Author: Claire Cancilla
Sexual assault on college campuses has dominated national and local news for years, and Occidental has been in the center of this maelstrom. Because of the controversy, the college has made efforts to address the problem of sexual assault: It hired a Title IX coordinator, created the position of an on-campus survivor advocate, and updated its sexual misconduct policy to include affirmative consent.
Occidental also requires all students to complete a sexual assault prevention training program, Think About It, before enrolling in classes each school year.
The program began at Occidental five months after the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE) was signed into law by President Obama in 2013. The SaVE Act required schools to provide educational preventive programs, although not necessarily “one-stop solution” online programs like Think About It.
The course uses mixed media consisting of quizzes, videos, scenarios and survey questions. For first years, Think About It also covers other topics such as substance use in conjunction with sexual assault prevention. Current juniors and seniors have taken Think About It a minimum of three times, all with nearly identical scenarios.
Because of its repetitive nature and inadequate consideration for the experiences of the students using it, Think About It does not protect those who have experienced sexual assault from psychological harm.
Much of the course is centered on a scenario in which a male college student has nonconsensual sex with an intoxicated female student. There is a question that asks “which of these [statements] is sexually coercive” and includes a list of phrases such as “you should wear that shirt more often” and “you’re so sexy I couldn’t help myself.” Students must drag and drop the correct response to the question into a box. The course awards badges to students for answering questions correctly.
This interactive approach was one of the reasons the school chose to implement it, according to Title IX Coordinator Ruth Jones.
“What I found was there are a lot of bad programs out there, and Think About It was probably the best, because it tried to be hip,” Jones said. “It wasn’t just text.”
These “hip” activities, however, belittle the experiences of survivors by turning very real experiences into a kitschy game. Think About It marginalizes the feelings of people for whom coercive comments and sexual assault are not an interactive drag-and-drop activity presented to them on a computer screen for points, but their lived experiences.
Despite the fact that Think About It may be triggering to survivors of sexual assault, there are no options to skip scenarios. There are no options to skip personal questions. There are no options to skip drag-and-drop questions. And the only way a student may waive the requirement is to contact the Title IX Office and disclose their experience with sexual assault.
The problem is that this program is designed to convey the same information to everyone, but in doing so it assumes everyone has had the same experience with sexual assault: none. And Think About It cannot address everyone’s experiences appropriately, as someone who has experienced sexual assault does not have the same training needs as someone who has not.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that Think About It reduces the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. At St. Olaf College in Minnesota, another small liberal arts college that uses Think About It, the school’s Title IX coordinator sad that the evidence of success of Think About It is “mostly anecdotal.” Occidental has asked the creators of Think About It if there is a way to track the success of the program.
“The short answer is currently no,” Jones said.
But there are ways to measure the failure of Think About It.
Every time a survivor of sexual assault cries during the course, Think About It fails. Every time a survivor is forced to answer the question “have you ever been sexually assaulted” followed immediately by “were drugs and/or alcohol involved,” and blames themselves for the experience, Think About It fails. Every time survivors must complete the program despite feelings of re-victimization for fear of not being able to enroll in classes, Think About It fails.
In a perfect world, the solution would lie in the creation of an environment with a universal expectation of consent — a world where Think About It is obsolete.
But we live in a world in which students at Texas Tech make banners that say “no means yes, yes means anal,” where the most effective method of reducing rates of sexual assault is teaching defense against rape instead of teaching people not to rape, and where online training courses are used to convey a school’s policy on sexual assault, but leaving survivors in tears.
Occidental cannot fix all the problems of inequality that have created a climate of rape culture. But it can acknowledge the varied experiences students have had with sexual assault. It can provide alternative training to those individuals, taking into account the fact that survivors of sexual assault cannot be taught through the same redundant, infantilizing and often triggering blanket course, year after year.
According to Jones, Occidental is aware of the problems of Think About It and has been actively looking for a way to allow survivors to waive the program without disclosing their experiences, in addition to meeting with the dispenser of Think About It. Those discussions show a willingness to open up discourse on the effectiveness of Think About It by the administration, which is a vital step in taking action to create more effective sexual assault prevention training programs.
Until changes can be put into place, though, the college should consider instituting support groups or one-on-one sessions with a trained assault prevention professional. The school should also provide greater support for current student groups related to sexual assault prevention, such as Project S.A.F.E., in order to encourage on-campus educational resources other than Think About It.
Increased support of student organizations and alternative training to Think About It would not only show administrative support of survivors, but would also make students, not Think About It, the impetus for changing campus culture.
Claire Cancilla is a senior history major. She can be reached at [email protected]
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