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Five myths about campus sexual violence

Kristen B. Morales

November 9, 2017

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Our perception of sexual violence on college campuses is often very different from reality, says a University of Georgia researcher. Race, gender and other stereotypes play into many misconceptions and distort how we approach solutions.

Chris Linder, an associate professor in the UGA College of Education's department of counseling and human development services, argues that without knowing the realities behind campus-based sexual violence, prevention programs and strategies will never be fully effective.

"The rates of sexual violence on college campuses have been the same for 60 years, so clearly what we're doing is not working," said Linder, who was the director of a campus-based women's center before joining the UGA faculty. "And one of the things we're doing is ignoring a lot of the people who this happens to. One reason why we don't have a good understanding of the problem is because we're only focusing on one population—white, cisgender, heterosexual women."

Through her research and a new book co-edited with Jessica C. Harris of the University of California-Los Angeles, "Intersections of Identity and Sexual Violence on Campus," Linder offers five common myths about campus sexual violence to help counter common misconceptions.

Myth 1: 'If I carry pepper spray, I'll be protected' The vast majority of "prevention" programs offered through colleges and universities focus on ways for potential victims to reduce their risk of being sexually assaulted. "This is not prevention," says Linder. "This is risk reduction." Instead, she argues, prevention programs should focus on potential perpetrators rather than victims.

Myth 2: 'I should be more wary of strangers than acquaintances' Perpetrators are often cast as a stranger hiding in the bushes, or someone of color when, in reality, those who commit acts of sexual violence on college campuses are often the "good college men" among us—often wealthy, often white. "Failing to accurately portray perpetrators increases the risk of sexual violence on college campuses because potential victims focus their risk-reduction strategies on this myth rather than the actual patterns of perpetration."

Myth 3: 'It's always white women who are attacked' In reality, it's students on the borderlands of identity—those who are bisexual, transgender and multiracial—who experience higher rates of sexual violence than their mono-identity peers.

Myth 4: 'Sexual assaults are a more recent phenomenon'
In fact, sexual violence traces its history in the United States all the way back to colonial times, when sexual violence was used as a tool of terrorization and control over native communities and a tool of economic control in slavery. In fact, rape law started as property crime in the late 1700s and early 1800s, says Linder. "White men were the only people who could file charges of rape. It was considered property crime because it was directed toward white men's property—their daughters or wives."

Myth 5: ‘The best way to respond to sexual assault is to contact authorities' Not everyone who has been sexually assaulted feels comfortable with police involvement. "For example, many in marginalized communities have been harmed by policing systems in their communities and do not feel comfortable reporting a sexual assault," said Linder. Or, sometimes a victim may not want the perpetrator to "get in trouble," she added—a victim simply wants them to stop raping people. When coupled with a system that sees low numbers held responsible for their actions, Linder said it's a recipe for frustration on the part of the victim. "Reporting to the police becomes a bigger burden than a help for victims of sexual violence, re-traumatizing them throughout the process and often doesn't result in the perpetrator changing his behavior, because he feels emboldened by a system that said his behavior was OK.” Instead, perpetrator accountability and rehabilitation programs may be a better route for some survivors of sexual violence.