As policy, the Herald follows Associated Press guidelines and does “not generally identify those who say they have been sexually assaulted…except in unusual circumstances.” The four interviews with survivors of sexual misconduct on this campus were conducted on the record, and the Herald will not identify those victims of sexual assault and harassment. Instead we have given them the opportunity to choose a pseudonym with which we will reference their interview. The Herald chose this process to allow readers to follow the story and its notations about incidents of sexual misconduct.
On July 7, 2015, New York State signed into law “Enough is Enough,” which is an aggressive policy to fight sexual assault on college campuses. The law, coupled with the number of trainings our Title IX office leads in a given year, gives an impression of progress and success. In the past academic year, the HWS Title IX office reached approximately 3,300 students (with duplicates) through trainings in-person and online. The “Not Anymore” training in the fall of 2017 had a 98 percent participation rate. These numbers foster an illusion on campus that the problem of sexual assault is getting better.
As our statistics found, sexual assault is always a problem – especially on college campuses. The difficulty is that the culture of college campuses is such that most, at times inadvertently, promote this climate.
The Herald News Team spoke with Susan Lee, Title IX coordinator, who noted, “I think the climate is part of what’s driving why we’re not getting reporting. But most importantly, the whole rape culture and the whole climate of disrespect and discrimination and harassment, all of that works towards making rape and relationship violence acceptable behaviors – or behaviors that people feel that they can do. I think that as long as the climate is disrespectful towards anybody, that still feeds rape culture, because it’s a form of violence and it supports violence.”
The broader issue is that those who know that sexual misconduct is an issue are the ones involving themselves in fixing the issue – there is not full engagement. The primary number of students who engage with trainings or fill out the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) survey are those who are consistently engaged in the discussion. They are, most likely, not the perpetrators of the problem because they understand what is going on.
Around 448 students completed the 2017 HEDS survey. That is 19 percent of HWS students. On the other hand, 98 percent of the student body completed the “Not Anymore” training. The other 2 percent face social probation. Is that truly the only way to engage students: through fear of punishment?
From the HEDS survey, 36 percent of students do not agree that other students “contribute to a positive and supportive campus climate at HWS.” This pinpoints the more direct problem at HWS. It is, of course, difficult to eradicate sexual misconduct from any environment, but when the climate and culture as a whole perpetuate the cycle of violence, then the task becomes near impossible.
Betty, a survivor of sexual misconduct, was on her way to report to Title IX, coming from downtown. On her way there for the meeting she was catcalled two times on South Main Street.
A senior student the Herald spoke with noted that “assault is ingrained” and part of our culture. She continued and said that it is a largely American problem, in terms of the size of the issue, because the “expectation is that if you’re out it is because you want attention or sex, which is something that is not in other cultures.” It is, in a basic sense, an insoluble issue.
The other difficulty is in discussing sexual misconduct. It is not a normalized topic of discussion in everyday campus life. It stigmatizes the actions and does two things: reduces conversations about sexual misconduct on campus and creates fear in reporting sexual misconduct.
Forty-three percent of female-identifying students and 34 percent of male-identifying students at HWS did not believe that other students would support someone making a report to Title IX. There is an implicit stigma against both sexual assault and reporting to Title IX. But it is not stigmatized in such a way that no one talks about it. Joking discussions, particularly among Hobart men, about sexual assault can be heard in nearly all areas of campus at all hours of the day and night. Rape is not stigmatized; it is a joke.
“The guys here are really uncouth and just don’t understand how to be respectful or just be a normal human being. I mean there were multiple times before where I had been catcalled just walking downtown in broad daylight or at night, it didn’t matter.…I did not have a very good impression of the culture here when it came to that,” said Maria, a sexual assault survivor.
There is a feeling of toxic masculinity on the campus that allows for a masking of true intentions and provide a safeguard for violent tendencies and actions. Veronica, a survivor of sexual assault at HWS, said: “The two men who attacked me were part of honors societies. I still see one of them all the time and I have had club overlap with these men. The office doesn’t acknowledge that sexual assault is not black and white and that it can take many forms. Rape can happen with people you’re in a relationship with and it can happen, most of the time it does, with people who you know well.”
It’s an unsafe environment for most women. Maria said that after her assault she is still catcalled. During those instances she remarked that she is “thinking, ‘Are they just catcalls? Is that really their only intention? What are other intentions do they have with that speech?’ And it kind of made me suspicious and paranoid of guys here, which sucks. But it does seem like – it just makes me question like how serious it really is: how severe and how widespread it is on this campus. What is behind just that harassment? What is behind that? Is there assault? There very well could be.”
The unfortunate thing is that until an incident sparks the campus into action, this conversation will not occur. Discussions of how to deal with sexual misconduct and ensure students’ safety is not a priority of most students. After The New York Times article in 2014, Professor Hannah Dickinson, who serves on the Title IX Coordinating Committee and Fraternity Review Team, noted that committees immediately came up and faculty took significant roles in working on procedures and policy for the school. Before then, the last review had taken place nearly a decade prior. Athletic Director Mike Hanna, who was a Hobart graduate and fraternity member, led the review and he used graduates, current fraternity members, national experts, and campus staff members.
Professor Chris Woodworth considered the student-led initiatives that began after The New York Times article. Hobart Students for Equality And Respect (H.E.A.R.) aimed “to promote a culture of respect and awareness in which Hobart students can foster their own growth and understanding.” In some ways it functioned as the natural brother to the Women’s Collective. But in recent years, H.E.A.R. dissolved in the spring of 2016. These failures on the part of the student body contribute to the misunderstanding about sexual misconduct on the campus and, through inaction, promote a dangerous culture and climate.
Of course there are trainings put on by the Office of Title IX which aim to educate and help students on campus understand their options and the broad topic of sexual misconduct. However, they do not always come across well to students. Both faculty and students have noted that the presentations seem too clinical, there is not much time for them to be administered, and they are not tailored to our campus and thus seem distant. Most of those faculty and students pointed to Mosaic NY, “Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ ongoing theatre company devoted to provoking dialogue, developing community, celebrating diversity, and encouraging the active pursuit of social justice.” The group is run by Professor Heather May, but the content, scripts, and performance come from the students in the company. They are extremely personal performances that connect to the campus and can relate to students.
Maria noted that in her Kaleidoscope training, “…people didn’t seem to [care] and would kind of just laugh. Obviously, a lot of the women took it more seriously, but a lot of the guys would kind of just laugh it off and think, ‘Oh it’s funny, it’s a joke – like whatever – it’s okay. Me saying, you know, some random girl on the street looks hot is not assault, it’s not harassment, it’s just me being funny or me being a guy.’ They just seemed to laugh it off and not really consider what was actually being said.”
Are there better ways for the school to discuss sexual misconduct while educating incoming students and continuing to educate older students? Yes, but like most things it needs to be led by students and personal attuned to the culture and climate on the campus here.
When asked how the school and its students can work to prevent sexual assaults, Vice President for Campus Life Robert Flowers responded, “How is by never giving up, and you always have to [never give up]. …it’s every place we have to work on that. [Title IX training and prevention] is something that we can never stop doing, we have to always do this. Every time there’s a report, every time there’s information.”
The hard thing is that most people think it is micro-aggressions, until it escalates. And when it escalates, most people – including students and staff – are unable to control it. Veronica noted that she “didn’t realize how often women on this campus are assaulted and I didn’t realize that I would be assaulted twice on this campus.”
It speaks to the broader understanding of the culture at Hobart and William Smith. “I did not have a very good impression of the culture here…And I feel like a lot of people see it as a joke,” Maria said. “Like ‘Oh well they’re just kidding’ or ‘They’re just messing around’ or ‘They’re guys; boys will be boys,’ and this toxic masculinity – I just can’t deal with it.”
Maria added, “Unfortunately [sexual assault] is something I had to prepare for as a woman… Parents shouldn’t have to see their daughters preparing for college only to know that they have to be aware of this thing, that is so pervasive and so ingrained in our culture that it’s something that we have to talk about a lot. It’s good to talk to about it but at the same time you have to think, ‘Wow – it happens this often that we have to always have these conversations about it and we have to instill this fear in women to always watch their back.’ It’s just very terrible to think about.”
The only thing left to do is to talk about it. We, as a campus community, need to bring this issue to the forefront of our daily lives and discuss it with everyone in order to make progress. Flowers said, “At its core, the most important thing that came out of 2014 was that we had an entire campus community engaged in conversation about what is one of the most difficult and challenging and simply horrible aspects of college life.”
Professor Woodworth acknow, “Anything that has great momentum with it is student driven.” It is only students who can create a lasting impact of change on the campus.