An open letter to the Eckerd community: The Current’s response to President Eastman’s “An Open Letter to Students

President Eastman in his campus office with dogs Emma, left, and Beau for an interview with The Current in 2013. (photo by Nika Ostby)

Opinions expressed in this article are those of The Current's Editor-in-Chief Sydney Cavero, Managing Editors Gary Furrow and Teresa Young, Science and Tech Editor Emma Cotton, Science & Tech Asst. Editor Sarah Raney, News Editor Chelsea Duca, Asst. Layout Editor Andrew Friedman and Online Editor Hailey Escobar.

In “An Open Letter to Students,” President Donald Eastman sent an email on Nov. 23 to Eckerd students and faculty discussing two steps that students could take to mitigate sexual assault and harassment on Eckerd’s campus: drinking less and refraining from casual sex.

Read the full email here: http://theonlinecurrent.com/an-open-letter-to-students-president-eastman-emails-eckerd-community-about-sexual-assault-and-harassmenton-on-campus/

We believe that President Eastman’s intentions were written in the spirit of genuine concern. Ensuring safety for all through the awareness campaign mentioned in the beginning of the email is a worthy goal. However, the subsequent message did not accomplish that goal.

The president has an absolute right to his opinions and the freedom to voice them, regardless of whether they differ from those of EC students. However, the message of a college official like the president has an elevated authority in our community; his actions and words represent not only himself, but the college as a whole. As liberal arts students, we must evaluate the utility and practicality of his advice in our modern world. As a newspaper, we must hold him accountable, as we would with any other public figure in a position of power.

The Current’s editorial board is addressing this letter because we feel that it is not inclusive and, both through language and important data omissions, runs the risk of victim-blaming. The complexities and consequences of sexual assault cannot be fully understood or mitigated in the 300 words of Eastman’s email. Eckerd claims to be an inclusive, progressive liberal arts college, yet the president’s letter seems to pair a modern-day problem with archaic and ineffective solutions.

The first of these solutions is “limiting your own consumption of alcohol, and encouraging your friends to do the same.” Though both sexual assault and excessive alcohol consumption are important discussions, they should occur separately.

Tying sexual assault to alcohol consumption runs the risk of victim-blaming, regardless of intentions. What the president may be referencing is research from numerous sources, such as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which estimates that alcohol was involved in 30 to 75 percent of sexual assault cases (exact numbers are difficult for researchers to obtain). Researchers and news sources alike, such as the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and USA Today, have devoted attention to the concept of limiting alcohol consumption as a precautionary measure.

Read USA Today’s full article about alcohol and sexual assault:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/28/alcohol-most-common-drug-in-sexual-assaults/3285139/

Read the National Institute of Justice’s “Campus Sexual Assault Case Study”:

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf

Though precautions are beneficial, we must remember that sober victims also exist. Correlation and causation differ greatly; this correlation between the two factors -- alcohol consumption and sexual assault -- does not mean that one causes the other. Addressing it alongside sexual misconduct without explicitly underscoring this distinction runs the risk of victim-blaming by insinuating that these atrocities would not have happened had they been sober.

We would do well to remember that students’ levels of drunkenness at the time of an assault does not make them any more or less responsible for what happens to them. Regardless of who you are, what you wear or how much you drank, any violation that occurs is absolutely and solely the perpetrator’s fault. Though the president did not insinuate otherwise, glossing over this essential fact can have negative effects.

Self-blame is a serious enough struggle for survivors of assault without being further perpetuated. If we wish to convey our “true, deep and lasting concern” mentioned at the end of Eastman’s letter, we should avoid using language that could deter survivors from reporting, and thus inhibiting their access to resources, support and justice.

Secondly, while addressing casual sex, Eastman wrote, “No one’s culture or character or understanding is improved by casual sex, and the physical and psychological risks to both genders are profound.”

Before discussing this, it is important to note the lack of inclusiveness inherent to the phrase “both genders.” This could evoke feelings of isolation from community members who do not identify with the gender binary, despite the president’s efforts to make this a campus-wide discussion.

His opinion that “no one’s culture or character or understanding is improved by casual sex” seems to be presented as a fact. It also is not geared towards Eckerd, nor any college campus in the 21st century. Sex happens. Neither policing nor condemning it will make these occurrences any more or less frequent. This call to abstinence outside of commitment and return to virtue in the midst of a discussion about sexual assault is misplaced, inappropriate and highly subjective.

Though there is evidence both for and against casual sex, it is a separate conversation from that of sexual assault. Abstinence from casual sex on behalf of the survivor will not change a perpetrator’s mind if they are planning to violate them.

This call to commitment also ignores instances that occur within the context of a committed relationship. Anyone could be the victim of sexual assault, regardless of their relationship status. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), 90 percent of survivors know their perpetrators. The Rape, Incest and Abuse National Network (RAINN) said that 38 percent of perpetrators are friends or acquaintances of their victims.

The focus here should be on obtaining consent in any sexual situation, not on the level of commitment present between the two parties. The bottom line is that casual sex has no place in this conversation, and while alcohol may be involved in many sexual assault cases, there is only one true cause of rape: the rapists themselves.

Amid these discrepancies, there is good news: according to the RAINN, sexual assault has decreased by more than 50 percent in America since 1993. So, how can we do our part to continue this trend and effectively work towards the goal of mitigating sexual assault and harassment in our community? We can look for solutions through research, education, awareness and support.

These include detailed, well-informed conversations about consent and other complex aspects of sexual assault. It also involves the evaluation of our campus’ systems, such as reporting, awareness and support for victims.

The EC-Book available to all students outlines Eckerd’s policies and procedures regarding sexual misconduct. This is a vital resource with which we should familiarize ourselves in order to facilitate productive and well-informed conversations on this topic.

The implementation of programs from Autumn Term’s “Changing the Conversation” and Haven are the beginnings of helping students fully understand the intricacies and atrocities of sexual misconduct. However, these discussions could have a greater impact if they were continued during all four years a student spends at Eckerd. Resolving an issue like sexual assault requires innovation, and it is important that we keep lines of communication open throughout the whole community.

The approaching awareness campaign referenced by the president should also include many avenues and opportunities that encourage student involvement. We support the president’s goal to “raise the awareness of all community members with respect to sexual harassment and assault and to help prevent those incidents by that increased awareness.”

These efforts could specifically include open discussions through the Center for Campus Solutions, events similar to Pizza with the President or even community round-table discussions. Through education, we can prepare ourselves to take active roles in the outcomes of this issue -- an issue whose magnitude requires that every individual contributes to solutions.

Eastman is responsible for facilitating a culture of safety and security, but we must not neglect our own responsibilities as members of that same, tight-knit community. Each of us have an obligation to educate ourselves about these issues and share that knowledge with others. Awareness and discussion are the catalysts through which positive change occurs. By taking each of these matters seriously, we can show survivors support as we works towards creating a campus free of sexual assault.

Because creating this ideal campus will take time, there are resources available now for more immediate support. Campus resources include, but are not limited to, Outreach Services and Health Promotion in Brown Hall, where survivors may speak to trained professionals, and Counseling Services in Edmundson Hall. Students may also email counseling@eckerd.edu for an appointment.

Find out more about the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline:

https://ohl.rainn.org/online/resources/info-for-survivors.cfm

Survivors must know that sexual assault is not a burden they have to bear alone. In the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr., “No one is free until we are all free.” The Current will continue to devote coverage to these difficult issues in and around our community. We hope our letter will inspire others to continue the conversation constructively and with open minds.

As members of a motivated community of academics, we each have both the opportunity and the responsibility to become agents of change in a variety of fora at the community, city, state and national levels. As this discussion continues in higher education around the country, we hope that the president will join us in refraining from comments that inhibit its progress, and instead join the forces that are moving the conversation forward.

For more information and resources about sexual assault: http://www.nsvrc.org/saam/campus-resource-list

Read more about how you can join the fight against sexual assault: http://pact5.org/what-is-sexual-assault/

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