Duke has a sexual assault problem. The Greek Culture Initiative report confirmed an ugly reality of the Duke social scene: Unwanted sexual contact continues to occur at an unacceptable rate. The key word here is “unwanted,” which denotes a clear communication gap that has allowed for behavior that is at best disrespectful and at worst traumatizing.
We support the report’s broad definition of sexual assault as “any unwanted physical contact that is sexual in nature” and affirm that such contact, even seemingly minor instances, can be traumatic. Catcalling, grinding and ass-grabbing may elicit very different responses from different people. But the Greek Culture Initiative is right to give weight to a range of deeply personal reactions. Only by doing so can we account for the flawed assumptions and expectations that collectively shape rape culture.
The study found that overall, 31 percent of women and 12 percent of men have experienced unwanted sexual contact with another Duke student. The researchers found that the trend starts early on in students’ Duke experiences: By the sixth week of the Fall of their freshman year, 16 percent of women and 8 percent of men reported some form of unwanted sexual contact by another Duke student. These figures should appall, but perhaps not surprise, students and administrators. We critiqued the study’s methods and statistical validity Wednesday. But these sexual misconduct statistics, which do not require longitudinal or comparative data to have profound implications, should be taken particularly seriously. If the discovery that approximately 200 freshmen are sexually assaulted in their first six weeks of school—a rate of about 5 students per day—is not enough to push us to action, then what will?
Unwanted sexual advances create an unsafe environment for affected parties as they objectify and degrade the victim. Although we cannot make causal inference from this observational study, one can imagine a connection between sexual assault and feeling less respected – which was identified to be a major concern for Duke women in relation to their male counterparts.
The study found that sexual assault is not a strictly greek issue—perhaps defying the common conception of how sexual assault operates here. Participation in greek life is not a dramatically powerful predictor of a student’s experience of sexual assault for either males or females (38 percent of greek women versus 30 percent of independent women experience sexual assault). Risk of assault impacts the lives of all Duke women regardless of social affiliation. Granted, this finding identifies only the victims rather than the perpetrators of sexual assault, but it is a step toward moving past preconceptions. For better or for worse, it seems to affect us all, regardless of affiliation. Hopefully, this can help us refocus our efforts: Perhaps PACT training should be required of the entire student body, rather than just greek students as the study recommends.
These disturbing statistics should jolt students into a new definition of what is socially normal—one grounded in clear communication and asking consent. The social awkwardness that may accompany actually asking someone to dance rather than creeping up on them from behind is a subordinate consideration to ensuring that students feel safe and respected.