USC leaders want to stop sexual assault and relationship violence before it even starts.
That focus on prevention is at the heart of a renewed outreach and education effort led by experts from Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services (RSVP), a division of USC Student Health. They plan to expand training programs for students and others on topics like obtaining consent from sexual partners, creating healthy relationships and reporting instances of sexual harassment or other forms of victimization.
“We want to build a community where we all take care of each other and look out for each other,” said Brenda Ingram, EdD, RSVP director and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Most people want to do the right thing, but they need to know what the right thing to do is and feel confident that it will make a difference.”
To jumpstart that work, USC Student Health is hiring a prevention specialist to teach members of the USC community how to combat sexual assault and relationship violence and share information about resources available to victims.
“The goal is to put together a comprehensive curriculum that students and others will experience multiple times,” said Sarah Van Orman, MD, associate vice provost for student affairs and chief student health officer, and clinical professor of family medicine (clinician educator) at the Keck School. “They will learn about consent, being an active bystander and building healthy relationships.”
A 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities found that 30 percent of undergraduate women and 7 percent of undergraduate men at USC report they’ve experienced either nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching. Many students also say they’ve experienced sexual harassment, including 66 percent of undergraduate women and 45 percent of undergraduate men.
The same survey found only a quarter of students know where to get help at USC if they or a friend are victimized by sexual assault or misconduct. Ingram said that is powerful evidence of how critical it is to raise awareness of these issues.
“We want to create a campus where everyone feels safe and heard,” she said. “Students should know RSVP is here to provide support if you have been victimized by any of these gender- or power-based experiences.”
Emphasizing communication and consent
USC health officials plan to build on an existing program called Think About It, an online training module on relationships, sexual assault and dating that students must complete after enrolling at USC. Ingram is already developing a new mandatory workshop on affirmative consent, the idea that everyone involved in a sexual encounter must clearly and voluntarily agree to participate at every stage.
“It’s about moving the issue from ‘no means no’ to ‘yes means yes,’” Ingram said. “It is not enough that a person doesn’t say no. You have to ask the person for permission. Unfortunately, many students don’t know how to communicate about these issues.”
Teaching students how to discuss those sensitive topics with their sexual partners is a major component of the affirmative consent workshop. Ingram plans to roll it out this fall to 4,000 incoming first-year, graduate and transfer students. Then as students enter their second year at USC, she plans to educate them about establishing healthy relationships, again with an emphasis on building trust and respect and engaging in honest and open communication.
Ingram’s vision also includes training students and others how to respond after witnessing sexual or relationship violence. USC health officials are testing a program called Bringing in the Bystander with student leaders and a select group of faculty and staff members this spring. Ingram envisions making the in-person training mandatory for students within several years.
“It basically changes the paradigm around sexual violence from perpetrator versus victim to the idea that everybody in our community has a responsibility to keep everybody safe,” she said. “If you see something, do something.”
Teaching bystanders to take action
According to the Association of American Universities survey in 2015, 15 percent of USC students said they have suspected a friend might have been sexually assaulted. However, among those students, only 65 percent responded in some way, mostly by speaking with their friend or someone else about seeking help.
Even fewer students took action after witnessing an intoxicated person about to engage in a sexual encounter. About 75 percent of those who responded to the survey indicated that they did nothing. Only 9 percent stepped in to stop the encounter.
Through Bringing in the Bystander, students will gain the skills and knowledge to intervene before or during an incident, speak up when their peers make light of sexual or dating violence, and support survivors of trauma.
“We’ve had a lot of really great programs in various departments, but we haven’t had a single focused effort on bystanders,” Van Orman said. “This will teach our faculty, staff and students how to respond to anything from seeing a potential sexual assault take place to hearing someone joking about rape.”
New survey to measure sexual assault, other serious issues
USC Student Health will soon have new data to help tailor its prevention and outreach efforts toward populations with higher risk of traumatic experiences or victimization. This spring, the Association of American Universities plans to repeat its survey on sexual assault and misconduct on college campuses throughout the nation, including USC.
Van Orman said questions will measure student perspectives on the campus culture, their trust in the university, and their knowledge of resources, along with assessing personal experiences of sexual harassment, stalking, intimate partner violence and other sensitive issues. These results will guide USC Student Health as it expands its prevention programming.
Outreach work will complement other services
USC health experts will also continue their work in advocacy and support, helping students and others who experience assault or other forms of victimization. RSVP provides confidential counseling to address trauma, including one-on-one therapy and group workshops.
RSVP experts are also available to accompany students to a rape crisis center following an instance of sexual violence. They typically refer victims to the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center. It focuses on providing legal advice and medical care and conducts forensic exams to collect physical evidence, which requires specific training.
“Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center is one of a handful of specialized centers in the Los Angeles area that has specially trained experts available at all times to see individuals after a sexual assault,” Van Orman said. “We work closely with them to ensure that students are provided with information about campus resources and we coordinate their care.”
More information about RSVP and its education and advocacy programs is available online, including tips for parents and caregivers and advice on how to help a friend who experiences sexual or relationship violence.
— Eric Lindberg