Students want to teach peers how to circumvent problems on campus

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: MICHAEL SPROLES - Chelsea Hill, an anthropoligy major at Pacific University in Forest Grove, is organizing a one-day workshop about bystander intervention -- how students can help prevent sexual assault on campus -- as part of her senior project.Being a college student isn’t easy. A typical schedule includes classes, tons of studying, sports, extracurriculars — and sitting in a bedroom alone asking yourself how you can last the rest of the week with only two packages of Top Ramen left to your name.

The mere idea of being in college can lead to copious amounts of stress, and there’s a party culture on every campus with the mantra “work hard, play hard.” Many students agree they occasionally deserve to let loose and enjoy themselves.

But sometimes that freedom comes at a terrible price.

“When we go to parties, we go to meet and hang out with new friends, maybe even hook up,” said Tori Prawitz, a junior at Pacific University. “But I’ve seen drunk people getting led away by sober people into private bedrooms, thinking it was OK.

“What if they didn’t know each other? What if they did, and the sober one did not know that alcohol impairs the ability to give consent? What if that person was raped? What if I could have done something to stop it?”

Many universities around the country have programs in place to teach students how to avoid sexual assault through traditional models, such as self-defense or simply using a buddy system when walking alone at night. These models tend to put the onus on people who are trying to avoid sexual harassment or assault — or who have been victimized already.

Pacific senior Chelsea Hill believes it’s time for a new approach.

The old models perpetuate “victim blaming” and place most of the responsibility for avoiding trouble on the potential victim, she said. Hill is proposing a more proactive model.TORI PRAWITZ

An anthropology major and gender and sexuality studies minor, Hill wants to create peer-to-peer networks and develop a new set of social norms that emphasize community engagement in sexual assault prevention. For her senior project, Hill is organizing a one-day training workshop at Pacific that will be LGBTQ inclusive (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer).

A date for the workshop has yet to be determined, but when it happens, the first breakout session will deal with alcohol and consent — how physiological effects can interact with misconceived notions about gender norms and sex to normalize violence and dominance.

“For example, we have these stereotypes in our head, like you’re going to a bar to hit on someone, we have expectations of how that other person is supposed to react,” Hill said.

“If they act differently, that triggers different feelings in us and how we cope and deal with that.”

Alcohol no doubt muddies these situations — people aren’t always sure what others mean during drunken conversations. Are they saying what they mean, or is it the alcohol talking?

There are many misconceptions about what does and doesn’t qualify as sexual assault. Even the most enthusiastic, intoxicated “yes” isn’t a clear go-ahead to engage in sexual activity.

To work through this, Hill plans to develop a verbal and nonverbal consent scale by offering situational examples and asking students if they think consent is being given.

The second breakout session will emphasize how seeking consent doesn’t merely stop after the first hook-up or the first time sex happens — it’s important to keep it up throughout the entire relationship, whether it be a serious or casual one. To do that, some people might need good role models, Hill said.

“If your friends see that you and your partner are in a healthy, consenting relationship and treating each other well, that will hopefully encourage them to do that with partners of their own,” said Hill.MAGGIE LINDNER

The third breakout session deals with the complicated topic of bystander intervention, or how to identify risky situations and thoughtfully intervene in order to prevent sexual assault.

“Let’s say you’re at a college party, and one of your friends drank too much, and maybe someone is putting advances on them too forcefully,” said Hill. “A good bystander would step in and say something like ‘Hey, you know, my friend has had a little much to drink, and you should lay off for now, maybe talk to them in the morning.’”

Hill understands bystander intervention has some inherent challenges as well.

For example, people are less likely to step in if their friend is the perpetrator rather than the victim, she said. In those cases, “it may be uncomfortable for you to talk to your friend, but you should still step in and let them know that what they’re doing isn’t OK.”

That’s the only way to reach a community level of accountability, Hill said — with person after person stepping up to intervene, whatever their relation to the situation.

Hill’s whole project began a few years ago, when she stumbled on a New York Times article about a college girl who had been sexually assaulted. The piece detailed her excruciating journey to seek justice.

Hill thought about sexual assault often because of her own high school experiences. “There was a time when a guy was forcing himself on me, and I was sort of appeasing him to make him go away. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was totally sexual assault.”

Another time, a friend claimed she had been raped by a popular student in her class, but no one believed her.

Hill thinks her project can help prevent situations like these at Pacific. “It’s a small school, but there’s definitely a party culture,” she said.

Last year she researched what college students looked for in a preferred party environment by observing parties and interviewing attendees. One of her key findings was that people preferred parties in which friends they could trust were present.

“At one party, some of the girls I interviewed said they were allowed in but their guy friends weren’t, and those girls felt unsafe because a lot of their friends they trusted were not allowed to even accompany them,” Hill explained.

When people are scared to go certain places because of the risk of sexual assault, that’s a sign that not enough people have been educated to respect the bodies of others, Hill said.

She’s not standing alone.

Other students, professors and members of Pacific’s student senate have shown great interest in the project.

Pacific junior Maggie Lindner, for instance, said her high school boyfriend pressured her for months to lose her virginity to him.

“I felt trapped. I really liked him and wanted to continue our relationship, and he emotionally abused me so much that I felt the only way to keep him was to comply and have sex,” Lindner said. “So I told him I would. But the next day, I had second thoughts and communicated those to him. He was furious, and told me I couldn’t back down now.”

A few days later, they had sex.

“I bawled my eyes out. I felt used and tossed away, like a chewed-up piece of gum,” she said. “I broke up with [him] and was slowly able to build myself up again. But thousands like me [are] not so fortunate.”

Many women Lindner has talked to reported similar stories, and live with the nagging regrets.

“I never want anyone else to feel like this,” Lindner said. “So I would love for the workshop to include this issue — to let people like me know that we have a right to call ourselves survivors, that rape or assault isn’t black and white, that you can say ‘no’ even though you’ve said ‘yes’ before, that you can refuse your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your husband.”

Hill’s professors support her goals as well.

“Chelsea’s project is a great example of something that can really impact the community,” said Jessica Hardin, a professor in the anthropology department. “Everyone at Pacific can benefit from this open discussion. It’s very timely.”

According to an April 2014 White House report, 20 percent of women who go to college will experience some kind of sexual assault.

Although Hill hasn’t yet confirmed a date for the workshop, she wants to start as soon as possible so she can reach as many of the incoming freshmen as possible.

“My only real concern at this point is attendance. I’m asking myself, ‘How can I really get the students to want to come to these sessions?’” said Hill. “I’ve been talking to professors to see if they’ll offer it as an extra-credit opportunity for their students and I’ve spoken with Greek Life here on campus.”

She’d love to see her effort succeed so that it continues after she leaves Pacific.

“I believe that this year there’s a real passion to make fundamental changes in campus culture,” said junior Garrett Brown. “During orientation this year, I got to witness several freshmen who stood up and spoke out against sexual violence, and I saw the entire Class of 2019 rally behind them. I believe we can do it. There is momentum on this campus.”

“This is important to the school, because we have sexual assault issues that have happened to students there,” Hill added. “It matters because I still feel afraid when I walk to my car at night.”

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