By Katharine Webster
It’s the elephant in the room, the issue no one wants to talk about, even in comprehensive sex education. It’s addictive, it’s hardcore – and all too often, it’s the only sex education that young people receive.
Not at UMass Lowell.
Top administrators and faculty invited a leading sexual violence educator to campus to talk about why hardcore pornography – freely available to children and teens on smartphones and computers – is a public health crisis. Cordelia Anderson also spoke about how pornography normalizes and contributes to sexual violence.
Princess Paul, a first-year biology major from Boston, says she learned a lot.
“Pornography is a huge problem where I’m from,” Paul said afterward. “So many boys think this is what they should be doing. So many of them say, ‘My girl has got to be able to get down like this, or she’s gone.’”
“50 Shades of Porn” was one of more than a dozen events on campus in April, which nationally is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual and relationship violence is a serious problem on college campuses, in the military and among teens and young adults across the country. And UMass Lowell is responding.
From the annual community and university Take Back the Night march to a Manning School of Business faculty panel on sexual harassment in the workplace, UML staff, faculty and student groups are working to reduce sexual violence.
Everyone is on board, from top administrators to Student Affairs, from Athletics to faculty engaged in cutting-edge research.
And it’s not just in April. Education on healthy sexuality and consent, along with prevention programming, is a year-round effort. It’s especially intense at the beginning of the school year, when many first-year students are in the so-called “red zone,” away from home for the first time and at higher risk of sexual violence, mental health crises and alcohol and substance abuse.
Julie Nash, vice provost for student success, says students are hungry for more knowledge – and they’re letting faculty and administrators know.
“Students are talking about sexual violence and consent,” she says. “They want to know what the university is doing to educate about and prevent sexual violence.”
Peer Education is Key
Marina Novaes has a work-study job with Jacquie Keeves, the point person for victims of sexual violence at the campus Wellness Center. Novaes is also a peer educator for CAPE – Campus Advocates for Prevention Education – which works to prevent both sexual violence and suicide.
Novaes says she started out as a nursing major, but switched to public health – and now works closely with campus Greek organizations.
“I decided I wanted to help people before bad things happened,” Novaes says. “As a member of Alpha Sigma Tau and CAPE, I’ve been able to make a lot of connections with Greek life.”
About 150 students took part in this year’s Take Back the Night march, including dozens of fraternity and sorority members.
Keeves says Novaes’ work also greatly improved the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, which is sponsored by Alpha Sigma Tau and held during opening week in the fall. Men put on red high heels and walk a mile to bring attention to sexual and gendered violence. But often they’re unclear what the walk is about.
“This year, the sororities set up a support team and had three stops along the route with educational activities the guys had to ‘pass’ before they could continue. They got a sticky note to write down the name of someone they knew who’d been sexually assaulted, they got a rape myth and had to say if it was true or false, and then they were asked to write down something they could do to prevent sexual violence,” says Keeves.
Meanwhile, another peer education group, the Healthy HAWKS, educates students about healthy sexuality and consent through “Hawk Talks” and other events. They also address other issues, including alcohol and drug abuse. Keeves says that’s incredibly helpful.
“The vast majority of sexual assaults on campus involve alcohol,” she says. “We talk a lot about incapacitation, what it looks like and whether you can have consensual sex when you’re under the influence.”
Services and Resources
The university’s resources are coordinated by the Student Affairs Sexual Violence Prevention Planning Committee, which includes Title IX coordinator Clara Reynolds, staff and Asst. Prof. Christopher Allen from the Psychology Department, who researches male attitudes toward sexual violence and the experiences of women of color who are victims.
A new working group that includes Nash, Keeves and Novaes, Vice Provost for Faculty Success Beth Mitchneck and faculty from gender studies, psychology, criminal justice and the Center for Women and Work is planning educational events from a more academic point of view, including the lecture by Anderson and a talk by Prof. Elizabeth Letourneau, an expert in preventing child sexual abuse.
Assoc. Prof. of Criminal Justice Andrew Harris, who researches public policies on sex offender management and sexual violence prevention, says over a dozen faculty members in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences research sexual violence – and they’re taking advantage of the #MeToo movement to get more students involved, not only in learning, but also in research with faculty.
“We’re at a really promising juncture in our national dialogue around sexual violence prevention policy. People are realizing that most of what’s happening is in plain sight: It’s not just ‘stranger danger.’ Instead, there’s a growing recognition that it’s about sexual abuse that occurs in our communities, workplaces and institutions,” Harris says.
Nolan Lundin, a junior exercise physiology major in the Honors College, attended Anderson’s talk on pornography. He said afterward that students often talk and joke about pornography.
“Porn isn’t taboo. It’s not something people hide anymore in my age group,” he says.
But even health sciences majors like Lundin don’t study the harmful effects of porn exposure and addiction: increased sexual dysfunction and shrinkage in the brain’s “reward center” that floods people with feel-good hormones.
“I felt I should be educated on it as a health sciences professional, and also as someone who hopes to have kids someday,” he says. “I’m also here to learn more on behalf of Omicron Delta Kappa, the leadership honor society.”
Programs and Resources
For more information and a comprehensive list of sexual violence and mental health resources on campus and in Lowell, you can click here.
In the meantime, here are some things you should know:
- A sexual violence class is part of many first-year seminars. It helps students recognize potentially dangerous situations involving sexual assault, stalking or relationship violence and gives them tools to intervene effectively. Any student organization or professor can request it from Jacquie Keeves. Many faculty also include a list of sexual violence and mental health resources in their course syllabus.
- Athletics requires all student-athletes to go through similar training drawn from programs that mobilize college athletes as leaders in changing the campus climate around sexual violence.
- All Residence Life staff, including student resident advisors, receive training in preventing and addressing sexual and relationship violence, including how to support victims.
- All faculty and staff are trained in Title IX rights and responsibilities, including how to recognize gender- or race-based harassment and how to respond to and report sexual and relationship violence or stalking.
- STARS, a team drawn from offices around campus, intervenes when the team is alerted that a student may have mental health or addiction issues or be a victim of violence, including relationship violence and sexual assault.
- When students become victims, they can get confidential help through counseling, health services and campus ministry. They can decide to report nonconfidentially to campus police, student conduct or the Title IX coordinator and seek disciplinary proceedings or criminal prosecution. They can also contact city police or The Center for Hope and Healing, a Lowell nonprofit that offers free and confidential services for survivors of sexual violence.