UNR Voices: Why Does Campus Sexual Assault Persist?

Mar 3, 2017

University of Nevada, Reno students and specialists come together to discuss the issue of sexual assault among undergraduate college students. Top Left: UNR senior Lauren Gray, Top Right: UNR graduate JamalEdeen Barghouti, Bottom Left: UNR senior Jake Smith, Bottom Right: UNR Project Coordinator for Violence Response and Prevention Justine Hernandez
Credit Alexandra Mosher

In the past decade the U.S. has not seen a substantial decrease in sexual assault among undergraduate college students. Our student contributor Alexandra Mosher explores the issue at the University of Nevada, Reno.

In 2007, the Campus Sexual Assault study, funded by the Department of Justice, reported that 1 in 5 college women will be a victim of sexual assault. That number has not changed in the past decade, and the DOJ has also found that roughly 5 percent of college men will be sexually assaulted.

Todd Renwick is Assistant Chief for the UNR Police Department. He says that more than 90% of sexual assaults that occur to UNR students involve alcohol or drugs.

“We don’t have a stranger, persay, jumping out of a bush sexually assaulting females, which still can happen. But in our cases here on campus," Renwick says, "usually it’s reported, and alcohol is reported as being a part of it.”

According to Nevada law, sexual assault is defined as a person engaging in sexual activity with someone without receiving consent. But when drugs and alcohol are involved, the idea of what consent is can become less clear.

“They do talk about you have to be sober, you have to be able to make the decision of consent," says Renwick, "but, you know, what does that technically mean? Does that mean that after three beers, I’m not allowed to make consent? Well, some people can and it’s perfectly fine. Others can’t.”

Longtime victims' advocate, Justine Hernandez is the UNR Project Coordinator for Violence Response and Prevention. She says that it’s dangerous for students to try to determine whether another person is mentally able to consent or not.

“You know, some people hold their liquor really well, other people don’t and you never really know how much someone has consumed when you meet them. They might have pre-gamed somewhere else; they might be on different antibiotics or medications for whatever reason.”

JamalEdeen Barghouti, a recent graduate, says that although alcohol plays a large role in sexual assault among college students, it’s not the root cause.

“I think there’s a disconnect in how we talk about our bodies, how we understand consent and how we understand sexuality," Barghouti explains. "I think that feeds a lot into sexual assault and why it’s so--I don’t want to say rampant--why it’s so common.”

Barghouti would like to see young adults being educated on these topics.

UNR junior Alese McMurtry agrees. She’s a member of Voices of Planned Parenthood and last year she pushed for consent education to be introduced at Reno and Sparks High Schools in Washoe County.

“I think that there’s really a lack of understanding of consent in our society as a whole. Young kids and high schoolers don’t get education on consent," McMurtry explains. "When they get to college, they maybe get a brief training in the dorms or during orientation, but there really isn’t a lot of talk about what consent is and why it’s absolutely mandatory. I think that just fuels this general lack of understanding when it comes to sexual encounters.”

McMurtry’s proposal didn’t pan out, but the Washoe County School District is currently holding public meetings to gather community input on a new sexuality curriculum that includes topics such as, “Boundaries: Communication and Understanding.”

Beyond education, UNR senior Corrie Clapsaddle says that the issue of understanding consent can be traced to how we raise our children and establish gender roles.

“I really am a believer that the idea of sexual assault and rape is not driven by sexual desire. It’s driven by a want for control; it’s a want to take somebody’s agency from them, whether subliminally they know it or not. It’s very rooted culturally in how we raise men to see women, which is something you can have, something you can act upon if you don’t feel good inside.”

Victim’s advocate Justine Hernandez also recognizes that the way girls and boys are raised, creates a dangerous atmosphere.

“I hear sometimes from women, 'Well, I get drunk because I feel like I can be more sexy; I feel like I can have sex when I’m drunk.' That has to be changed," says Hernandez. "And so for men, too, I think that they get the short end because no one is really telling them what healthy sex should be and how to respect their partner.”

Although sexual assault has been a prominent problem among college students for as long as the topic has been researched, Hernandez says this issue is reversible.

“We don’t have to accept this," she says. "We don’t have to accept that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while they’re in college. I’m not going to accept that and I don’t think anybody else should.”

Hernandez recognizes this change will not occur overnight, but she will continue advocating for strategies like effective education on bystander intervention and consent.

KUNR would like to give special thanks to Reynolds School of Journalism Professor Alan Deutschman and his fall magazine writing class for their help with this story.