Around this time last year, the Harvard Crimson ran a shocking ad during accepted students weekend that caught the attention of the student body and the country. The advert started off congratulating the new class then quickly transitioned into harrowing, but all-too-familiar campus sexual assault statistics. This was only a small part of larger, ongoing discussion of rape culture at places like Duke and Harvard that can seem repetitive at times. However, it is precisely the continued need for tireless repetition that warrants analysis.
The conversation around sexual violence at Duke can be strangely detached, regardless of how inherently personal the issue is. The Harvard ad stands out because it disrupts the usual routine of college sexual assault discourse that produces little change. Not unlike our peer institutions, discussion on Duke’s campus tends to center around cold, numerical statistics and broad statements. The rape epidemic only truly feels human when conversation isn’t carefully worded and orchestrated by administrators. Student voices breathe life into the issue by giving testaments in Me Too Monologues, penning narratives in campus publications or with personal warnings passed down through the years. The fact that the realities of sexual assault are only given an uncensored platform due to student initiatives suggests that undergraduates believe their own actions are more effective than going through the system. This pattern speaks to Duke’s convoluted and emotionally-arduous process for reporting sexual violence. The University's initiatives for combatting sexual assault place an unbalanced burden on the victim to be more careful, rather than focusing on preventing more predators. Continuously describing rampant sexual assault as complex and systemic makes the conversations seem like a disclaimer, rather than an attempt at resolving the problem.
As graduation gets closer, Duke will celebrate the extraordinary legacies of leadership and scholarly achievement that seniors leave behind. However, another legacy looms over Duke as the Class of 2017 departs. According to a recent survey, 40 percent of Duke undergraduate women are survivors of sexual violence. This is the reality that our incoming first-years will inherit. The advertisement at Harvard caused such a stir because it finally held a university responsible for the environment on its campus. This tactic is similar to student response to sexual harassment and hazing at Dartmouth and Mi Gente’s demands from earlier last year. In both of these situations, the college in question was given an ultimatum of either making a change or seeing retaliation. If graduating seniors wanted to send a message with that same power, they would withhold donations until more action against sexual assault is taken. Donating power has a considerable amount of weight over the Duke administration, sometimes far more than student stories. While this is unfortunate, if the only way new alumni and the remaining student body can shine a spotlight on sexual violence on campus is through money, so be it. Duke is a world-renowned research university that prides itself on tackling big issues with intricacies that make others shy away. That same determination to eradicate cancer and create a path to geopolitical peace should also be applied to our role in combatting sexual violence in our own community.