No one enjoys broaching the subject of sexual violence. Most college students feel squeamish just thinking about it, and their parents may not know or want to know that it happens so frequently. But because nearly one in four women will be sexually assaulted at some point during their college careers, no institution of higher education can avoid the subject.
So how can university administrators and law enforcement professionals tackle this topic effectively, appropriately, and with limited funding, time, personnel and student attention spans?
These were the struggles West Virginia University (WVU) Sexual Assault Prevention Educator Deb Beazley faced when she began presenting sexual assault prevention classes in 1998.
Facts and Stats Bore Young Adults
"As any good middle-aged person would do, I started out thinking that if I just presented the facts, then the students would change," she says. "So I came up with a wonderful presentation with many statistics, and I put the students to sleep ever so quickly."
Beazley realized that in order for her to be more effective in delivering her sexual assault prevention message, she would need to involve students in her presentations. For about three or four years she had a drama group put on the programs, with mixed results.
"That was more entertaining but not entirely realistic," she says. "A few times when it got too realistic, it was uncomfortable."
She also tried a peer education program. "It was very good, but it's hard to maintain student/peer health education groups," she says.
The challenge with this approach is that the students who are the peer educators change every year. As a result, Beazley spent a lot of time and resources training new peer educators. She also realized that unlike WVU, which has significant resources, smaller schools with populations of 2,000 to 4,000 and severely limited staff couldn't possibly support enough peer educators and mental health professionals to meet the needs of their students.
Movie Is Effective, Saves Resources
Beazley wanted a budget-friendly curriculum that was informative and kept students' attention, while being realistic without going over the line. She also believed her efforts would be more appropriate and effective if the programs were presented more often and to classes with 25 students or less.
To address this need, Beazley and a small group of filmmakers created "Welcome to the Party," a 34-minute movie that is loosely based on the real-life rape of a college freshman.
"With 'Welcome to the Party,' I can present it five or six times per day," she says. "Our film is realistic, but it's canned enough so that someone can just pick it up in the morning and impact a lot of people."
The setting of the movie - or as Beazley prefers to call it, "curriculum" - is a party with college students and drinking.
Before she shows the film to students, however, she let's them know what they are about to see. Beazley is also selective with whom she allows to present the program - only trained individuals who thoroughly understand sexual assault.
She and the other presenters carefully evaluate their audience. "If I get any sense that this might be a more immature class, I'll tell people, 'You know, the statistics are one in four [women in college will be sexually assaulted], so it's likely there is a victim in the classroom right now,'" she tells the students. "'Before you make funny comments, try to hold back on that because it might be hurtful to someone in the room.'"
The film then starts, but WVU's sexual assault prevention educators don't just let it run without engaging the students. They pause the movie at various points and talk about what is going to happen. (They also monitor the class and step in if an attendee appears to be traumatized by the movie.)
"In the second half of the film, when things get ugly, it only takes a minute," she says. "Students can see 'Yeah, I've got to be careful because things could go south just that quickly."
Alcohol's Role Is Addressed Carefully
Because alcohol and/or drugs are often an integral part of college sexual assaults, these topics must be covered, but in a way that doesn't blame the victim.
"The key words are 'reducing vulnerability,'" says Beazley. "We don't say, 'If you get drunk, it's your fault.' We've got to stay far, far from that.
"On the other hand, [the topic of alcohol and drugs] is really important, and I let the students tell me that it increases your vulnerability if you are under the influence. Using 'Welcome to the Party,' I ask them 'How come you can see who the assailant is now, but this is happening on campus almost every day?' And they'll say, 'Well, we're sober.' And I'll say, 'Thank you.' (Article continues below).
Because alcohol and/or drugs are often an integral part of college sexual assaults, these topics must be covered, but in a way that doesn’t blame the victim. “We don’t say, ‘If you get drunk, it’s your fault.’ We’ve got to stay far, far from that,” says WVU’s Sexual Assault Prevention Educator Deb Beazley. Photo via Flickr, Frederic Poirot.
"It doesn't mean it's the victim's fault. It just means you reduce your vulnerability when you know what's going on around you. It's a matter of safety and reducing vulnerability."
The film goes on to cover what happens after the assault, and how nurses collect evidence of the attack.
When the film concludes, WVU sexual assault prevention educators discuss where to take a friend if he or she has been assaulted. The educators explain the process of going to the school's two sexual assault nurse examiners. Additionally, they explain that the victim will not have to pay for the services rendered.
"Their mom and dad's insurance won't be billed," says Beazley. "So as long as they are 18, it's confidential. That seems to be very important to students - that they are in control of who knows. They almost always tell mom and dad, but the idea that this thing won't get away from them seems to be important."
Beazley is also keen on asking students to take care of each other. "I like to say, 'If you were at this party, what would you do? Could you be a courageous bystander?' We talk about what they could do differently," she says. "Because when they decide, it's social norming, and they don't have this middle-aged lady them how to act, which doesn't work."
To view a trailer of "Welcome to the Party," click here. (Warning: Has some explicit language.) For additional information, visit www.reelinsight.org.
WVU's Sexual Assault Prevention Program Fast Facts
- The hour-long program is included in the school's University 101 class. Every incoming freshman is required to take this course. Students must either attend the "Welcome to the Party" session, or participate in an online module and take a test that follows it. Class size is about 25, although "Welcome to the Party" is also shown at fraternity and sorority houses and in theaters.
- Two nurses on campus are assigned to handle sexual assault cases.
- The Well WVU Web site has a special section dedicated to this topic: http://well.wvu.edu/sexual_health_pages/contraception/sexual_assault. It also has a Web site dedicated to sexuality and contraception: http://well.wvu.edu/sexual_health_pages/contraception
How to Present This Material to Law Enforcement
"I lean a little more towards empathy and understanding," says Beazley. "It's got to be awfully difficult to be a law enforcement officer and see this happening over and over again. They may not understand just how quickly a situation can go south. Law enforcement officers aren't necessarily going to show this film. I show it to them so they can see how it is happening. It mostly involves acquaintances (85 percent). Also, depending on how far along they are, I talk to them about the whole 'fault' thing."
When a Victim Comes Forward
"The vast majority of students who come forward follow through with judicial, and we do expel," says Beazley. "For many victims, that's a commitment they are willing to make, even if they aren't willing to do the criminal course. When a victim comes in, we explain realistically how the criminal justice system works. The idea of going down and talking to our judicial administrators and having an outcome in five or six weeks, knowing that they are going to be treated gently and fairly, that's huge."