Pratt's thesis tackles sexual assault issues
Heather Pratt ’11 tackled the tough and often overlooked issue of sexual assault on campus in her senior thesis, “Silencing and Sexual Assault at Colby College.” The English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major spoke with a wide range of students around campus in order to compile information for her thesis. “At the beginning of the year I put up a General Announcement asking people to e-mail me if they were interested in discussing the hookup culture and sexual assault, because they’re very much interrelated,” she said. “Then it just sort of traveled by word of mouth.”
Pratt found the prevalence of sexual assault on campus disconcerting. “The most surprising thing for me was the degree to which sexual assault is silenced at [the College] but also the degree to which it is so inextricably linked to the hookup culture,” she said.
Pratt’s research unearthed some alarming statistics. “I talked to eleven people who are currently at [the College] who are victims of sexual assault,” she said. “Some had been sexually assaulted before they came to [the College], but the majority had been sexually assaulted [here on the Hill]. And those are just the students who were willing to talk to me- that’s not counting all those students who weren’t.”
She cited the cultural stigma surrounding sexual assault as a contributing factor to the silencing of the issue and the fact that so many victims refuse or are reluctant to step forward. “There’s a lot of shame surrounding sexual assault,” Pratt said. “Culturally, people shame female sexuality. A lot of women are afraid that they’re going to be blamed for it, especially because a lot of it does occur in the hookup culture.” Pratt suggested that girls often blame themselves after being sexually assaulted. “Girls think ‘Why did I go home with that guy?’ or ‘Why did I let him do that me?’” Pratt said. “[Girls are] judging themselves already so they think that they’re going to be judged by others too. They blame themselves and/or they think that other people are going to blame them, so they don’t really see the point in reporting it.”
The silencing of sexual assault at the college is symptomatic of a larger cultural silencing, according to Pratt. “The issue isn’t really talked about at Colby but also [isn’t talked about] generally in society,” she explained. “Most people I interviewed thought that they were the only one.”
However, Pratt was encourages by the fact that guys on campus seemed eager to help improve the situation regarding sexual assault once they were made aware of it. “The sad thing is once guys realize it’s an issue they want to do something about it, but I just don’t think there’s a lot of education, and I don’t think that that’s guys’ fault per se,” she said. “I think that culturally we don’t talk about it that much, [and the College] doesn’t talk about it that much. I think until someone you know is affected by it, it’s really hard to be aware of how bad it is here.”
Pratt’s thesis proposes changes that need to be made administratively in order to address the problem of sexual assault at Colby. She suggested that one of the primary issues is the lack of clarity the administration provides about how they handle issues of sexual assault. “I just think the administration needs to be more transparent with what they’re doing, because they do want to help and they do care,” Pratt said. “I’ve talked to them plenty of times about it. A lot of sexual assault survivors don’t want to bring their case in to the administration because they’re afraid of what’s going to happen.”
She also discussed the need for greater resources and staff. “We’re the only NESCAC school that doesn’t have a sexual and gender diversity resource center. We’re the only school in the NESCAC that doesn’t have something that resembles a women’s center,” Pratt said. She described the need for a specifically designated “sexual assault advocate” on campus. “The big thing that survivors that I talked to expressed was that they didn’t know who to go to,” she said. “There needs to be one person on campus to go to who can help people navigate the system. Right now, the College makes it so that you can go to a number of different people, which is great but I think that there should be one person to help you.”
The senior finds flaws in the current hearing process girls at the College go through when they report being victims of sexual assault. “The whole system in general is kind of hard because it’s like a Dean’s hearing,” Pratt says. “You don’t know who’s on the Dean’s board. The school needs to say, ‘These are the people who are on this hearing board, this is the amount of training they’ve been given and this is what’s going to happen.’ You don’t even know what you’re getting into when you start a case. This is another recommendation I’m going to outline in my paper: there needs to be some sort of protocol for people on the Dean’s hearing. They need some sort of sensitivity training about rape myths and gender issues.”
In Pratt’s opinion, the lack of education on campus regarding sexual assault constitutes one of the primary problems. “I think there’s a lack of education on this campus about what consent is,” Pratt said. “Some people I’ve interviewed were raped, and the person who raped them didn’t even know that what they did was rape. A lot of girls I know have been sexually assaulted and they didn’t even know it at the time. They themselves didn’t even know it. If the girl doesn’t even know what sexual assault is, how’s the guy supposed to know?”
Although Pratt states that the administration needs to do a better job of educating students about sexual assault, she also acknowledges that the school can only do so much, and that much of the burden for improving matters of sexual assault rests in the hands of the students. “The administration can’t police sexuality,” she said. “I think that in terms of students, there needs to be more accountability for people, and I think that women need to have more confidence and I think the school needs to maybe have programming that empowers women more. Women need to have confidence and be okay with establishing sexual boundaries.”
For the situation to change, students need to be just as proactive as administrators, according to Pratt. “I definitely think the administration needs to be more transparent. I think they need to bring more staff. I think that they need to educate Colby students more on sexual assault. But I do think that a lot also comes down to the student body. There needs to be a cultural shift. It needs to be established that a guy will ask and that’s okay, and it’s not going to seem weak. In an ideal world, guys would ask, and girls would ask too.”
Hopefully Pratt’s thesis will help spark a change regarding awareness of and conversations about sexual assault on campus, and will help change the hookup culture on the Hill in general for the better.