September 23, 2015

Cornellians Urge Change in Campus Sex Culture

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In light of the recently released results of the  Association of American Universities sexual assault study, administrators and students stressed the need for a greater change in campus culture regarding the issues.

“As President [Elizabeth] Garrett stated in her message to the community, even one instance of sexual assault is one too many,” said Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, and Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources, in a joint-statement. “Sexual harassment and violence have no place in our community.”

The administrators, referring to a campus-wide email sent by Garrett concerning the results of the survey on Monday, stressed that while Cornell has “devoted substantial attention and resources” to combating sexual assault, more work needs to be done.

“We must stay focused on this issue, and understand and respond to what our students and others are saying,” they said.

In regards to changing Cornell’s climate, Lombardi and Opperman said the campus “needs to start upstream by fostering a sense of community and challenging traditional student social interactions that create a risky climate.”

“We will continue to work closely with campus resources — including the LGBT Resource Center, Women’s Resource Center, Gannett Health Services and other organizations — to clearly identify any and all issues these students, as well as faculty and staff, may be facing,” they said.

Despite the low response rate of 19 percent of Cornell students, both Lombardi and Opperman said the results of the survey still hold importance.

“We would have preferred a higher response as it is important that every student voice be heard on this issue. But we take these results seriously,” they said, adding that the survey, combined with meetings with Cornellians from across campus, will be considered in future conversations.

“We are focused on improving our climate, and see these results as additional information to add to what we already know. We also hope that an increasing number of students will use these surveys, as well as Council on Sexual Violence Prevention and other student organizational meetings, to make their voices heard,” they added.

Students Respond

Vrinda Shukla ’17 said she was “surprised by the amount of people who reported witnessing a drunk[en] sexual encounter but not stopping it,” referring to a statistic that of the half of Cornell respondents who said they had witnessed an intoxicated individual heading toward a sexual encounter, 79 percent said they did not intervene.

“If people can stop their friends from driving while drunk, they should be able to stop them from having sex when they’re too drunk as well,” she said.

Shukla added that a key priority of the University must be to create support systems for those affected by sexual harassment or assault.

“In that way, [the University] can help these victims who may be too scared to openly admit to it and get justice, as well as address how these encounters happened to prevent more cases in the future,” she said.

Junseo Lee ’16 said he was also surprised “at the proportion of females who reported experiences of non-consensual sexual contact, especially since they began attending Cornell.”

The AAU survey reported that 22.6 percent of Cornell’s female undergraduates had experienced non-consensual sexual contact, which included acts that ranged from sexual touching to penetration, since they enrolled in the University. Of Cornell’s female undergraduate respondents, 13.5 percent said they had experienced non-consensual sexual contact in the 2014 to 2015 academic year in which the survey was conducted.

According to Lee, the University should shift its focus from raising awareness of unwanted sexual encounters to “more about how much they [the University] care to do more than what’s already being done.”

“Even though only a few [proportion of the] people responded, the alarming results can at least give us a greater sense of urgency to participate more in addressing this issue,” he said.

On the other hand, Radhika Gupta ’18, Student Assembly women’s issues liaison, said she the results of the survey did not shock her.

“I have many female friends, and I can see this statistic play out often times in real life,” she said.

Additionally, Gupta said she thought President Garrett’s email “shows that there is some attention being given to the problem of sexual assault,” but is still unclear on the specific procedures.

“President Garrett’s email is quite vague in explaining precisely which steps the University will be taking, but she does describe the general direction the University will be working in.”

According to Gupta, she “would like to see more direct attention given to the problem of sexual assault in the future.”

Gupta said that in addition to student training on sexual assault, as described in President Garrett’s email, “students should also be trained in reporting sexual assault.”

“Unfortunately, much of the cases on campus do go unreported, and we, as a University should try our best to push victims to report sexual assault so we can get a better idea of where these problems exist,” she said.

Furthermore, Gupta said that she hopes to see a more proactive approach on this issue from the new president.

“What I would like to see in the future is continued attention to this problem from her, and more specific details sent out to students about how this problem is being dealt with,” Gupta said.

Andrew Lord contributed reporting to this article.