Forum

Letter to the Editor: CMU resources for assault victims must be improved

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We, a group of current Carnegie Mellon students and recent alumni, are writing to express our concerns over a recent document that was sent out to the campus community. On Friday afternoon, Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno sent an email titled “Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment and Violence.”

In this email, she outlines the changes and initiatives that Carnegie Mellon has taken since last September to improve its handlings of sexual assault on campus—changes which are necessary, considering that the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education is currently investigating Carnegie Mellon for its alleged failure to protect students’ Title IX rights in regard to sexual assault.

Within this email, Casalegno included a link to a publication that the university developed titled “Decisions that Matter,” and touted this publication as an example of the university’s “principle initiatives” in combating sexual violence on campus.

We find it very troubling, however, that a document about sexual violence called “Decisions that Matter” seems more focused on a victim’s decisions leading up to an assault than it does on telling students to make the decision not to rape someone.

It includes a page on “Risk Reduction of Sexual Assault,” which lists specific actions students should take to avoid being assaulted, including “Taking CMU’s R.A.D. [Rape Aggression Defense] self-defense class,” and “Keeping the doors to your home locked at all times.” These “tips” reinforce the idea that most rapes on college campuses are caused by strangers who attack you on the street or break into your home.

However, in 75-80 percent of campus rape cases, a woman’s attacker is an acquaintance, classmate, friend, or (ex)boyfriend, according to the White House’s “Not Alone” report. Other tips include “Avoiding making sexual decisions while you are intoxicated,” implying that alcohol-facilitated rape is a “decision” that a victim makes.

These tips come with an asterisked aside that says these tips “cannot eliminate the chance for sexual assault,” but they still are putting the onus on (presumably) women to prevent someone else’s crime. More disturbingly, when you tell a woman that she must restrict her behavior in order to avoid being raped, what you’re really saying is that a woman should ensure that a rapist goes after someone else—and how does that help to make Carnegie Mellon an ultimately safer community?

This document also includes vague “Pathways to Being an Active Bystander,” but that list doesn’t provide advice that is anywhere near as pointed or detailed as the “Risk Reduction” tips. This approach is entirely backward, as bystander intervention — and specifically, calling out men to engage as allies — has been cited by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault as one of “the most promising prevention strategies.”

It is somewhat mind-boggling that a publication called “Decisions that Matter” that’s about sexual assault doesn’t focus entirely on the importance of getting consent in sexual interactions and on the consequences that will follow when a rapist decides to commit a crime. Even the page that lists Pennsylvania’s legal definition of rape isn’t thorough: It prominently features the phrase “forcible” compulsion, which is a term that carries certain legal connotations that Pennsylvania law has actually evolved beyond.

CMU’s initiatives may be well-intentioned — in fact, its first-year education program Haven, which Casalegno also cites in her email, actually includes information that is far more effective in preventing sexual assault.

However, Haven was only added to Orientation this year, meaning that the vast majority of the college campus is getting its education through misguided documents like “Decisions that Matter.” We suggest that those who want to learn more about proven methods of reducing sexual assault view resources on notalone.gov; students who want to learn more about their rights under Title IX to an education free of sexual assault or harassment should visit knowyourix.org.