Advocates against sexual violence focus on changing campus culture

Hartford — Melanie Boyd has found that at Yale University, where she runs the Office of Gender and Campus Culture, student athletes occupy an unusual place on the social totem pole: they feel marginalized, as if their right to be there is questioned.

The men's and women's teams socialize at parties, events that end up promoting pairing-off, usually in heterosexual fashion. To mix up the events, the student athletes designed a BuzzFeed quiz with about 15 options for different types of events.

One popular result was to switch sports practices for a day, which Boyd said both creates respect between teams and does not involve drinking.

Athletes are among the 60 communication and consent educators — they're known as CCEs — Boyd employs this year, along with artists, activists and people who are active in faith communities.

Boyd's goal is to reduce sexual violence by changing the sexual culture on campus, but because she wants a group of people who extend beyond those who think of themselves as activists, her recruiting message is, "Come help build the best campus we can."

She was one of the presenters at the Campus Sexual Assault Prevention and Intervention Conference, which the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence and Connecticut College Consortium to End Sexual Violence held Tuesday at the UConn School of Law.

Boyd's presentation was titled, "Creating Change Agents: Working with Students to Transform Campus Culture."

She said that trying to change the party itself is more efficient than trying to change how people behave at parties, and that it's more effective than sitting students down for long, "grim" conversations on sexual violence.

"No real, pedagogic research shows that people learn when they're uncomfortable," she said. Other efforts from her and students include trying to disrupt the link between intoxication and casual sex, and addressing the dynamic that leads students to share negative accounts of sexual encounters rather than positive ones.

The lunchtime keynote address came from Michelle Carroll, associate director of external programming at a group called End Rape on Campus.

Prefacing it as a story about power, oppression, racism, sexual violence and identity, she gave a history lesson on Puerto Rico, tying in the experiences of her mother, who grew up there, and herself, who lived there for six months.

Her mother was in an abusive relationship while in college in New York, and Carroll was sexually assaulted by a stranger while living in Puerto Rico.

Carroll said that, eager to focus on connecting with her roots in Puerto Rico, she bottled it up. 

She added that Puerto Rico has the highest per-capita rate in the world of women over 14 killed by their partners, with problems exacerbated by debt, a stagnant economy, crumbling infrastructure and hurricanes.

The other keynote address at the conference came from Mighty Fine, director of the Center for Public Health Practice and Professional Development at the American Public Health Association. He focused on viewing sexual violence prevention through a public health lens.

In a workshop later, he discussed action planning for colleges to implement prevention efforts.

Fine said advocates need to get away from the phrase "nontraditional partners" — which historically might include employers, the business community and food services — because they need to show how sexual violence "reverberates throughout the community."

Attendees at this workshop discussed some of their struggles on campuses, such as inadequate staffing levels and getting students engaged.

Topics of other workshops at the conference included the proposed Title IX regulations, the neurophysiology of trauma and sexual assault, and healthy sexual relationships that involve "enthusiastic consent."

The Alliance is also seeking to eliminate the statute of limitations on reporting sexual assault in Connecticut, and attendees were asked to sign a petition endorsing the change.

e.moser@theday.com

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