How the Institute can do better
The community can do more to prevent sexual assault
CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this piece listed Cory Hernandez as the former UA treasurer. Hernandez is in fact the current UA treasurer. We regret the error.
Editor’s note: This article, which is part two of a two-part series, contains explicit references to sexual assault. Part one was published on Feb. 7.
Where MIT’s response falls short
Responding to calls for greater action to curb sexual assault on university campuses, President Obama recently reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to support survivors and fight against sexual assault. Under the current administration, the federal government has expanded the definition of rape to include rapes of men. In addition, Congress and President Obama renewed the Violence Against Women Act and broadened its scope to include LGBT, Native American, and immigrant victims. And just this month, President Obama created the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The Boston Globe article mentioned in the first part of this series reported that reports of sexual assault were on the rise at Boston-area schools. But this potentially alarming statistic also suggest that students are feeling more supported and aware of how to make reports at their schools, that better victim advocates and reporting mechanisms are on the rise, and schools are beginning to keep better records of assault report statistics.
These successes on a national level serve as an example for what we must do as a community. We call on the students, faculty, staff, and administrators of MIT to do more. Just one instance of sexual assault or rape is too many. Yet MIT’s efforts to curb sexual assault sometimes fall short.
Specifically, when charges are brought, MIT’s disciplinary actions for those who commit sexual assault or rape do not always lead to expulsion. Many offenders are merely suspended or given a slap on the wrist and told not to do it again, whereas they ought to be expelled. As a result, some victims allege that MIT values protecting its public image over protecting victims and bringing perpetrators to justice. This is especially important because 63% of college men who rape will do so again, according to a report released by the White House Council on Women and Girls.
We suggest that MIT students be required to attend a training session provided by MIT Violence Prevention and Response (VPR) on sexual assault and rape prevention and response every year, not just during Orientation. In fact, the training received by freshmen is rather limited in scope. First, the video that students are required to watch over summer is laughably unengaging — some simply let it play and go do something else. The on-campus Sex Signals production has been known to be triggering, offensive, and lacking an effective debriefing for the scenarios of sexual assault portrayed by the actors. Furthermore, Sex Signals does not fully incorporate male and non-gender binary assault survivors, nor the LGBTQAI community. Perhaps viable alternatives to the existing orientation trainings include Speak About It, the production that recently replaced Sex Signals at Harvard, or a version similar to Tech Theater.
Whatever the new training module chosen, we call on the administrators to adopt a more effective program and to start a community-wide conversation about what is the best option for freshmen as well as graduate orientation. Fortunately, discussions have already begun on such alternatives.
Before Orientation however, many incoming students participate in freshman pre-orientation programs (FPOPs). The Freshman Leadership Program (FLP) is one example in which some of this article’s authors participated. One activity used by FLP — among other FPOPs — is based upon gender. After discussing male and female gender stereotypes, the activity asks participants to divulge personal information about their experiences relating to gender, including those regarding sexual assault. In particular, one author of this article was triggered to a great extent by much of the activity, including many of the stories others were disclosing. We ask that the Student Activities Office, which sponsors FLP, and the program coordinators and counselors extensively revamp this activity to ensure that potentially triggering statements can be avoided.
The Graduate Student Orientation, while generally comprehensive in the breadth of information conveyed compared to other graduate institutions, also fails to include a training on harassment and assault. We note that the Women’s Welcome organized by students of Graduate Women @ MIT (GWAMIT), does highlight resource staff and information from VPR, but this event is attended by 300 graduate women and not provided for the whole community. A series of workshops called “Positivity@MIT” were organized in Fall 2012 by GWAMIT, and are the closest events to graduate community-wide harassment training.
What the Institute has done well
We have written this article out of a sincere affinity and love for MIT and a desire to make our community a safer and more welcoming space. At the time of this publication, the recently-passed federal “Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act” will be going into effect. This legislation builds upon Title IX and the Clery Act to explicitly mandate universities to not only develop disciplinary actions for perpetrators of sexual harassment, dating and domestic violence, and stalking, but also for universities to take active measures of prevention — to ensure harassment-free environments for all students. MIT must take preventative measures to reduce sexual harassment, sexual violence, and rape culture on campus.
We would also like to acknowledge the work that has been done in recent months, by students as well as staff, to educate the community on sexual assault.
We would be remiss to not mention the incredible work of the MIT Office of Violence Prevention and Response (VPR), staffed by merely three dedicated victim advocates. VPR provides resources for survivors of sexual violence, sexual harassment, dating violence, stalking, and counsels on tools for maintaining healthy relationships. If you need resources, advice, or any support, we encourage you to call VPR’s 24-hour hotline: 617-253-2300.
In addition, VPR and many students, faculty, and staff collaborate on the annual Sexual Assault Awareness Month series of events every April, including the campus version of the national “Take Back the Night” movement.
Every year, the student organization Stop Our Silence produces The Vagina Monologues, a national movement and drama production about survivors of sexual assault and violence. Consider inviting your friends and community members to watch The Vagina Monologues with you in February.
In Fall 2012, a new student organization called SAFER² (Students Advocating For Education on Respectful Relationships) was created with the goal of reducing sexual violence and advocating for healthy relationships through peer educational workshops in dorms and living groups. Consider inviting SAFER² to your dorm, fraternity, sorority, or living group.
In addition, on Feb. 28, SAFER² will be hosting a “One Night Stand for Student Rights,” a summit to address issues of sexual violence on campus, featuring award-winning spoken word artist Staceyann Chin, who will speak to issues of sexual assault, campus culture, queer and multiracial identity.
In Spring 2013, two students, Chacha Durazo and Nancy Ouyang, produced a documentary called “Project dx/dt” featuring interviews of MIT students identifying as survivors of sexual assault and sharing their survivor testimonials. Consider watching and discussing this documentary of MIT survivors with your community and living group.
MIT recently hired a Title IX Investigator, Sarah Rankin, formerly the Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response at Harvard University. We urge you to consider joining the Title IX Working Group if you are interested in issues of policy, especially with regards to the federal Clery Act and Campus SaVE Act, as well as MIT policies. Students, faculty, and staff can also participate in VPR’s #Consent Campaign and in the MIT launch of the national “Speak Up” Campaign led by Prof. Ed Bertschinger, the new Institute Community and Equity Officer.
These are just some of the tools for dismantling rape culture at MIT. But we can do more.
We ask for the community to help offer ways to fight against beliefs and behaviors of rape culture. We suggest up-to-date, comprehensive, and mandatory anti-harassment and anti-violence training for the community, especially undergraduate and graduate student leaders, housemasters, RAs, and GRTs. While many of these groups receive some training already, we believe that some of it is rather inadequate. We strongly advocate reforms to the orientation programming for incoming undergraduates and graduate students, and the ending of using student funds to fund student publications that are a part of the rape culture on campus. We deeply appreciate the work of VPR but recognize that the office is overstretched and understaffed for a university community of our size.
In general, there are many examples of the manifestations of rape culture across MIT, whether it be on a social media site, at a social event, or during an activity. And the first step toward preventing and dismantling the rape culture that pervades our Institute is to be able to recognize its existence. While we have shown a few examples in this article, we encourage you to think about other areas of MIT that exemplify this culture.
In reaction to this article, we anticipate denial — but we can also hope for affirmation, solidarity, and positive and progressive action. Part of this hope stems from the positive and supportive reactions to The Tech article on Jan. 29, 2014, in which a brave individual shared her story of surviving a sexual assault at MIT. Indeed, the author specifically mentioned that MIT police were very supportive compared to the Assistant District Attorney. MIT’s reaction to the incident shows the potential we have as a community to dismantle rape culture.
Cory Hernandez is a member of the Class of 2014, an undergraduate Member-at-Large of the ASA, as well as UA treasurer and Finboard Vice-Chair. Mitali Thakor is a graduate student in the department of Science, Technology, and Society, Charlie Andrews-Jubelt is a member of the Class of 2017, and Chacha Durazo is a member of the Class of 2014.