How do you define sexual assault?
Some imagine a sinister stranger ambushing a vulnerable or heedless person in a secluded area. Others with more experience know the men or women who sexually assaulted or harassed them, know the subtleties that lead to guilt: I drank too much, so I deserved it. I went to that guy’s apartment and so it’s my fault that he raped me. My professor pressured me, implying my grade would be at stake if I didn’t do what she wanted.
“I’ve seen what it can do to people,” said Ryan Joe, a UAA environmental science student who took part in the discussion at last week’s Think Tank session hosted by the UAA Center for Community Engagement and Learning and the nonprofit Standing Together Against Rape (STAR). “They’re there, but they’re not there. Even if they recover, they still won’t change back to what they were before.”
Building effective relationships
CCEL offers its Think Tanks on the first Thursday of each month with the goal of opening a dialogue between students, faculty, organizations and individuals about possible solutions for problems in Anchorage.
Expanding the social conversation about the issues of sexual consent and sexual violence is critically important to educating people, said Bridget Dooley, who recently took up the reins of UAA’s Office of Equity and Compliance, overseeing on an interim basis the university’s efforts to take in, investigate and resolve reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Her efforts are governed by 37 words, which state: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Those words comprise Title IX, one of the educational amendments of 1972 that were attached to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Title IX prohibits gender discrimination in all programs and activities at a university and offers protection to anyone who’s been raped, touched inappropriately, harassed for dates or trapped in a situation where a much-needed scholarship or good grades might hinge on whether a student submits to sexual pressure from a coach, instructor or anyone else who can influence the course of their educational experience.
“STAR is number one on my list of organizations to build relationships with,” said Dooley, who was away last week and couldn’t attend the Think Tank. “We need to have close working relationships. None of us could do this in isolation. Though we have things happening on campus obviously, changing the tide is a community issue. We need to find out what resources they have, they need to find out the resources we have available.”
For example, if a student experiences a sexual assault off campus, Dooley says it would be important for the university to have that information so it could offer assistance.
“They might not necessarily be reporting [an assault off campus] to us, but they’re students and we want them to continue their education,” she said. “We can help them with things on campus. If they missed some classes, we can meet with faculty and figure out a solution for that.”
The key, Dooley said, is using education to transform the issue of sexual misconduct the same way education transformed the perception of smoking.
“Title IX isn’t just about this office, it’s about the whole community,” Dooley said. “Everything we do, we have to measure it by, ‘Are we changing the culture?’ Most of us grew up at a time when people smoked everywhere. That was a big culture change. We need to do the same thing with domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment. Faculty, staff, students and people in the community need to be pulling in the same direction.”
‘You’re the first person they’ve told’
It’s easier to fight the enemy if you can see it. Tim Flynn, community prevention and education manager of STAR, works with his colleagues to highlight, define and help schoolchildren and others in the Anchorage community better understand the many nuances of sexual violence and harassment.
STAR has 18 full-time employees and 10 on-call staff. Its 55 volunteers answer a 24-7-365 crisis hotline, 907-276-7273 or, toll-free, 800-478-8999.
Two STAR teams reach out to the Anchorage community: one team provides crisis intervention and other direct services—including short- and long-term counseling and other support for victims.
The other team immerses itself in weaving a prevention network that educates schoolchildren about the issues of personal safety and consent, connects with people at Clitheroe Center and Covenant House to talk about addressing addictions that can either leave a person vulnerable to sexual assault, and sets up booths to provide information and help at health fairs.
“We go as many places as possible,” Flynn said. “We went to the Polynesian health fair this weekend at Northway Mall. And, we worked with a UAA group at the interpersonal violence fair this summer downtown—‘Swear and Care’—working with the nurses here on campus.”
Flynn said it was hard for him to see people walking by the booth. “They can see our banner, see what we stand for, and they don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to deal with it,” he said. “You also get the folks that come by and break down in tears because you’re the first person they’ve told or feel comfortable talking to.”
STAR works with Green Dot Alaska, a violence prevention program that has trainers who educate people about being alert bystanders—stopping power-based violence before it can start.
“That’s something gaining a lot of traction here in Alaska,” Flynn said.
Bearing useful fruit
People at the Think Tank gathered in small groups to talk and ideas emerged:
- One student suggested creating an app that makes it easier for victims or witnesses to fill out anonymous reports when instances of sexual misconduct occur.
- Other attendees suggested creating a STAR app that could be integrated with UAA’s online presence or orientation materials, or provide maps with crisis center links on them.
- Tyus Patterson, a UAA resident assistant, said that because UAA is primarily a commuter campus, education would reach more students and be more effective on campus if it were provided beyond campus boundaries.
“A large segment of the students go back and forth,” Patterson said. “The word ‘rape’ and having this conversation has a stigma attached to it. That is one of the first barriers that needs to be taken down.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement