Combining Conversations on Campus Culture

Photo by Shaina Mishkin Photo by Shaina Mishkin

Mid-orientation week, signs went up in first year dorms for a last-minute, surprise event: Angie Epifano, known for her harrowing account of administrative mistreatment, was going to be back at Amherst for the first time since she left after her sophomore year. She would be holding a talk to share her insights on the Amherst administration and its response to on-campus sexual assault with incoming first years, upperclassmen, and faculty.

The event was held on the freshman quad, in front of Frost Library. Fifty people sat in a circle on the grass to hear Angie speak. There were many staff members and students – but only three were first years.

Faculty and students alike were interested in discussing sexual assault as a campus and administrative issue. Everyone seemed informed and appreciative of Angie’s perspective. But it brought to mind something I have been hearing people say for a long time now: the people who most need to be educated on these issues are never the ones who go to the events.

It’s not that this comes as any surprise – of course the people most likely to go to rallies, meetings, and discussions about the sexual assault and disrespect are the ones who are educated and passionate about solving these issues. But a lot of these events, such as Angie’s last Friday, are largely held in an effort to spread awareness and educate students. It’s interesting, it’s informative, but when only those already aware of the issue show up, it’s on some level just preaching to the choir.

Angie’s discussion brings up the question of how to reach students who aren’t invested in the issues being discussed. Craig recently wrote about the fallacy of “Amherst Apathy,” but the fact is, not many students want to take time out of their day to talk about rape. That’s understandable, because sexual violence isn’t the most pleasant topic by a long shot, but it’s a little disconcerting when less than thirty people showed up to last semester’s anti-rape rally in front of Converse Hall. Are there really only thirty people on campus opposed to rape?

Of course not, but the threshold of interest needed to attend these meetings is surprisingly high. Only the most passionate students end up coming to most of the sexual assault discussions and protests, whereas the students who care about these issues, but not that much, don’t bother attending. The result is usually an embarrassingly poor turnout that doesn’t attract much attention from the campus community, adding to the cycle of students being unaware or indifferent about these events.

There are various reasons for this low involvement, the most convincing one being the busy schedules of Amherst’s high-achieving students. But it’s an issue worth contemplating, especially when you consider that a small college such as ours is a cultural microcosm in which it is relatively easy to affect change. It’s an opportunity worth taking advantage of, and one way we can do so is by a heightened awareness of the way every aspect of campus culture intersects.

It’s been mentioned before that the spaces on campus shape and influence campus community and should thus be considered with care, but maybe we should start discussing the ways in which issues of community spaces, dorm renovations, and the like intersect with issues of gender equality and sexual assault. Do the Socials create an environment in which the risk of sexual assault is heightened? Does the Women and Gender Center work as a safe space in which marginalized groups can seek refuge, if necessary, or does it serve to further separate them from the greater campus community? These types of questions are worth asking, and asking them in more general discussions about campus culture can include a wider variety of members of our community.

The issue of sexual assault on campus is complex, despite the administration’s “best” efforts to simplify it, and it should be addressed accordingly. We need to start recognizing that every aspect of campus culture – physical spaces and rape culture, athletics and the definition of gender vs. sex, diversity and self-segregation – is interrelated and need to be thought of as such in order to affect real change.