My initial response to last Monday’s Sexual Climate Forum was that it was “interesting.” However, in the days following the event, I realized I was frustrated – we missed an opportunity to have a truly productive conversation about a serious issue. The main source of this frustration is derived from the fact that the forum took an unfortunate turn into the all-too-familiar territory of negative aspects of Greek life at Colgate.
The forum was exceptionally well-planned, well-intended and successful in creating buzz on campus. The fact that it happened and was so highly attended speaks volumes about the potential for Colgate to confront sexual assault. The event was a step in the right direction and got people talking about the issue, which was a positive result regardless of people’s reaction to the forum itself.
Filmmaker Liz Canner facilitated the Sexual Climate Forum using a slideshow featuring clips from her newest film to guide the conversation. She posed questions asking where students felt uncomfortable on campus and why those places feel that way. Canner got the response she was clearly fishing for when parties in dark fraternity basements came up as one of these situations. A male in the audience (a member of a fraternity) then asked, “what can we do to make people feel more comfortable?” This could have and should have been a critical turning point. Unfortunately, this unique and valuable opportunity to facilitate positive discussion passed us by because, instead, Canner chose to use this moment to present the audience with a statistic comparing the amount of men affiliated with fraternities who commit sexual assault to unaffiliated men. Yes, sexual assault happens in fraternities, and it happens in other places too, so let’s not confine the conversation to a single space.
The part of the Forum that produced the most potentially helpful discussion, however, was not part of Canner’s plan. Members of the audience were able to submit questions anonymously, which were read aloud to the audience, and seek responses from the ever-quiet panel of administrators. Despite their general hesitance to speak and Canner’s tendency to redirect the conversation towards Greek life, the facilitators did a great job of steering the conversation in the direction which the students wanted it to go. It is unfortunate that Canner and administrators acted as inhibitors of conversations that students were trying to start, such as why we can’t have rape kits or SANE nurses readily available in Hamilton, or why students don’t feel comfortable going to Campus Safety for help.
Instead of leaving the Chapel with a more informed perspective on how to confront and subvert sexual assault on this campus, I left annoyed. Annoyed at the majority of the administrative panelists who were reluctant to speak and annoyed at Canner for coming in with a biased and uninformed perspective, for demonizing Greek Life and for pointing fingers instead of understand the problem. In order to have a real conversation about sexual assault, we need to involve the entire spectrum of students on this campus, because it happens everywhere. We need to understand why people are uncomfortable on this campus – you have to treat the symptoms to cure the disease.
Let’s consider the reasons why students, particularly girls, feel uncomfortable in fraternities. In my own experience, I felt much more uncomfortable in fraternities as a first-year and sophomore than I do as an upperclassman. I attribute this mostly to the fact that I did not know a single person in the fraternities I went into – yes, walking into a dark house full of strangers you have never met before is going to feel uncomfortable. That isn’t a symptom of Colgate’s campus climate, that’s a universal reality. Also, one of the statistics Canner conveniently did not emphasize during this particular discussion is that, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 73 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim already knows. So, while an unfamiliar dark basement has the potential to make someone feel awkward and uneasy, it is not the primary environment we should be trying to remedy in regard to this particular issue.
Even if Greek life were the problem, it is not going anywhere at the moment, so we need to find other, quicker means by which to approach sexual assault. At the next forum, planned for before Thanksgiving, administrators should speak up and students should keep talking, but we should leave Canner out of it. Though sexual assault is a widespread national issue, we should deal with it in a Colgate-specific manner – guided by someone who actually knows our school to appropriately and meaningfully address sexual assault at Colgate.