It’s an uncomfortable topic to talk about, Webster University student Destiny Duraj said. Every year there are about 238,000 victims who are sexually assaulted at the age of 12 or older, according to Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
Duraj, a sophomore international relations and Spanish major, said sexual assault is not often brought up in conversation. It wasn’t until her Facebook page was spammed with her friends’ new profile pictures that she was inspired to be a part of a campaign geared for sexual assault awareness.
“I saw a few other people do it (change their profile pictures) and I was like ‘I wonder what that is?,’” Duraj said. “So I went to the website and it was like an automatic yes for me to do it.”
President Obama launched the campaign called “It’s On Us” on Sept. 19 to provide sexual assault awareness and prevention tips specifically for college students. On the campaign’s website, itsonus.org, Obama emphasizes that the victims are not alone. The site provides 12 tips on how to avoid and prevent sexual assault, and many do not focus on the victim but instead the bystanders.
The campaign has ties to nearly 200 colleges, sports organizations and private companies. Large organizations like the NCAA, MTV and the Olympics have taken the pledge to provide sexual assault awareness. Their goal is aimed at “fundamentally shifting the way we think about sexual assault,” according to itsonus.org.
Webster University alumna Katie Coats was a part of the Webster University Feminist Collective during her undergraduate years. She said she likes the “It’s On Us” campaign because it does not just make it a women’s issue, it focuses on bystander intervention as well.
“It’s not just ‘Let’s teach girls about prevention,’” Coats said. “It’s more like ‘If you see something happening, make sure you’re a part of the solution and not the problem.’”
Coats, now a graduate student at Murray State University in Kentucky, is a member of the Murray State Women’s Board. The board plans events for the Murray State Women’s Center, such as domestic violence awareness. She said it is important to make sure women are coming together to support each other. She said her mother engrained striving for gender equality into her from her early years. Being a part of organizations like Webster’s Feminist Collective and Murray State Women’s Board have helped her gain knowledge and further passion about the issue.
“At Webster there are so many strong female influences that I had through those four years there,” Coats said. “It was just a lot of strong women coming together and just learning about what can we do to stand up for women’s rights and to stand up for these issues. That group definitely was a good group to be involved in.”
The social media effect
An essential part of Obama’s “It’s On You” campaign involves changing one’s Facebook profile picture to support the cause. “It’s On You” is carved into the existing profile picture to show the person has made the pledge.
Director of First Year Experience Programs Sarah Tetley said society is so much more visual. She said people are interested to see why their friends’ are changing their profile pictures to match each others.
“The core concept is that people want to see it,” Tetley said. “So that’s why things like this maybe are more impactful.”
Tetley changed her profile picture to support the campaign but she also provides a link with her photo for the website. She said this way she is not just changing her profile picture but guiding other people to the reason she did.
However, senior computer science major Molly Edwards does not think changing a Facebook profile picture will be effective. She said she would make the pledge but leave her profile picture as is.
“It takes more than just changing a Facebook profile picture to make meaningful change,” Edwards said.
Edwards said donating to sexual assault shelters and reporting any suspicious behavior to the police would have more impact than changing a profile picture. She said acts like those will affect more people than a Facebook profile picture will.
Raising awareness for sexual assault
Sexual assault education and prevention was one of the five issues presented at Webster’s Fall 2014 Delegates’ Agenda, which took place Tuesday, Sept. 30. The Delegates’ Agenda gives students a chance to present topics to the administration that they believe need improvement. The administration is then given the opportunity to respond to the students’ proposals.
Junior media communications major Caroline Wiley presented the sexual assault education and prevention topic to the administration. She said students don’t feel there are enough academic programs or training on campus regarding sexual assault or they are not aware of the programs that are currently in place.
“There are (sexual assault awareness) programs on Webster’s campus right now that students can go to,” Wiley said. “But on average, only about 15 people go to those programs, which is pretty unacceptable if you ask me.”
Jon Strauser, a junior educational studies and business administration major, said he pledged to join the “It’s On Us” campaign to show his support for women. He said he understands sexual assault happens to men too, but the majority of the time it happens to women, and men should support the campaign for that reason.
“Men need to step up and help the women,” Strauser said. “They need to let the women know that they are there to stand behind them. They aren’t always the suspects. They are there to help out.”
Strauser said just because men are at a lower risk for being a victim of sexual assault does not mean they cannot help prevent it or spread awareness. He said many of the women who are assaulted are someone’s close friend or family member.
Sixty percent of assaults are not reported to the police, according to RAINN. There is a section in Webster’s student handbook that explains to students who they can talk to in confidentiality about a sexual assault. However, students will be encouraged to report the sexual assault if they are willing.
Gladys Smith and Patrick Stack are the only staff members on campus who are able to talk to a student about sexual assault confidentially. Stack is the director and Smith is the assistant director of Counseling and Life Development. Smith is also the sexual assault advocate for Webster.
Don’t hesitate to seek help for a sexual assault. Visit Webster University’s sexual assault page for more information regarding the university policy and how to contact the appropriate person.