Hey, Student Government: We want a respectful, thoughtful Sexual Assault Awareness Week

Over a span of two weeks in late August and early September, four women were attacked by a still unidentified man on or near the University of Florida campus. In response, university officials upped campus police and SNAP services. People armed themselves with pepper spray and buddied up at night.

Coincidentally, UF Student Government had planned months before to launch Sexual Assault Awareness Week, a series of events and social media campaigns meant to raise awareness of sexual assault, on Sept. 9, the day after the fourth attack. Here’s what the week entailed:

What did Student Government do?

  • Tabled on Turlington Plaza from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. throughout the week to inform students of the resources available to help with sexual assault awareness, prevention, and victim services
  • Implemented social media hashtags: #BeAwareBeAGator and #BeAwareUF
  • Tied ribbons around trees throughout campus with the phrase “Sexual Assault Awareness Week: #BeAwareUF”
  • Through ACCENT Speaker’s Bureau, brought activist Angela Rose, founder and executive director of the national nonprofit Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE),to speak on behalf of victim empowerment with cases centered around sexual assault
  • Encouraged students to change their Facebook profile pictures to signify a collective stand against sexual violence
  • Made a one-and-a-half-minute video about the resources available to UF students

Although many student organizations were pleased that SG was devoting time and effort to discussing rape at all, the content of the awareness week left them wanting. The week did not discuss intersectionality or consent, and kept the focus on rape as an attack-by-attack issue rather than a pervasive culture.

With its money, manpower and visibility, SG could spread a nuanced and sensitive message to the public about rape culture and its impacts. To get a sense of what that message would include, The Fine Print talked to three campus organizations about what they would have wanted in a Sexual Assault Awareness Week. Here’s what they said:

Pride Student Union (PSU)

PSU (or “Pride”) seeks to maintain a safe and inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students at UF and educate the community at large.

  • Get rid of the hashtag Be Aware, Be A Gator. Although it was intended to mean “be aware of the resources available,” it implied that people who get raped are not aware of their surroundings and should be doing more to protect themselves.
  • Sexual Assault Awareness Week should have centered the discussion around rape culture and toxic masculinity. The campaign should be focused on letting survivors know they are not alone.
  • It should have events for each day of the week that highlights the various forms of sexual assault. It also needs to use gender neutral language to avoid typecasting victims as one specific kind of person.
  • There should be less focus on the “stranger in the bushes” scenario, since most sexual assaults occur with someone the victim knows.
  • Educate the UF campus about consent, which was hardly mentioned. Make sure UF takes a stand against rape culture.
  • Allow the voices of LGBTQ+ individuals, intimate partners, men and children survivors to be heard.
  • Keep the conversation about sexual assault awareness going after the week is over because incidents at UF did not begin with this one attacker.
  • Move away from a tone of victimization to a tone of empowerment. In marketing the week, the ribbons were triggers for survivors and did not implement any form of empowerment.
  • Hold a vigil for victims and create safe spaces for victims on campus by promoting a dialogue about ways we can educate the campus about sexual assault. Allow room for survivors to speak openly and voice their concerns, whether through an event, forum, etc.
  • Consult with survivors about ways the campaign affects them so they aren’t triggered every day.
  • Stop victim-blaming and giving statistics about how women who walk alone are unsafe. People need to be reminded they cannot violate other people’s personal space, not that women can’t walk alone.

Sexual Trauma/Interpersonal Violence Education (STRIVE)

STRIVE is a peer education group made up of undergraduate students who are involved in outreach, education and advocacy initiatives to prevent interpersonal violence.  

  • Make sure the issue of interpersonal violence prevention is at the forefront of campus community dialogue over the course of the school year.
  • Increase recognition and further promote an understanding that interpersonal violence is a learned behavior throughout the UF campus.
  • Encourage students to feel a sense of empowerment by advocating for bystander intervention skills.
  • Invite all student organizations to address sexual communication issues and the role of consent.
  • Involve students of all gender identities as active leaders and role models in interpersonal violence prevention.
  • Address alcohol and other drug issues as they play a role in interpersonal violence and sexual assault.
  • Provide concepts that encourage healthy and consensual relationships throughout the university.
  • Make sure to dispel traditional beliefs associated with interpersonal violence.

Women’s Student Association (WSA)

WSA’s mission is to empower women by developing a strong community of positive role models, as well as raising awareness of women’s issues.

  • We want to see an actual commitment by UF to end rape culture. A campaign, a speech from the officials – anything that acknowledges the epidemic of gendered violence on college campuses and says UF has no tolerance for it.
  • We’re worried this case of “the man in the bushes” will drive the conversation away from the true reality of sexual assault on college campuses. Education on what is and is not consent is absolutely vital – there are no grey areas.
  • An event focused on the empowerment of survivors was missing, and the needs of those who have been personally affected by sexual assault were neglected during the week.
  • Most of the programming was homogenous and did not speak about the many forms sexual assault can take. There was no focus on the fact that people of all genders and identities are survivors of assault.
  • Events and information tends to focus on the immediate actions to take after being raped, such as filing a report with the police, but don’t discuss the complexity of the emotional trauma survivors face. There is no discussion of the long-term effects on one’s mental well-being, school and career path and interpersonal relationships.
  • An information session on how to talk to survivors and how to comfort friends and family when they come to you about their assaults would have been very useful. Since one-fifth of people are sexual assault survivors, this is important information to get out.