Prevention Impossible: The Sexual Assault Paradox at DePaul University

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Graphic by Klaire Brezinski

By Kara Rodriguez, Guest Writer

National Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) came to a close at the end of April. This year’s theme: “Prevention is Possible.” The month was filled with events such as bystander intervention training (which teaches students how to take preventative action when they notice the risk of violence), and opportunities to take the pledge to stop sexual violence. These ongoing efforts emphasize how students can act as community members and look out for each other to prevent sexual violence. Now that SAAM has been observed, the time has come to offer some feedback to the DePaul University administration.

Lesson One: DePaul, you do not keep students safe from sexual violence, you do not support survivors, and you surely do not do enough for the sake of “prevention.”

Let’s start with the fact that rapists currently live among unsuspecting students in housing.

On our campus, students accused of sexual assault are allowed to continue living in student housing. These students are not relocated until it has been requested by the rape victims. During the process, no students (not even the accused perpetrators’ new roommates), are notified about any pending allegations. If one listens to the murmurs amongst the student body, it is evident how much harm the university causes by shuffling accused rapists to different dorms on campus. While this practice helps survivors distance themselves from their rapists, the accused are still given access to people unaware of the allegations against them, increasing the chances that others will be abused and assaulted.

The DePaul University Administration should be held accountable for this policy and forced to explain how allowing these individuals access to unknowing students fits into its philosophy of “prevention” as a solution to campus assault.

DePaul Senior Ira Lowy also demands an explanation for the policy, which he has been personally affected by: “I never should have met him in the first place,” says Ira in reference to the man who sexually and emotionally abused him. His name is Sam, and he was relocated from Clifton-Fullerton Hall after assaulting a woman who lived on the same floor as him. Though he no longer lives on campus, Sam was involved with Ira after his first relocation and was allowed to continue living on campus while he was charged with sexual assault.

During his time living on campus, Sam used drugs and continued his abuse. Ira recounts the moment he was most afraid of Sam, “We were having sex and he was holding me down and he bit me really hard and he was hitting me…I couldn’t fight back at all because he was so much bigger than me.” Ira says that when Sam did cocaine, he would become especially volatile. “He made me feel dirty,” he says. Ira didn’t realize that Sam was being manipulative and abusive in their relationship until after Ira’s suicide attempt in December 2012. “Eventually, I was just so stressed out and fucked up about everything in our relationship that I just tried to kill myself… That’s when I realized that there was something really wrong with him.”

Sam’s history of violence on campus is what happens when DePaul University allows people accused of rape to continue to live in the dorms. Because DePaul moved Sam from dorm to dorm after each allegation, they not only allowed him access to unwarned students like Ira, but also allowed him to get away with more abuse by lurking in a population that was unaware of his history. Sam left a trail of survivors, including at least 3 other victims, wherever he went on campus.

Regardless of whether or not allegations are true, relocating alleged perpetrators does nothing to prevent sexual violence. While the university treats accused perpetrators as innocent, this assumption puts other students at risk, especially those who must share something as intimate as a dorm room with the accused.    

This is the precarious position a DePaul student (who shall be referred to as Nick) found himself in this year. Nick, who lives in a campus apartment, was notified that he would have a new roommate (who shall be referred to as Kevin) the day after Public Safety issued a sexual assault alert. The following weekend, he came home to his new roommate, Kevin, and Kevin’s parents. It was then he learned about the allegations against Kevin. “He told us he’d been falsely accused of sexually assaulting someone and was under house arrest, complete with the ankle bracelet,” he says. “He claimed he’d consensually hooked up with someone and she’d had a fiancé… I was skeptical about it but I didn’t really say anythingHousing had told me nothing in advance about this guy other than the standard new roommate notification,” he claims.

Because Kevin was always around as a result of his house arrest, he was quick to show what kind of roommate he was. The next day, he and his friends “drank pretty openly and smoked weed on the back porch/stairwell area.” During his stay, Kevin consistently showed little regard for Nick’s personal space, so Nick avoided his dorm as much as possible. “Once I got into a better environment it dawned on me how stressed and uneasy I’d been,” Nick says.  Living with an accused rapist meant that he couldn’t guarantee his safety in his own bedroom. “All in all, I had a really bad feeling about him. A guy accused of rape with this kind of entitlement and lack of respect for boundaries was someone 1. Who looked guilty, and 2. Was not someone I wanted to live with.”

When Nick spoke to several people in Residential Education, they did not help him.

My RD seemed eager to hand the matter over to the RA, who seemed eager to treat the situation as a minor, resolvable, run-of-the-mill roommate conflict. I generally felt brushed off, like they were giving me the runaround.”

Ira and Nick are two of who-knows-how-many students that have to deal with the dark side of DePaul’s sexual assault handlings. Even though institutions must presume the innocence of alleged rapists, such presumptions cannot allow DePaul to avoid using caution when dealing with these people. Students living on campus deserve to know about the allegations against fellow students, especially roommates, and should be able to decide what is or is not safe for them. It should not be up to DePaul to decide that living with an alleged rapist is a risk Nick and other students are willing to take.

Without a doubt, DePaul has the power and the opportunity to prevent sexual violence and help survivors get out of dangerous relationships and circumstances. Through all of DePaul’s awareness efforts and bystander training, they do not address the structural issues that allow rapists to continue to harm students. While rapists and abusers must hold themselves accountable, DePaul is responsible for allowing rapists to roam the dorms without consequence.

This is a pattern of using sexual violence prevention to place sole blame on the community as indicated by SAAM’s theme, “Prevention is Possible.” This theme is barely distinguishable from last year’s theme, “Campus Sexual Assault Prevention,” but its declarative language succumbs to normalized victim-blaming narratives spouted in our communities, the media, and our criminal justice system in which 94% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.

Framing sexual violence as a matter of prevention leaves no space for talking about sexual assault while considering the survivors’ perspectives and needs. I cannot and will not speak for survivors as a monolithic entity, but what use is prevention to the many people who have already been assaulted and now face the tumultuous aftermath with little resources? Emphasis on support and accountability is more important than guaranteeing survivors won’t be assaulted again.

If DePaul, like other universities observing SAAM, is serious about prevention of sexual assault, then why aren’t they preventing it? Few allegations are officially substantiated, but, according to an analysis of a decade of cases, only 2% to 8% of rape accusations are demonstrably false. Although incarceration may not be the sole solution to sexual violence, the fact that only 6% of rapists see a day in jail indicates the lack of accountability for rapists. Justice must go beyond what can be proven in a biased system.

DePaul Administration, if you truly cared about sexual assault prevention, you can start with being transparent through the process of relocating accused assaulters. At the very least, new roommates should be informed of allegations and given the option of refusing the assignment. Your motto, “Consent: don’t make a move without it!” must also apply to you. Presume innocence all you want, but don’t assume that students feel safe making the same presumption.

Lesson Two: You will not stop sexual violence, but you must try.

At the end of the day, victims and bystanders cannot prevent all assault. When two people are alone in a room and one forces themself on the other, the only way to prevent the situation is to change the behavior of the person who used force. Rape is about power and as long as systematic power imbalances exist there will be rape. Rape comes from the masculine mindset of dominance, of the devaluation of women, femmes, and trans people, and of entitlement to access their bodies. Because this promotes a culture of dominance, even men experience sexual violence at hands of others.

Changing the mindset of rapists is the long-term cultural, social, and political work that involves confronting and unhinging patriarchal practices. There is no prevention of sexual assault without valuing the humanity and agency of women, femmes, and trans people who are seen as less valuable and trustworthy than cisgender men. There is no justice for survivors without holding rapists accountable. The problem isn’t just that rape happens and need to be prevented, but that there is little institutional support for victims and almost no accountability for perpetrators. So why stop at prevention?

Lesson Three: Survivors and supporters will challenge you and build community in spite of you.

DePaul’s sexual assault issue runs deeper than the administration is willing to admit. If we look at the root causes of sexual violence, we can look beyond DePaul’s individualization of sexual assault and uncover their complicity in the continued violence against women, trans people, and survivors on campus.

DePaul will not choose the needs of survivors over their own interests. Because of this, genuine and lasting justice for survivors involves challenging the institution itself. It is time we confront and interrogate what DePaul doesn’t want students, parents, and donors to know.

It is up to us, as a community of survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators, to do what SAAM’s “Prevention is Possible” slogan fails to address. Because students have bravely come forward with their stories, we have a powerful glimpse at how rape culture harms our fellow students. We can show DePaul that we support survivors of all genders by looking to our roommates, our classmates, and our community members who have survived and continue to survive in spite of institutional abandonment.

In addition to learning and employing preventative strategies, let’s actually support survivors. No university resource will tell us how to do that; that path only leads to half-truths and ignorance. We will take our cues from survivors themselves. Ask our friends and acquaintances what they need and how we can best support them. We will trust that they know what they need and we won’t make them prove anything.

Ira stresses the importance of maintaining community spaces as an opportunity for collective action, “we’re lucky to have a few spaces on campus, such as the Women’s Center and Feminist Front…When we work together against the patriarchy, we’re much stronger and we’re able to accomplish the kind of sweeping policy changes that individuals simply don’t have the clout to affect.” Confronting something as pervasive as rape culture takes much more than bystander training. Through collective action that centers and uplifts survivors, we can transform rape culture both on our campus and in the larger society. 

More resources and support are urgently needed for survivors. When we go beyond prevention, towards the foundations of a community that values prevention as much as healing and accountability, we show rapists-in-the-making and institutions that protect rapists, that we see the harm caused by our community members and refuse to condone it.

Maybe, if we get there, “Prevention is Possible” might ring true.

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