Whyte: Sexual assault is not just a women’s issue

Amy Whyte, Opinion Editor

Sexual assault is a serious problem, at Northwestern, at other college campuses, in the world at large.

But too often it’s treated specifically as a women’s problem — like unplanned pregnancies or menstrual cramps, it’s a problem that happens to us, so it’s our job to prevent it.

Growing up, girls are taught to protect themselves against possible attacks. We’re supposed to travel in groups, avoid walking home at night, take self-defense classes. We’re instructed to clutch keys in one hand and our cell phones in the other, with the speed dial set to 911. We’re told to be careful about how much and where we drink and to be mindful of how we dress lest we give the impression we’re “asking for it.”

Last month, a group of well-meaning college students even developed a nail polish designed to detect date rape drugs slipped into beverages — once again fighting sexual assault by focusing on ways women can protect themselves.

But just like how pregnancy is best prevented when both partners are actively using protective measures — birth control AND condoms — sexual assault is best combated when it is treated as not solely a women’s issue.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice gifted Northwestern a nearly $300,000 grant to expand its sexual assault prevention efforts. The University will use these funds specifically for men’s programming: Among other prevention efforts, the Center for Awareness, Response and Education is adding a new staff member whose primary responsibility will be working with male students.

The new coordinator of men’s engagement will work with male student groups such as fraternities and athletic teams, as well as male survivors — because, let’s not forget, sexual assault can happen to men, too.

This is a positive step for NU and one that other college campuses should mimic. We should be educating all students, male and female, about sexual assault prevention. It shouldn’t just be up to female students to remember to put on their date rape drug-detecting nail polish before heading out to a frat party. It should be up to all students — regardless of gender — to ensure date rape drugs aren’t in drinks in the first place.

Education about what constitutes consent, as well as how bystanders can step up and prevent assault before it happens, will do far more to prevent rape than a self-defense class ever will.

U. N. Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a great speech this weekend at the United Nations Headquarters while launching a new women’s rights campaign, HeForShe. She explained that gender equality can never be achieved unless we reject cultural stereotypes for both genders.

“If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive,” she argued, and the same logic can be applied to sexual assault.

If men don’t feel pressured by society to rack up high numbers of sexual conquests, fewer will feel the need to resort to tactics like preying on those who are too intoxicated to make informed decisions. If women can make decisions about their sexual activity without fear of being labeled “slut,” “tease” or “prude,” more will feel confident enough to state up front what they do and do not want out of a sexual encounter, making hookups less of a guessing game.

The only way to truly prevent sexual assault is to change the culture of sex. And the only way to do that is to treat sexual assault not as a women’s issue, or even a men’s issue, but a human issue.

Women have already had a head start in working against sexual assault. Men, it’s time to catch up.

Amy Whyte is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].