Student session at sexual assault conference creates opportunity for discussion

February 13, 2014

As a fourth year student at UVa with a strong interest in sexual assault prevention and education on Grounds, I was eager to attend multiple events at the Dialogue at UVa: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students. A two-day conference with noteworthy speakers from across the country, the goals of this seminar were “to foster intellectual debate” and to focus on “how we might together begin to change the culture that fuels sexual misconduct,” according to President Sullivan on the conference website (http://www.virginia.edu/sexualmisconductdialogue/).

For me, the most exciting event at the conference for me was the Monday night movie screening and student panel. After a short screening of “The Spitting Game,” a film about college hook-up culture, a panel of four UVa students, moderated by fourth year Evan Behrle, started the difficult conversation about how to address the issue of sexual assault here at the University of Virginia.

The movie was an interesting depiction on college hook-up culture. Writer and producer Denise Ann Evans is pretty far removed from the culture, though she explained that she could convince college students to tell her more about their lives imagining her as the “cool aunt” figure. For more information on that movie, here is a link to the IMBd ratings (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1370295/) and the movie’s website (http://www.collegehookupculture.com/). Though the movie was certainly a conversation starter, I think the panel that followed was the true focus of the night.

All four panelists were actively involved in UVa organizations that create a dialogue speaking out against sexual abuse. Caroline Parker (the external chair of Sustained Dialogue, spoke for the many UVa students who had already seen the screening of “The Spitting Game”), Matt Menezes (the president of One in Four, the all-male UVa sexual assault prevention group), Karina Carlson (the co-President of One Less, the all-female sexual assault prevention group) and Emily Renda (the chair of the Sexual Assault Leadership Council).

Renda started the discussion by telling her story as a survivor of sexual assault. As unsettling as it is to hear such an account, she emphasized why we need to tell these stories: because they are common, even average on college campuses. She made the point from the very beginning that all of the students up on stage were there to make a difference in our community in an incredible way.

As the panel continued, the conversations mainly focused on creating a dialogue to confront sexual assault. Matt Menezes spoke about the difficulties of starting the conversation with average students because most people, especially the males he speaks to, are afraid to make it real. Karina Carlson mentioned that sex is both the most and least talked about issue around Grounds, implying that we talk about it in all the wrong ways. All student advocates talked about how the greatest difficulty they face in speaking out about sexual assault is the unwillingness of students to admit that we live in a society in which this is a real problem.

The panel also addressed the administration and hinted that allowing a more open dialogue about the subject among both students and faculty is crucial for awareness and prevention. Sexual abuse is about power and in order to create a safe university environment, that power dynamic needs to change and the administration has the ability to initiate that change.

The students’ goals for the future of sexual assault awareness compared to those of Honor system at UVa and how ingrained safety should be in our society. Menezes said that his goal for sexual assault awareness was to make it a part of the message that surrounds first year life. Renda suggested the Jeffersonian idea of “living with honor” to not only mean simply avoiding lying, cheating, or stealing, but also to live with the moral integrity to speak out against sexual assault. Safety and respect should be ingrained into UVa students’ daily lives like honor and not as an afterthought.

By Emily Lloyd

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