Sexual assault on college campuses is making headlines this month as Tufts was found noncompliant with Title IX and the Department of Education released a list of 55 schools currently under investigation, including Amherst, Harvard and Dartmouth. Though many of our peer schools are being investigated, Middlebury was absent from the list. Thanks to the leadership of our Title IX Coordinator, Shirley Collado, as well as Human Relations Officer Sue Ritter and Associate Dean for Judicial Affairs and Student Life Karen Guttentag, we have robust sexual assault policies, in addition to other anti-discrimination measures, that ensure survivors of sexual assault are granted the everything required by Title IX and more.
Throughout the course of this year, the Campus has written numerous editorials taking a critical look at the way we do things here from physical education requirements to granting credit for internships. Many of these editorials focused on the negative and proposed important changes we thought needed to happen. But in our last set of editorials this year, it is important to recognize the progress we have made on combating sexual assault and raising awareness. This past week has been a dark one for many of our peer institutions, and Middlebury should take pride that we are ahead of the curve.
Although we are compliant, the Federal investigation needs to be a wake up call for everyone; simply being compliant is not good enough. We should use this moment to reflect on our own policies and practices to prevent sexual assault on our campus. We have not had cases that sparked campuswide outrage, as Brown or Amherst have seen over the past few years, but as It Happens Here reminded us in January, sexual assault happens on this campus and we must continue to engage with the issue to support survivors and prevent future instances.
Hiring Barbara McCall as Director of Health and Wellness last summer and launching MiddSafe this year are huge steps in the right direction and go a long way to keep us at the forefront of the fight against sexual assault. The grant we received from the Department of Justice earlier this year is testament to the hard work put in as Middlebury’s policies and plans are to be models for other schools.
But there are still areas where more can be done, notably orientation, which MiddSafe has already started rethinking to incorporate more sexual assault prevention programming. For many students, K-12 sex ed looked a lot like the beginning of Mean Girls, with abstinence, pregnancy and STDs dominating the discourse. Many come in with little or no sexual experience, providing a unique opportunity to influence student’s approach to sex. In fact, in some ways, college sex ed is even more important than the middle school or ninth grade where for many, sex still seems far away. But currently discussions of sex on campus are often relegated to the back channels of MiddConfesh and most public forums talk about the dangers of sexual assault.
In addition to conversations about consent, we need to promote sex positive dialogue. Just because a situation does not cross the line into being sexual assault does not mean it is a healthy situation or that it is not damaging. The College should provide more opportunities, either in orientation or throughout the year, for students to learn more about sex, from proper forms of protection to frank conversations about pleasure. Helping students navigate sexuality and be properly prepared to have open conversations about sex can help evolve the way we talk about sex on this campus and chip away at rape culture. This needs to come from multiple fronts. McCall has worked hard to implement more sexual education programming, but we also need support from Parton to help students think about sexual safety without stigma, including questions about sexuality or relationship status.
As we work to graduate students with the “ethical and social qualities essential for leadership,” as our mission statement says, we must think about how our students will promote respectful sexual behavior once we graduate. As we have discussed in our conversations about the honor code, what we build here is reflected in our character after Middlebury and we cannot be apathetic about the values we wish to see. Although national attention has been focused on sexual assault on college campuses, date rape does not end once we are handed our diploma. The lessons we learn here, from how to talk about sex to bystander intervention, will remain with us and allow us to commit to being active opponents of sexual violence.
Artwork by NOLAN ELLSWORTH