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Making an (im)PACT

I had always thought of sexual assault as an abstract concept. I knew it existed at Duke, but as senior Bhumi Purohit wrote in her March 24 column, “More than a statistic,” incidents of sexual violence were just a statistic for me.

In only the last two weeks, I’ve been confronted with an avalanche of personal stories. They range from a friend waking up with a guy at a hotel and not knowing how she got there, to another friend who experienced unwanted touching from a guy she knew on her hall (when she thought they were just going to sleep), to a woman who was pressured to hook up with her date (who she considered a friend) at his fraternity formal.

These by no means represent the only ways in which students at Duke have negative experiences related to sex and/or alcohol. They are just ones I have been exposed to recently, and the patterns in these stories terrify me. I worry that students only realize the gravity of these situations once they personally experience an incident (or have a friend who does).

At that point, it’s already too late.

Fortunately, the Duke Women’s Center has begun a pilot program called Prevent Act Challenge Teach (PACT). Inspired by a University of New Hampshire program called Bringing in the Bystander, Amy Cleckler, the center’s gender violence prevention program coordinator, has been working this year with four student facilitators to get the initiative off the ground.

The first goal of PACT, Cleckler described in an email, is to teach both women and men how to “safely intervene before, during and after sexual violence occurs.” Moreover, it “emphasizes the need for everyone to take daily courageous actions toward prevention, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, to ensure that the campus community is safer for victims of violence.”

Early in the school year, facilitators Andrei Santalo, a junior, and Lucy Goodson, a sophomore, started working with Cleckler on the program—along with two other student facilitators, sophomore Kevin Jones and senior Amanda Johnson. Santalo and Goodson were in public policy professor Tony Brown’s “Changemaker Leadership” class at the time. Santalo describes working on the project as “killing two birds with one stone” because they could “do something really cool for the class but also put a lot of energy and effort into this project.” Goodson added that their vision was to make sexual assault and violence “a real concept,” considering how abstract it can be for most students.

The program powerfully asserts that “we’re all a part of the context of sexual assault and rape,” Santalo said, and “we are all contributing to this culture.” PACT stresses creative ways to intervene in everyday life. I know that I’ve been afraid of checking up on friends, but as Goodson points out, “doing something is better than nothing,” and there’s “no loss” to being a good bystander.

The program treats sexual assault as a spectrum. Unacceptable behaviors bystanders can effectively counteract range from making a sexist joke, to grabbing someone’s a—, to more serious violations of another’s boundaries. Santalo says their aim as facilitators is “to encourage awareness and then get students to come up with their own strategies.”

So far, PACT has held one open session for all interested students, one with greek leaders and others with specific sororities and selective living groups. I wonder whether more targeted approaches to these issues are needed. For instance, is it worthwhile to be especially concerned about date functions, fraternity formals and glorifications of blacking out within the greek community? Goodson emphasized that PACT is “not blaming gender violence on any one group or party” because “it’s not [always] one particular person or set of people that is at fault.”

Indeed, Cleckler says “participants come to PACT with so many specific concerns about challenging social situations where they are unsure how to act or respond.” These are issues LGBTQ students face and issues men face. Freshmen can be perpetrators, and seniors can be victims. Basically, everything’s on the table, and as much as it’s frustrating to me that I can’t go on diatribes and point a finger, that’s not the way for PACT to succeed and gain a presence here.

It is worth considering the possibility of making PACT training mandatory for every Duke student. Santalo thinks that “the program is good enough to hold its own if it were mandated,” but worries it might lose its credibility if it were. Cleckler hopes the training will “eventually” be mandatory, as “university settings provide an opportunity to introduce effective interventions because of the insular nature of the college experience.”

During a speech at the University of New Hampshire April 4, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted new federal guidelines for how universities must respond to complaints of campus sexual assaults. Duke is already ahead of the game, but there’s always more we can do. In my opinion, a program for every sophomore would be the best approach, as they have had time to experience the reality of the problem firsthand.

Goodson is optimistic. “Undergraduate culture is different every four years, and... if you can get change to start now, it won’t take that long to take effect.” We can, as Santalo says, “do better.” We can work as a team, understand what consent actually involves and means, stop thinking of sex as an obligatory act, combat dangerous drinking patterns, raise awareness and provide better support for victims.

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