Joseph Salamon, News Editor
On February 7, The Current hosted a discussion about sexual harassment and assault. Approximately 20 students and faculty members filled Century Room C in the Millennium Student Center to share opinions and experiences about the culture surrounding sexual harassment and assault, both in Hollywood and on college campuses.
Dr. Zöe Peterson, director of the Sexual Assault Research and Education Program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, guided the discussion. By sharing definitions, statistics, and current legislation with the group, Dr. Peterson shed light on the issue at hand.
Dr. Peterson stressed the difference between harassment and assault by saying that harassment usually pertains to work or school, consisting of an implication of due favors or consequences, sometimes leading to a hostile environment. Assault, as Dr. Peterson explained, is any non-consensual sex act, sometimes involving physical force or threat.
According to Dr. Peterson, close to 60 percent of female and transgender college students experience sexual harassment, and between 20 and 25 percent experience sexual assault. Additionally, about 40 percent of male college students experience harassment, and around five percent experience sexual assault.
Dr. Peterson stressed that these statistics are rough due to many victims’ unwillingness to come forward about their experiences, as she estimates that number to be approximately 75 percent.
The discussion focused on how these issues are perceived on campus and what can be done to change the perception to make campuses across the country safer. Affirmative consent law is an actionable step that some states have taken in order to hold people accountable for acts of sexual assault. Instead of an absence of the word “no” during sexual acts, affirmative consent law requires there be a clear and enthusiastic agreement between people before engaging in sexual acts.
California first introduced the affirmative consent law, which all state schools must abide by, and New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Connecticut followed suit. Though Missouri does not have this law, it is part of UMSL’s policy as an individual institution.
“We need to change the culture so that individuals who perpetrate sexual harassment and assault are held accountable,” Dr. Peterson stated. “Both in terms of formal sanctions but also in terms of informal social sanctions.” The discussion served as a springboard into a better understanding of how to apply informal social sanctions throughout daily life.
As students around the table in Century Room C shared their opinions about what constitutes sexual harassment and assault and where the line is, everyone else listened and gained a fuller understanding of the complexity of the issue. There is nuance in sexual interaction. Everyone has their own personal boundaries and open discussions like this one can aid in that overall understanding, but there is no reason to stop there, according to Dr. Peterson.
“Students need training in sexual ethics, and they need skills and practice with communicating what they do and don’t want sexually, with asking about their partner’s sexual preferences, and with having complicated conversations about sexual consent.”
The discussion also tied in the current movement stemming from Hollywood pertaining to sexual assault and harassment. A New York Times opinion piece “What the Weinstein Effect Can Teach Us About Campus Sexual Assault” written by Vanessa Grigoriadis was referenced throughout the discussion.
As Dr. Peterson said, “by educating about sexual harassment and sexual assault, hopefully people become more aware of the scope of the problem and thus more motivated to take action to help address the problem.”
The Times piece by Grigoriadis addresses the recent accusations against the disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, but also urges readers to remind themselves that sexual assault is not just an issue within the movie industry seen only through the lens of national news corporations. It happens everywhere, every day.