Addressing a Campus Epidemic: Preventing Gender Violence

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This piece was originally published in the Colorado Higher Ed News, October 2008, by our own Davian Gagne, MSW; Gender Violence Prevention & Education Coordinator in the Office of Victim Assistance in Boulder.

I am often asked, "What exactly is gender violence?" Calling someone a slut or fag and any unwanted sexual activity are a few examples of behaviors that fall along the continuum of gender violence. According to the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, gender-based violence takes many forms - physical, sexual, psychological, violence based on gender expression, coercion, and threats - and they occur in both the public and private spheres.

Sexual assault still remains the most underreported crime in the United States. What are some of the barriers for reporting? Victims may feel a great sense of shame or guilt and myths such as, "look at what they were wearing" or "they were asking for it" still exist and place the blame on the victim, not the perpetrator. Sexual violence on college campuses is also considered an epidemic and public health concern. Some statistics about sexual violence on college campuses: approximately 15-20% of female college students have experienced forced intercourse (rape) (Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000; Koss, Gidycz & Wisniewski, 1987); alcohol and other drugs were implicated in approximately 55-74% of sexual assaults on campuses (Lisak & Roth, 1990; Muehlenhard & Linton, 1987).

So what does this mean for the University of Colorado at Boulder and what are the challenges in preventing gender violence on campus? Currently, there are programs such as Community Health and Interactive Theater that provide education and opportunities for students to learn about bystander intervention. This model is considered to be a best practice in the field of prevention and teaches students skills on how to safely intervene if they witness situations that may be potentially harmful. An example of this would be a student sexually harassing another student. In addition to these programs, the University created the Gender Violence Prevention and Education Coordinator position which resides in the Office of Victim Assistance. The position was mandated as part of the Title IX lawsuit settlement between Lisa Simpson and the University. As the Gender Violence Prevention and Education Coordinator, I am charged with training and presenting on gender violence prevention to students, staff, and faculty.

Collaborative relationships are imperative for the success of the position at the university. I work in collaboration with a number of programs on campus - Community Health, The Women's Resource Center, GLBT Resource Center, Student Outreach Retention Center for Equity, and Interactive Theater to name a few. Additionally, I co-coordinate the Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment (SASH) committee; the committee is comprised of staff and students from various programs that are invested in the prevention of gender violence on campus. Recently the SASH committee was given a charge by Chancellor Bud Peterson to develop a comprehensive, systematic, integrated, holistic gender violence prevention plan for the University. In developing the plan, SASH has reviewed research related to best/promising practices for preventing gender violence. Some of the research stresses the importance of buy-in from all members of a campus community, ranging from the administration, faculty, athletic department, to the students. SASH has submitted the first component of the prevention plan to the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Dr. Julie Wong.

Gender violence exists on most campuses across the country - but rarely is the issue discussed, much less made a priority. However, with the creation of the Gender Violence Prevention and Education Coordinator position, existing prevention programs on campus, and the support of Chancellor Bud Peterson, the university has a unique opportunity to be a leader in the field of gender violence prevention and the potential to be a model for other universities.