Months in advance, the Office of Student Affairs delivered emphatic missives announcing that all student groups must reregister by attending a mandatory Student Organizations Summit. The stipulations included a keynote, scheduled rather cruelly at 9 a.m. on a Saturday; a workshop entitled “Preventing Sexual Misconduct: A community approach for student organizations”; and a daylong lineup of other supposedly helpful training sessions.
As it turned out, the summit was in fact a tedious series of check-ins and meetings where participants couldn’t have looked more checked-out. Most disappointingly, “Preventing Sexual Misconduct” — the single workshop which seemed as though it might offer some practical value — was strangely devoid of relevant content.
Despite the unambiguous title and several administrative reminders that students should prioritize this event, the workshop’s actual engagement with sexual assault was nominal. Instead, participants were asked to write down three of their organization’s “community values” on an index card. A vague and trite discussion followed on how to promote those values.
The total absence of serious conversation about the possibility and prevention of sexual abuse within student-run groups — in a space intended to address exactly that — was unnerving. Besides a fleeting reminder of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education’s existence, the only part of the discussion that could be remotely construed as a reference to sexual misconduct was a statement from the workshop leader that “it’s really important to remember that people look up to you as student leaders.”
He was absolutely correct. And that is why the failure to go any further than that was a dangerous and regretful oversight.
Thinking about power dynamics within the context of a student group is actually an extremely effective place to begin addressing problems of sexual abuse on campus. In organizations that claim an intense degree of commitment from its members, the potent combination of peer pressure, group loyalty and personal ambition can sometimes result in unhealthy sexual dynamics.
Such organizations are ill-equipped to deal with these types of situations. What happens, for instance, when someone in a higher position of authority pressures another member for sexual favors, as was the case in a political student group my friend was in at another Ivy League college? What would be the recourse for female students who were told that they would have to sleep with male higher-ups to take over their positions in a group in which they had already invested years of effort? Where could a student turn if he feared that confessing abuse by another member would lead to exclusion from the group?
Developing methods to avoid unhealthy sexual dynamics between members is imperative for student leaders. Particularly at this time of year, when first years are undergoing recruitment processes, student organizations should be engaging in conscious self-reflection on how to interact healthily with current and potential members. They should provide some kind of institutional procedure for members to safely and honestly divulge how they feel about the social environment. They should also establish a concrete organizational consensus for dealing with members who have been reported as sexual offenders. Given that the University can take little substantive action toward addressing abuse that happens within student groups unless a formal complaint is filed, offering internal assistance for members is crucial for an organization’s health.
To offer an example, one student group I’m a part of cultivates a healthy social environment by establishing and normalizing regular conversations about interpersonal dynamics. During recruitment planning, student leaders remind members to mind one’s body language and contact with first years. We also talk about how to phrase email requests to chat about membership so it doesn’t sound like an invitation to a date that a potential member would feel uncomfortable refusing. During the year, my organization stresses the importance of being receptive to discussions of stress or emotional fatigue, including requests to withdraw from the group while still maintaining personal friendships.
This, too, could be something that the “Preventing Sexual Misconduct” workshop can and should work to address in future years. A discussion on community values is oriented in the right direction, but preventing sexual misconduct demands a focused and serious dialogue that calls for everyone’s involvement. Perhaps then the workshop might live up to its name.
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .