UT sexual assault research, prevention continues in the new school year

Posters advocating for affirmative consent at UT Austin. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).
Posters advocating for affirmative consent at UT Austin. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As students return to University of Texas System campuses this fall, the schools will know more about their experiences with sexual assault and how to curb it than ever before.

This spring, a group of researchers published their initial findings of sexual assault at 13 of the system’s 14 institutions in the Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments (CLASE) survey. More than 28,000 students submitted their responses, revealing that at academic institutions 10 percent of female undergraduate students and 4 percent of male undergraduate students reported being raped. The most frequent type of sexual harassment reported on campus were sexist remarks. Most instances of unwanted sexual contact happened off campus.

Noël Busch-Armendariz, Ph.D. of UT Austin is the director of this research, and her work studying trends on each of the campuses is far from over. In fact, she explained, her team is in their second year of a four-year study.

For this upcoming school year, she has been meeting with university system leaders to discuss more effective ways to prevent unwanted sexual contact. This school year they’re focusing on encouraging students and faculty to speak out when they see dangerous situations on campus.

She is also speaking to university leaders about how alcohol and drugs play a role in sexual assaults on their campuses.

“At universities, there’s an intersection between alcohol and sexual assault and so we’re not shying away from those data,” says Busch-Armendariz, “we’re telling ourselves the truth about where it intersects and where it is our responsibility to talk about that issue.”

Her team is also tracking a group of more than a thousand students at UT-Austin. They send questions to those students each semester, trying to paint a picture of their experiences with sexual assault over their four years at UT.

Discussions about sexual assault on the UT campus recently resurfaced after a student sued UT Austin and President Greg Fenves after the student was suspended during a sexual assault investigation.

Busch- Armendariz couldn’t comment on the lawsuit but noted from her experience that defining sexual assault on college campuses is no easy task.

“It makes talking about sexual assault complicated certainly because the practice field might have a broader definition when the legal field might have a very narrow definition, the science field might have an even broader definition,” she explained.

Lauren White works to support victims of interpersonal violence at UT-Austin campus. White explained that this type of violence is traumatic for students and hurts both their academic and emotional well-being. She says UT’s best tool in fighting sexual assault is educating students about healthy relationships and consent.

“We really focus on four main concepts,” White said of how the Voices Against Violence office at UT teaches about consent. “That it is mutual, that is agreed upon by all parties, that it can be revoked at any time, that it is not assumed but it is asked for, and that there’s consciousness and clarity.”

“But things get really complicated around consciousness and clarity,” White added, noting that drugs and alcohol can make it difficult for students to give consent to sexual activity.

This school year, White’s office is part of two new efforts to work toward the goal of eliminating sexual assault. Student volunteers will be going through a 40-hour training to provide peer emotional support for students who are victims. These students will be available as a resource starting this fall to help fellow Longhorns talk through their experiences of abuse and find resources to help them.

Student organizations are also partnering up this fall through the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Council to start a campus-wide effort to educate students about things like consent.

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