ahead of other universities in terms of what it provides and how it talks about sexual assault.

“We’re by far one of the more established programs, and I’ve always been really proud of that,” Kaviani said. “We’ve been doing things pretty much ahead of the movement.”

Right now, that movement is pushing colleges and universities to do more about sexual assaults on and off campus, and much of that surge sparked legislation and executive orders on the state and national levels. Those politically motivated things are trying to fundamentally change the way higher education approaches dating violence and sexual violence, harassment, and assault. At Cal Poly, it’s resulted in an uptick in the number of people coming forward, either to report these types of crimes or seek out someone to chat with. In the 2012-2013 school year, 45 students sought out Safer’s services; the following school year that number was 48; and last year, 208 students went to Safer for help.

Not all of the students who reached out to Safer experienced recent sexual assault or domestic violence. It could have happened 10 years prior; it could have happened the night before. And the quadrupled year-over-year numbers doesn’t necessarily mean incidents increased by 400 percent. The reason for that gigantic jump, according to Kaviani, is confidentiality, something she’s been fighting to gain for a long time. 

“The CSU mandated every CSU to have a confidential space where sexual assault victims can go on campus,” she said. “I see that number [of victims coming forward] rising and continuing to rise for a while, until we make a climate change, then we’ll see a decrease.”

Starting change

In June 2014, the CSU signed executive orders mandating certain changes for every university in the system. In June 2015, the CSU updated those orders. According to Title IX Coordinator Martha Cody, those orders also resulted in sexual assault/domestic violence education requirements for students, faculty, and staff, as well as Cal Poly hiring an associate dean of students in November 2014, who’s sole focus is dealing with student cases of sexual assault and domestic violence.

- FBI RAPE STATS:  	According to FBI Crime Statistics, the estimated number of forcible rapes in SLO increased from 2011 to 2013, while stats for California and the U.S. have decreased. However, in 2013, the FBI changed its definition of forcible rape to include more than females and broaden the definition of rape, and with that change, the number of rapes in both the state and the U.S. increased significantly. - SLO city - 2010: 27 - 2011: 24 - 2012: 20 - 2013: 34 - California - 2010: 8,331 - 2011: 7,663 - 2012: 7,837 - 2013: 7,464 - revised definition: 9,714 - U.S. - 2010: 84,767 - 2011: 83,425 - 2012: 84,376 - 2013: 79,770 - revised definition: 108,612 -
  • FBI RAPE STATS: According to FBI Crime Statistics, the estimated number of forcible rapes in SLO increased from 2011 to 2013, while stats for California and the U.S. have decreased. However, in 2013, the FBI changed its definition of forcible rape to include more than females and broaden the definition of rape, and with that change, the number of rapes in both the state and the U.S. increased significantly.
    SLO city
    2010: 27
    2011: 24
    2012: 20
    2013: 34
    California
    2010: 8,331
    2011: 7,663
    2012: 7,837
    2013: 7,464
    revised definition: 9,714
    U.S.
    2010: 84,767
    2011: 83,425
    2012: 84,376
    2013: 79,770
    revised definition: 108,612

“I think a lot of it was the result of student activism across the country not feeling that universities were doing enough,” she said.

Title IX was passed in 1972. The act works to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to gain education, and states that no person in the U.S. should be subjected to discrimination on the basis of sex. The act was updated in 2013 to strengthen the rules about violence against women. 

Cody said the executive orders were the result of a Title IX audit conducted on the CSU and UC systems—using UC Berkley, UCLA, CSU Chico, and San Diego State as examples of the whole—in 2013 by the State Auditor’s Office. The results released in 2014 listed 23 items the university systems needed to improve upon when it comes to dealing with stalking, domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and dating violence.

The CSU’s executive orders basically ensured that its campuses started implementing those things right away. Cody’s job was to make sure Poly was in compliance, “which, we are now,” she said. 

All incoming and returning students are now required to take online training about alcohol and sexual misconduct upon registering. If they don’t complete that training by a certain point in the fall trimester, Poly will block that student’s winter registration. Faculty, staff, and administrators have to complete a similar training. 

That training includes information on required reporting of incidents, which Cody said doesn’t extend to counselors or Safer advocates. And although Cody’s required to report incidents or complaints that come through her office, she doesn’t have to divulge the names of the people involved.

In the 2014-2015 school year, the Title IX Office served 54 students, which Cody said is a big jump over the year before. It’s similar to the increase in services provided by the Safer office and the number of sexual assaults reported by campus police. Through the Clery Act—which requires that universities and colleges track and report violent crimes that occur on campus—campus police reported that one sexual assault happened at Poly in 2012 and six in 2013. Although Clery Act data for 2014 won’t be released until October of this year, campus police told New Times in July that sexual assault reports tallied to 13
for 2014.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find one number that illustrates what’s actually happening on and around campus, as each organization keeps track of its own data and deals with students in different capacities. Not all victims come forward either. According to a study published in the Journal of American College Health in 2009, it’s estimated that one in five undergraduate women will experience sexual assault in college, and only 4 percent of college assault victims report the incident to the police or campus security.

Cody said a jump in the number of students coming forward in any capacity to report sexual assault or seek some level of services is a good thing. 

“I think students are feeling much more comfortable coming forward,” she said. “What we’re really hoping is that they’re feeling much less stigmatized as the victim.” 

It’s complicated

Cody’s worked in the Title IX office for the past seven years, and she said the campus conversation around sexual assault has changed in the past five years. The example she gave is an incident some students told her about during the last school year. 

There was a girl at a party, drinking, and she was chatting with this guy, and eventually they disappeared into a room together. Her friends kept an eye on the whole thing as it unfolded. They burst into the room asking: “Did you consent? Did you consent?”

“I just thought, ‘Wow. … They intervened,’” Cody said. “I don’t think that would have happened five years ago.”

click to enlarge CHECK YOURSELF:  Sex and drinking go together like peanut butter and jelly, or so it seems, but sometimes they shouldn’t. In fact, legally, a person under the influence of a substance can’t give consent. In the case of a somewhat blurry sexual assault case: Cal Poly’s Title IX Office asks a number of questions about the victim’s ability to give consent: How drunk was that person? Were they slurring their words? Could they stand up? Would a reasonable-thinking person have felt that person had the ability to give consent? The onus for getting that consent falls on the alleged perpetrator. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • CHECK YOURSELF: Sex and drinking go together like peanut butter and jelly, or so it seems, but sometimes they shouldn’t. In fact, legally, a person under the influence of a substance can’t give consent. In the case of a somewhat blurry sexual assault case: Cal Poly’s Title IX Office asks a number of questions about the victim’s ability to give consent: How drunk was that person? Were they slurring their words? Could they stand up? Would a reasonable-thinking person have felt that person had the ability to give consent? The onus for getting that consent falls on the alleged perpetrator.

While that incident may have gone one way, not all party situations are clear cut. Often times the clarity of sexual assault cases enters hazy territory because it is one person’s interpretation of a situation versus another’s, and there are substances involved. The typical case breaks down like this:

• The two people know each other in some capacity.

• There’s alcohol involved on both sides.

• One person says the other consented to the sexual act.

• One person says they weren’t ok with it, and things went further than they wanted them to. 

The question Cody’s office has to find an answer to: Would a reasonable person have been able to tell that this person was so incapacitated that they could not give consent. How drunk were they? Were they slurring their words? Could they stand up? Did they vomit? Did they pass out?

The office also needs to consider typical reactions to situations that generally initiate flight or fight responses. A common neurological reaction is also to freeze, which definitely doesn’t mean “yes” in a sexual situation. Cody said that’s why it’s important to get some form of verbal consent from the person you’re getting down and dirty with—and it doesn’t have to be awkward. Because someone actually saying “no” isn’t always going to be the indicator that things should stop. Some people simply don’t have the ability. 

“It’s very complicated, and it’s heartbreaking sometimes when someone really feels violated and we can’t get the preponderance of the evidence needed … to say a violation has occurred,” she said, adding that the official result of a complaint doesn’t mean an assault didn’t occur, it just means it can’t be proven. 

With cases of stranger sexual assault—maybe someone was kidnapped and raped, let’s say—it’s crystal clear to people and the justice system that there’s a victim in those cases. And, according to Jesse Torrey—the associate director of RISE, which is SLO County’s resource for sexual assault and domestic violence, providing women’s shelters, advocates, training and education, a crisis line, and access to services—stranger assault cases are also easier to talk about.

But 75 to 90 percent of victims of sexual assault know their perpetrator, and about 90 percent of those victims are female. 

The confidentiality question

In the case of partying, drunkenness, and sexual contact between two people, when the female says she was assaulted or raped: “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, she just regretted it.’ And that’s just not true,” Torrey said. “Those two [interpretations] are worlds apart.”

In fact, the percentage of false reports of rape and sexual assault mimic those of any other crime: It’s between 2 and 8 percent. 

“There’s so much murkiness,” she said. “That’s where self-blame comes in.” 

- FOR HELP OFF CAMPUS:  RISE’s mission is to transform the lives of sexual and intimate partner violence survivors, their families, and the community through services and education that promote safety, healing, and empowerment. The organization’s toll-free 24-hour crisis line is (855) 886-7473. You will get a trained crisis counselor or volunteer on the other end of the line at any time, day or night. -
  • FOR HELP OFF CAMPUS: RISE’s mission is to transform the lives of sexual and intimate partner violence survivors, their families, and the community through services and education that promote safety, healing, and empowerment. The organization’s toll-free 24-hour crisis line is (855) 886-7473. You will get a trained crisis counselor or volunteer on the other end of the line at any time, day or night.

So, as a victim, if people’s first or second reaction is that you didn’t really get raped or assaulted, would you come forward about an incident or choose to report it? And, going along with the assumption that an alleged sexual assault isn’t true, the victim usually endures these types of questions: What were you wearing? What were you doing? Why were you drinking? Are you a slut? Then, there are also cases where victims don’t have a complete picture of what happened to them. 

“A lot of people say: ‘I don’t know what happened. Something bad happened, and it doesn’t feel right,” Torrey said. 

All of the things Torrey mentioned are prime examples of why victims don’t always want to report incidents to police. Often times, they want to forget it ever happened or just want a safe place to talk about things without any law enforcement involvement. For that reason, shield laws are in place to protect the confidentiality of victims and what they say to counselors/advocates at RISE and other similar organizations

The laws ensure that whatever a victim tells RISE (or any trained advocate who works for a rape crisis and counseling center) can’t be used against them—by law enforcement, by the criminal justice system, in a court of law. Confidentiality is key to victims coming forward, according to Torrey. It gives them the opportunity to tell an extremely personal story and have it not be able to leave that space. 

That confidentiality privilege is also written into the CSU’s executive orders, which is why Safer’s Kaviani said the organization saw such a huge jump in students seeking services during the last school year. But, interpretation of what that executive-ordered confidentiality means in reality depends on whom you talk to. 

Torrey said some of her colleagues in the rape crisis counseling community believe shield laws only extend that privilege to rape crisis centers and the advocates that work for them—meaning that it legally doesn’t extend onto college campuses, even if the advocates working at places such as Safer are trained by organizations such as RISE. 

That reasoning is motivated by fear that the court system won’t see things the same way that the CSU system does, that victims seeking a confidential place to tell their stories on campus will have that empowering bond torn apart by a subpoena. If a judge were to subpoena a RISE advocate to testify, the advocate can basically ignore it. If a judge were to subpoena a Safer advocate to testify, Torrey said her colleagues aren’t so sure that person could do the same.

- FOR HELP ON CAMPUS:  Safer offers a campus resource for addressing sexual violence, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking through confidential crisis counseling, advocacy, and education. Call the office at 756-2282 or stop into the University Union, building 65, in the Dean of Students office. -
  • FOR HELP ON CAMPUS: Safer offers a campus resource for addressing sexual violence, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking through confidential crisis counseling, advocacy, and education. Call the office at 756-2282 or stop into the University Union, building 65, in the Dean of Students office.

Cal Poly Title IX Coordinator Cody said the university believes shield laws do extend to Safer advocates, especially because they are trained through RISE. She added that the school would fight any subpoena that tried to say different.

Torrey said in the end the issue will most likely be hashed out in a precedent-setting court case. Thus far, though, the confidentiality privilege of campus-based advocates has yet to be tested. 

The debate over that definition shouldn’t take anything away from Safer. Torrey said RISE is confident in Safer’s ability to provide quality services. 

“Cal Poly has already been providing those services before they were required to,” she said. “Other universities are a little bit behind.” 

Yes means yes

Legislation is helping push other colleges and universities to catch up with Cal Poly, in terms of providing services to victims and prevention education. 

In 2013, Congress passed The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act requiring most higher education institutions to educate students on the prevention of rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. 

In 2014, California passed the “yes means yes” bill, co-authored by Central Coast Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). The bill made the state the first in the nation to define affirmative sexual consent and required universities and colleges to educate students about affirmative consent and sexual assault. In October 2014, the U.S. Department of Education announced changes to the Clery Act, which mandates annual reporting of crimes that occur on campus. Those changes took effect in July 2015 and strengthen reporting and policy disclosure requirements for domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. 

This month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law, also authored by Jackson, that gives community colleges the ability to discipline students for sexual assaults and domestic violence incidents that occur off campus. Four-year schools already have that ability. And yet another assault bill authored by Jackson is awaiting the governor’s signature. It would require high schools to teach students about sexual assault and violence and prevention as part of sex education. 

RISE Executive Director Jennifer Adams said although conversations surrounding rape and sexual assault have made some forward progress in the 20 years she’s worked as an advocate, the culture hasn’t really changed all that much. As a nation, we’re still blaming victims—though a little less often—and we still don’t believe women when they say they’ve been raped, she said.

Citing Bill Cosby as an example, she said the majority of society didn’t believe he’d assaulted any women, even after numerous victims came forward. It was only after the deposition was unsealed, and it was revealed that Cosby admitted to giving women drugs, that people could no longer say it wasn’t true. 

“You’re talking about something the majority of the population engages in—consensual sex—and you take one thing out of it, and that’s consent,” she said. And that thing happens between two people, he said, she said. “The criminal justice system is not the end all, be all answer to this question.”

So what is the answer? 

“We need to put the focus on why are and how are we raising our men so that this is ok,” Adams said. “It’s so accepted that this happens, and so, if we want to avoid it, we have to protect ourselves.”

A woman taking steps to protect herself isn’t a bad thing: It’s empowering, Adams said. But protection isn’t enough. Something’s got to change on the other side of the equation.

According to FBI crime statistics, there was one forcible rape every 6.2 minutes in the nation during 2012 and one every 6.6 minutes in 2013. And that’s of the reported rapes, and those are rapes, not including other forms of sexual assault. According to Adams, one in three women experience some form of sexual assault, sexual violence, or domestic violence in their lifetime.

She agrees with Kaviani from Safer—kids need to start learning about sexual assault, gender roles, and how to deal with the images thrown at them from an early age. She said sex education is usually tied into teen pregnancy and prevention, not necessarily sexual assault and prevention. Both are important. Both need to be part of the same conversation.

Contact Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@newtimesslo.com

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