Faculty member works to address sexual violence on campus

Violence prevention, and specifically sexual violence prevention, is a crucial area of research and outreach in public health. In the last several years, it seems like more survivors of sexual violence have come forward to share their stories than ever before, and conversations about how to prevent violence have become more common. However, there’s still a long way to go.

Deanna Walters, an assistant professor of health promotion and behavior at UGA’s College of Public Health, is working to understand how we can better prevent sexual violence on college campuses. Below we discuss what’s needed to create safer campuses.

How long have you been working and researching in the field of violence prevention?

I have worked in the field of interpersonal violence since 2013, when I was an integral part of developing the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) program, which is now part of the Fontaine Center of the University Health Center at UGA. While at RSVP, I worked as an advocate for student survivors of sexual violence and dating violence, and created the RSVP hotline and 24-hour on-call advocacy system that UGA students are using today.  During my PhD program and later as faculty, I have focused a lot of my research on sexual violence behaviors of college male perpetrators.

At many colleges and universities, campus sexual violence is a major concern, affecting around 1 in 5 women. Why are campuses particularly susceptible?

While campus sexual violence is getting a lot of attention is recent years, it’s not a new phenomenon.  The estimate of 1 in 5 college women impacted by sexual violence statistic goes back to research conducted in the 1970s and every decade since. I’m not sure that we understand exactly why colleges and universities are at such high risk for sexual violence, though there are probably several things working together to set up the perfect system. Research tells us that in a college setting, 9 in 10 college women will know her attacker which is higher than in the general population, yet less than 1 in 10 will report it, which is lower than in the general population. So, college student survivors may not seek help because they feel they won’t be believed, are embarrassed or ashamed for not defending themselves, may not want to get the person who hurt them in trouble, may convince themselves what happened was a misunderstanding, may not want their parents to find out, or maybe even feel that their friends will turn against them if they go to the police against the person who hurt them. These are all valid concerns and things I’ve actually seen happen to students who did try to seek help after an assault.

Another aspect of college sexual violence I don’t want to leave out here is the LGBTQ population, which is at an incredibly high risk for sexual violence as well – we just don’t have as much research in this area. From the numbers that we do have, it’s looking like they may be at 5 times the risk as heterosexual college students for experiencing sexual violence.  And with that comes an even lower chance they will seek help or report it.  This is an area we really need to focus our efforts and be paying attention.

How are most campuses addressing this issue?

College campuses are doing a few things to address the issue.  They are promoting their Title IX offices, which public universities are required to have if they receive any federal funding.  Title IX is a statute enforced by the US Dept of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. These Title IX offices are supposed to respond to and investigate reports of sexual harassment, sexual violence and discrimination.  These are essentially administrative investigations, not legally binding, but if the outcome finds the student in violation the sanctions can impact a student’s status at UGA. Other things college campuses are doing are consent education programs and bystander education programs, which is teaching students what to do if they encounter situations when a fellow student or friend or even stranger they come across might be in harm’s way. The bystander education provides students with the skills to intervene, distract the person who might be trying to cause harm or get help.

Based on your research and professional experience, what is one misconception about sexual violence and violence prevention?

If we plan to ever make a dent in the prevalence of sexual violence, we have to address the perpetration – and that isn’t going to happen with consent education. The research already shows us that consent education is not working. The people committing sexual violence know what they are doing and they admit it in the research. They know they are crossing that line, and no amount of teaching them about where the line is and the consequences of crossing it will change their behavior.

Do you think current campus violence prevention strategies are working? 

Consent education is not preventing perpetrators from attempting sexual violence, but it may be teaching would-be survivors what counts as violence. A lot of people think about violence as what we’ve seen on television or in movies, and so when it actually happens to us, it doesn’t seem as dramatic as what we think it should be.  We think, “Does this really count? I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I would feel really silly.” But when we start talking about what consent really is, sometimes people start to realize that there were some times in their own lives that they may have been violated and didn’t realize it.  And going forward, they know their rights.

What would you like more people to know about violence prevention and how they can help?

More than likely you know someone who has been impacted by violence, even if they haven’t told you. If you don’t know someone already, then you will at some point.  When that happens, start by listening and believing them. Violence prevention won’t happen until more people feel safe to come forward and more people are believed when they come forward.  You can do your part by listening to them and saying, “I believe you.”

 – Lauren Baggett

Posted on April 8, 2020.