The beginning of the year at Penn is a stressful time for many students, but it can feel especially daunting to new students. During New Student Orientation and the start of classes, freshmen and transfer students have a lot to worry about: making friends, going through the trying process of club recruitment, succeeding academically at a new school. For the youngest undergraduates in particular, this is a vulnerable time. The usual challenges of college life, as intimidating as they may seem, are normal, expected, and healthy: It can be good to go through them. Unfortunately — at any point in their time at Penn, and sometimes as early as their first weekend here — too many students will have to deal with the overwhelming and life–altering stress that comes with experiencing sexual assault.
If students are entering an environment where they or their friends could experience assault as soon as they arrive, they should receive guidance, personal support, and opportunities to speak about their experiences as soon as possible; however, many of them never receive those things at all. Education should be the start of combating sexual violence on college campuses, and open conversation about interpersonal violence within the community should be the heart of violence prevention efforts. While we have the foundations laid for both of those things here at Penn, not enough of us access them — which is why Penn needs to require all undergraduates to participate in sexual violence prevention programming, in person, with their peers, at least once during their four years at Penn.
By now, the prevalence of rape and assault on campus is not a secret. Sexual violence on college campuses has been recognized as a national issue; you’ve probably heard the statistic that one in five women and one in 16 men experience assault during their time in college. At Penn, where 20.8% of undergraduate women experience non-consensual sexual touching and 5.5% of undergraduate men experience some form of unwanted sexual contact, it’s become clear: We need to do something about sexual assault at Penn, and students (and administrators) often say as much.
Given the big game that gets talked about stopping rape and assault on campus, it might come as a surprise that Penn doesn’t currently require students to undergo in-person training on intervention. There are the modules about healthy relationships and sexual violence on the loosely mandatory and infamously unhelpful Thrive at Penn; there is also the Speak About It presentation during NSO that is much too large to facilitate in-depth dialogue between new students or enforce as mandatory in any practical way.
While they could comprise a solid start, these offerings for required education on sexual violence pale in comparison to the administration–required programs at peer institutions like Yale University, Cornell University, and Columbia University that give workshops to all undergraduates on a variety of topics that fall under the umbrella of sexual assault prevention and response. Even larger schools like Michigan State University, which has an undergraduate population nearly four times the size of Penn’s, can manage to undertake the logistical task of having all undergraduates undergo multiple small group sessions about consent and bystandership across different years of education.
Different people and offices at Penn have laid the groundwork for similar programs. Groups like Penn Anti-Violence Educators (which I am a member of) and Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault offer workshops, but they present to members of student groups and Greek organizations, not all Penn students. In the last several years, Penn Violence Prevention has offered community-based circles about consent and Penn culture to four of the freshman college houses. Often, the students who participate in them don’t know that they aren’t required for all students — and, often, students outside of those houses have no clue that such a program exists. During our time at Penn, just about all of us will experience assault personally or have it happen to someone that we care about. In light of that, far too few of us will be equipped to respond to it.
Sexual assault is a complex problem, and conversations or workshops are not the only solution — or a perfect one. There are real concerns about what types of education will work best, and how to address all the varied perspectives on sex and relationships in Penn’s diverse student body. But structured programming is a step in the right direction, and the conversations that take place in and as a result of those programs are necessary to building better responses moving forward. In fact, if we’re serious about stopping sexual assault at Penn, those are conversations that all of us have to be a part of.
ANA WEST is a College sophomore from Spring Lake, Mich. studying English. Her email address is [email protected]