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Monday, Jun 5, 2023

More Is Needed to Combat Rape Culture

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">MAX PADILLA</a></span><br />Students could write and post comments on a board next to the map.
Students could write and post comments on a board next to the map.

We would like to commend the Map Project created by It Happens Here (IHH) as a crucial step toward increased awareness of sexual assault and harassment on our campus. While the number of incidents represented on the map may come as no surprise to some students, the map is nonetheless an important call to rally the Middlebury community against rape culture. It also demonstrates a clear need for additional preventative measures to protect students from assault and harassment.

The concept for the Map Project is simple: an aerial view of Middlebury’s campus populated with a series of red dots, each one representing an instance of sexual assault or sexual harassment that has occurred on campus. To populate the map, students anonymously submitted data about instances of assault and harassment to IHH through a go-link posted last fall. By offering anonymity, IHH empowered survivors to share their experiences without losing their privacy or having to endure the process of formally reporting traumatic experiences. 

The largest concentrations of red dots on the map appear in notoriously problematic buildings on campus, including Battell and Atwater Halls A and B, where athletic teams often host open parties. Since many parties on Middlebury’s campus are closed, Atwater parties are often the default social space for first-years who don’t have alternatives on weekend nights. It seems likely that the combination of an upperclassman living space and first-year partygoers contributes to a predatory sexual environment. Notably, the space with the second-largest number of red dots is Battell, a first-year dorm. This suggests that the online training intended to teach incoming students about consent and discourage them from committing sexual assault and harassment is not as successful as it ought to be in protecting first-years from assault and harassment by their peers. 

Outside of residential and party spaces, even academic locations like Twilight and Axinn contain red dots, revealing just how pervasive sexual assault and harassment is at the college. If students are unable to occupy the spaces on campus that are explicitly devoted to education without fearing assault or harassment, then Middlebury is failing to fulfill its most basic purpose: to be an environment conducive to learning.

Another student reaction to the Map Project exhibition in Davis Family library last week.

Currently, the majority of on-campus resources available to assault survivors are student-led, such as SPECS, MiddSafe, the SGA’s Sexual and Relationship Respect Committee (SRR) and IHH. While we commend these organizations for their work, we also recognize a clear need for additional administrative support to more effectively address the issue of campus-wide sexual misconduct.

We ask that the administration take the Map Project as evidence that the Green Dot sexual assault prevention program is limited in what it can accomplish. Although Green Dot’s bystander awareness training initiatives are an important first step, its organizers would likely be the first to admit that it does not change the culture at the heart of sexual assault and harassment. And the fact that the vast majority of the map’s dots appear in social spaces suggests that even when bystanders are present near instances of sexual assault, they do not reliably intervene. A real social shift needs to occur in order for cases of sexual assault and harassment to approach zero. Students may not always know which of their friends have sexually assaulted or harassed others, but many know which of their friends behave “badly” at parties or demonstrate unhealthy attitudes about sex and relationships behind closed doors. Those students are the ones most in need of productive conversations with their friends about consent and respect. Bystander intervention can help in potentially dangerous situations, but difficult conversations among friends — and the absolute social unacceptability of harassment and assault — will be required to end the minimization of consent and trivialization of assault and harassment that contribute to rape culture.

We recommend that the college implement a new anti-sexual assault training program that requires students to learn the nuances of sexual harassment and assault in-person rather than online. The current electronic educational program students undergo prior to their first year is too easy for a student to click through without internalizing its message. 

As a more immediate measure, we also think the new program could place a greater emphasis on the punitive consequences of committing assault. Perhaps if more students understood and feared the disciplinary repercussions of sexual violations, the overall number of incidents would decrease, at least in the short term.

Of course, emphasizing the consequences of committing sexual assault or harassment will be meaningless if the college does not make the process of reporting less difficult. Some students who report their experiences of sexual assault become so overwhelmed or distraught during the process that they simply leave Middlebury. While we know there are no easy ways of changing this system, we know that the more intimidating this system is, the more difficult it will be for students to come forward.  

We also recommend that the administration explore the option of updating the college’s weekend programming to provide students with additional options other than drinking. Middlebury’s isolated location means that weekend activities for students are quite limited, oftentimes encouraging a party culture based on binge drinking. Programs like the free Friday film are a good start, and we think additional programming on Friday and Saturday nights could give students alternatives to drinking heavily and heading to Atwater.

We would also like first-years to have more opportunities to host their own parties rather than constantly being shuffled into upperclassman environments. First-year students should have more room to party among themselves to properly acclimate to college rather than immediately jumping into older, potentially more dangerous settings.

The college has often prided itself on its relatively low number of sexual assault and harassment reports as documented in its annual safety reports. But these statistics are misleading — the majority of sexual assaults on this campus go entirely unreported, which means that even IHH’s Map Project is not a complete tally of on-campus sexual misconduct. We hope that IHH’s map has revealed the extent of on-campus misconduct to the Middlebury community, and that meaningful institutional  and cultural progress follow as a result.