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Layla Haidrani

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U Consent: How University of Miami Students Are Fighting Sexual Assault Head On

Posted: 12/23/2013 7:58 pm

One in four women are victims of a sexual assault during college. It's hard to ignore this shocking statistic -- whether it's in heated debates in your gender class to affecting your everyday decisions like whether that dress might be seen as too "short" or having another drink might make you look "too easy."

But why is it such a socially accepted fact instead of people actually challenging it? This was exactly the mind-set of University of Miami's Introduction to Women and Gender class who have begun challenging the social "norm" of college rape and instead fighting it head on, culminating in its successful event 'U Consent' on Thursday, December 5. The goal of U Consent was to discuss openly what consent actually means and how we can eradicate sexual assault on campus.

Sexual assault has been a hotly contested issue all over campuses nationally in the US. From Occidental College, accused of putting off prosecutions and reporting of sexual assault cases, to the University of Southern California mishandling rape cases culminating in a 110-page complaint against its school, stories of on-campus sexual assaults have been a disturbingly common phenomenon. And it's rampant in the state I'm currently in -- Florida State University's star quarterback Jameis Winston was embroiled in a dispute over the alleged sexual assault of a classmate last year.

Instead of brushing this issue under the carpet, which would be the easiest thing to do in such a situation, UM alongside its very supportive WGS department, decided to address this issue head on with U Consent, the first of its kind held at the University of Miami. Despite UM offering a variety of resources available to sexual assault victims including its 24-hour hotline S.A.R.T (Sexual Assault Response Team), a counseling center, a No Zebras chapter on campus aiming to reform misconceptions of the student body regarding sexual assault, the discussion of sexual assault and rape is still a taboo one. Pervasive victim-blaming that occurs after admitting rape is an unfortunate reality.

U Consent successfully shattered the silence about the epidemic of sexual assault on campus and rape culture by offering resources to victims. Significantly, U Consent created an open environment to discuss the sexual assaults that were happening directly on the campus. With speakers including Dr. Steve Butterman, director of Women's and Gender Studies, giving a rousing and compelling speech on sexual assault and collaborations with organizations on campus such as National Organization of Women at UM, UM Police Department and the counseling center, the event has helped to keep the idea in students' mind that consent is essential and the discussion of sexual assault can become more open.

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Katharine Westaway, professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Miami and membership director for the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the state of Florida, believes that U Consent was created due to the urgency of continuing sexual assaults. She states:

"The event was created out of my dismay and concern that several students this semester have come to me and told me of their sexual assault. It seem impossible to continue class as normal. With our 'U Consent' event, we keep stressing the 'consent' aspect -- that's what we're looking for, not some poisonous dynamic where men have to define their masculinity by how many women have slept with. It is imperative that we break down strict detrimental gender roles. Men are 99 percent of rapists -- why is this acceptable?"

In order to combat sexual assault, urgent reform is vital to create an open discussion surrounding the taboo topic. Such reforms should include an anonymous reporting system so the university has accurate statistics and an enforcement of sexual assault awareness training at orientation with mandatory attendance for all members of the student body including the fraternities, athletes and sports teams. Additionally, a safe network of trusted professors and resources is absolutely necessary. If these reforms were to be implemented this could irrevocably challenge the silence surrounding sexual assault.

The University of Miami is aiming to host this event every semester and hope that this event can inspire other universities nationally to duplicate it on their campus. University of Miami's WGS students are living proof that collectively, the 1 in 4 college students statistic is not only dismantled but are challenging the taboos that come with sexual assault. Will your university step up? As Martin Luther King argued aptly, "silence is betrayal."

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