Fighting sexual assault can’t be optional for MIT students
Editor’s Note: This column originally ran in the October 31, 2014 issue of The Tech.
On Monday, MIT released detailed results of a survey designed to investigate the scope and nature of sexual misconduct in our community. The survey is a rare quantitative examination of sexual assault at colleges — in several ways the first of its kind among MIT’s peer institutions — and is a true example of bold leadership by the MIT administration and chancellor. And the data and resulting action plan were released with public honesty in a time when many colleges across the country seem to be primarily trying to avoid the issue.
The summary of the results forces us to confront difficult truths about our community. Thirty-five percent and 14 percent of female and male undergraduate respondents indicated that they had experienced a form of unwanted sexual behavior while at MIT, respectively. And 17 percent of female undergraduate respondents indicated that they had experienced behavior defined as rape or sexual assault under conditions of force, threat, or incapacitation.
But there is another difficult fact that the survey and the administration haven’t seemed to acknowledge: the success of the administration’s proposals will require a level of student involvement that we simply haven’t seen before.
The administration leaves no doubt that it hopes these results will spur a campus-wide dialogue and that students will take the lead in many of the proposed projects. But without robust participation from the student body, these proposals will not be effective.
Community forums and requests for feedback won’t be productive unless students submit thoughtful suggestions. Increased provision of educational services won’t have a strong effect if students don’t take them seriously. A new peer mentoring program won’t get off the ground without competent student leadership.
Moreover, students can shape the content and delivery of these services in order to maximize their reach and legitimacy. Residence-based programs offer residential governments an opportunity to take the lead in working with the administration to shape these programs and substantially improve the lives of their dorm-mates.
The administration is right — there is only so much they can do, and any meaningful decline in the troubling rates of sexual assault will require hard work by students to combat the most perverse aspects of their own culture. But it remains to be seen whether the MIT student population is up to this task.
Many MIT students too often pride themselves on a myopic focus on their technical work, even going so far as to deride peer institutions where students study the “less legitimate” subjects of history, politics, and gender studies and where student activism is prevalent rather than rare.
Of course, MIT students have mobilized for change when incensed. But here at The Tech, where we are often well-positioned to observe campus dialogue, it seems that student outrage, surprise, or even general concern about the rate of sexual assault at our school doesn’t even approach that expressed over such issues as mandatory dining plans, residential security changes, or mural policies. Indeed, it seems the predominant narrative around the survey’s release is external praise for MIT’s boldness in issuing the survey rather than student dismay at its results.
The cultures of many of our peer institutions are permeated by a basic literacy about and deep concern for these issues. That is not the case here. Sadly, MIT is the type of place where community and political discussions are seen as optional. It is also a place where the term “rape culture” is often used as a punchline for a strawman of feminism. But it’s hard to find a better term to describe a place where 40 percent of respondents don’t disagree with the statement that “rape and sexual assault happen because people put themselves in bad situations” and when 72 percent of those responding that they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior indicated that it came from another MIT student.
These are deficiencies in our culture, and it’s hard to imagine that efforts led by a small group of passionate students and administrators will move the needle on an overwhelmingly apathetic campus. After all, the survey results provide ample evidence that many students don’t take the problem as seriously as student leaders and administrators do, and some have downright regressive views. It is hard to expect releasing the results to change that fact. We do not want to be defeatist, but we do think we need a more frank discussion of the magnitude of action required.
We also call on the administration to more seriously consider what will be necessary to effect change given the current student climate. The aversion to heavy-handed, top-down policies is commendable and a valuable heuristic. But the administration should also not shy away from opportunities to strongly urge or even require students to take specific actions.
We understand that the administration will continue to expand and update its plans in the near future. But we would like to take this opportunity to encourage decision-makers to be as bold in their future proposals as they were in issuing the survey.
To quote President Reif, sexual assault “has no place here.” The administration is aware of the fact that it has more to do. But if the entire effort is to have a chance at success, students cannot opt out of this conversation — and that’s on us.