5 Years an Advocate: The Lessons I’ve Learned Teaching Sexual Assault Awareness

April not only marked Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year, it also commemorated my fifth year as an awareness and prevention advocate. From New Albany to Bowling Green, Lexington to Hanover, I have been blessed to work with hundreds of college students at some of our finest institutions. And just as I have taught them lessons on consent and healthy masculinity, they have taught me lessons as well. Here are a few of them. 

Do you know who your Title IX Coordinator is?
In the past five years, I have asked that question in every single lecture I have given and never has the answer been “yes.” While this scenario has become a familiar one, it highlights a crucial barrier that undergraduates encounter when reporting incidents of campus sexual assault. Most campus sexual assaults are not even brought to light, with The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimating that 95% of U.S. campus rapes go unreported. And when the Department of Justice digs into why that statistic is so high, three of the top six reasons for underreporting include 1) students being afraid of hostile treatment by authorities, 2) being uncertain that authorities would consider the incident serious enough, and 3) not knowing how to report the incident. Students primarily interact with Title IX coordinators during the most traumatic experiences of their collegiate lives. In between the taking of statements and the collection of evidence, there is hardly time for relationship building. However, coordinators who host campus-wide educational workshops, visit fraternities and sororities, work with student athletes and make themselves known to graduate and professional students, enjoy a level of visibility that makes them less of a stranger when students turn to them with reports. Of course, Title IX coordinators must be non-partial, constantly juggling the hats of advocate and adjudicator. This balancing act may affect some of the activities they participate in. But, higher visibility endorses the level of comfort and trust that are key in the campus reporting process. 

Keeping the Movement alive
Prior to #BLM and #MasksUp, there was #MeToo. Founded in 2006 by New York’s Tarana Burke, a tweet on October 15, 2017 by actress Alyssa Milano would send the movement viral. Milano asked those who had been sexual assaulted or harassed to respond to her tweet using the hashtag #MeToo, and suddenly we were in a full-blown movement of sexual misconduct awareness. Over the next two years, serial predators such as Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar would answer for their numerous acts of abuse. Thousands took to social media to discuss Christine Blasey Ford and her testimony about the sexual assault she encountered at the hands of then Supreme Court hopeful, Brett Kavanaugh. Oprah Winfrey trended as excerpts of her 2018 #MeToo-inspired Golden Globe speech was shared across numerous social media platforms.

And then one day, people were done talking about #MeToo.

While sexual misconduct has certainly not gone anywhere, mainstream attention consistently shifts. When a cause is no longer on the frontpage, it is easy to assume it is no longer an issue. Those who once fervently shared articles and used agreed upon hashtags moved on to the next big story leaving the cause they previously championed in the internet past. This is the point when the most important work in any cause or movement must be done. It is this work that keeps the flame alive and prevents the movement from having to start from scratch. 

Knowing Your Audience
When I decided my brand of advocacy would be based on speaking to fraternity men about sexual consent, I visited my school’s Greek Life office to seek guidance from the campus advisor. It was there, I learned the lesson of reading the room. 

A year prior, the university’s Victim’s Advocacy Office sent a student speaker to conduct a workshop with the Interfraternity Council men on campus. In front of a packed auditorium of uninterested frat boys, the first words out of her mouth were “one in four of you in this room is a rapist. Let’s talk about it.” 

It is a well-known statistic that one in four women experience sexual assault on college campuses. Despite school policies and a federal law, sexual assault remains a reality for college students each year. The issue was not the speaker’s statistics but rather, her approach. As you can imagine telling a room full of undergraduate men, most who do not want to be present at this workshop in the first place, that they are rapists is not a good opening line. As expected, the entire audience came together in a defensive stance, the rest of the speaker’s lecture fell upon deaf ears, and the Interfraternity Council told their advisor they never wanted a guest speaker from the advocacy department again.

From this story, I learned the importance of knowing your audience and tailoring your message appropriately. If my goal was to turn men into allies, I would have to speak to them as partners instead of adversaries. I would present my consent lectures with the same storytelling, relatability and casualness I used when telling old war stories at the Granville Inn over a pitcher of Miller Lite. Those lectures would contain the exact same information the student speaker used. But it would be the difference in delivery that would win their acceptance and attention, often gaining me invitations to return for future lectures. Be it a room of potentially hostile undergraduates or a higher education conference session with an audience of college professionals, knowing your audience and tailoring your lecture is just as important as the material itself. The way the message is delivered will affect how the message is received.

James J. Wilkerson, J.D., is the director of Staff Diversity and Equity and the Deputy Title IX Coordinator at IU Southeast.