Changing the culture: Tulane ‘shifts the paradigm’ surrounding sexual assault

Emily Carmichael, Print News Editor

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According to data presented at “Shifting the Paradigm: Working to End Sexual Violence on Campus” Monday at the Lavin-Bernick Center, the number of people reporting sexual violence at Tulane has significantly increased. 

The Office of Institutional Equity saw 23 more complaints of sexual assault filed by Tulane students against Tulane students in the 2014-15 academic year than the year before. While this increase initially may seem to indicate a higher frequency of sexual violence, Tulane faculty and administration believe it actually demonstrates that community members feel more comfortable to come forward. 

“I think the fact that the numbers have gone up is very good,” Assistant Vice President for Campus Health Scott Tims said. “It means that more students are aware that there are resources. When an incident happens they can report it, and get help and support.”

These numbers hint at a greater cultural shift on campus surrounding sexual assault. 

Tulane has increased its efforts to combat sexual violence with initiatives like OneWave bystander intervention training, sensitivity training for faculty and staff, and the formation of The Sexual Violence Prevention & Education Coalition. 

In a show of Tulane’s dedication to this issue, President Michael Fitts, Provost Michael Bernstein and Vice President for Student Affairs Dusty Porter spoke at “Shifting the Paradigm.”

“Nothing is more important at this moment in time than addressing sexual violence,” Fitts said in his opening remarks. 

As part of this focus on sexual violence prevention, Tulane conducted a pilot climate survey to measure the state of gender-based personal violence on campus. It utilized both the National College Health Assessment and the Healthy Minds Study. 

The results of these surveys were presented at “Shifting the Paradigm,” as well as data from Student Resources and Support Services, the Office of Institutional Equity, and Campus Health. A panel of faculty and students answered questions submitted by the audience about sexual violence.

“The statistics were horrifying, but I actually was not shocked,” sophomore Rachael Bokota, who attended the event, said. “It just makes me more frightened for my female friends, and I want to do everything I can to keep them safe.”

Nationally, sexual assault is underreported. The purpose of the pilot survey was not necessarily to gain the most accurate data, but gather preliminary data to help inform future, more formal surveys.

The survey revealed three major risk factors for sexual violence: consumption of alcohol, involvement in intramural or club sports, and membership in a social fraternity or sorority. 

Tims especially stressed the role of alcohol in high-risk behavior, including, but not limited to, sexual violence.

The data revealed that on Tulane’s campus both males and females reported a higher rate of non-consensual, sexual touching when their BAC was .08 or higher. The number of reports of attempted and completed sexual penetration was also higher among females with a BAC of .08.

According to Tims, 58 percent of students self-report engaging in high-risk drinking over a previous two-week period.

“We know that students drink until they black out, or pass out, to a point where they are no longer able to care for themselves,” Tims said. “How do we stop bad things from happening in those situations? How do we keep them from harm? And that’s when I say the alcohol culture has really gotten out of control, that to me is when things become dangerous and students get hurt.”

During the panel discussion at the event, Director of TheWELL Lindsey Greeson emphasized that alcohol consumption does not excuse sexually violent behavior. 

“We can have someone with a BAC over 0.08 [who does] not experience sexual assault,” Greeson said. 

The panel focused largely on how to continue changing campus culture to one less conducive to sexual assault.

“One of the hardest things to deal with is student apathy around this issue,” said senior Tara Wilson, Panhellenic Council president and president of Tulane’s Sexual Aggression Peer Hotline and Education, who sat on the panel.

Each of the nine members of the panel spoke passionately about what they and their department could do to reduce sexual violence. Tims said student involvement is critical to student safety. 

“I think the students have this greater responsibility than faculty and staff because they’re the people who are going to be present when something happens,” Tims said. “Students have the opportunity to … really engage in keeping each other safe.”